Co-ops Need Leaders, Too 

Co-ops Need Leaders, Too by Nathan Schneider Originally posted on Medium on 21st January 2019.

I frequently encounter a notion, among those drawn to cooperatives, that a cooperative should be an amorphous, faceless collective in which old-world skills and norms of leadership can be discarded. How does this work out for them? Not well.

Usually one of two entirely predictable things happens as a result — and generally both. One is a tyranny of structurelessness in which there are leaders who claim not to be leaders and therefore can’t be held accountable. Another is that nobody takes serious responsibility for anything, because there is no incentive or recognition for doing so; as soon as the most par-for-the-course challenge arises, everyone throws up their hands and walks away.

I won’t name names, but we know who we are. I’ve been guilty of practicing both of these myself.

One of the things that I gradually have come to realize, especially while writing Everything for Everyone, is that the co-op tradition is full of amazing leaders. Their stories are too little-known, even among cooperators, perhaps because of the story we tell ourselves that leaders aren’t needed here. But you can’t get far in the history without encountering remarkable examples.

Founders must be leaders. Consider people like Mary and Lloyd Anderson, who founded REI, or Alfonse Desjardins, who built Quebec’s co-op banking system, or Michael Shadid, the Lebanese doctor who founded a pioneering cooperative hospital in Oklahoma, or Albert McKnight, a pan-Africanist Catholic priest who helped build infrastructure for Black-owned co-ops in the South, or Murray Lincoln, an architect of Nationwide Mutual and parts of the electric co-op system, or many more people you may have never heard of in the US Cooperative Hall of Fame. And of course I had the chance to meet many more leaders in our midst today, like Brianna Wettlaufer of Stocksy, Enric Duran of the Catalan Integral Cooperative and FairCoop, Felipe Witchger of Community Purchasing Alliance, and Irene Aguilar, a doctor and state senator who fought for a co-op health system in my home state of Colorado. There are so many more.

Creating anything new in the world, especially something that runs against the grain, requires courageous and visionary individuals, tied to resourceful communities. These people are frequently stubborn, demanding of those around them, and adept in conflict. We should not expect anything less, yet somehow cooperators too often assume that co-ops can transcend this basic reality of social life.

The necessity of strong leadership in new co-ops is a principal assumption behind, the new equity accelerator for co-ops on whose inaugural board I serve. We’re very aware that unless we support the founders above all, their co-ops will never get founded.

Members must be leaders. Just as new co-ops often try to be leaderless, legacy co-op members can forget the leadership of their founding and neglect their own responsibility to support leaders among them. Not only do we need co-op members who know they are members and who can recite the cooperative principles, we need members with the vision and tenacity to challenge their co-ops to be ever better. Here, the stories are even harder to come by, but they are happening all the time — in cases like the transformation of Pedernales Electric Cooperative in Texas or the ongoing struggle for economic and racial justice in Mississippi’s co-op utilities.

Another organization whose board I have recently joined is We Own It, which supports co-op members across the United States who are organizing to revive the democracy in their co-ops. Here, again, the strategy is leadership development; our flagship program is a fellowship for members poised to be leaders in changing their co-ops for the better.

Leaders must be accountable. There are, of course, differences between leadership in co-ops and that in other kinds of organizations. Leaders in investor-owned firms must be chiefly accountable upward, to wealthy investors. Co-op leaders should have accountability that points downward, or horizontally, to members. Co-op leaders should recognize accountability as a strength; leaders depend on their communities in everything they do, just as Wall Street CEOs depend on the support of their profit-seeking backers. Being accountable is a way of being in solidarity and of making leadership work.

Accountability, however, cannot overwhelm leadership. When members recognize the need to have and support leaders among them, they also grant those leaders the space to lead — even to make mistakes. They choose leaders intentionally, rather than relying on the vagaries of charismatic authority and background privilege to choose for them, and they honor the responsibility those leaders have taken on. They root for their leaders, whoever they are. Then, they identify specific mechanisms of oversight and recall through which real accountability can happen.

Don’t reinvent too many wheels at once. I am drawn, like many cooperators today, to the ideal of a world in which we are all equally leaders of our own lives, interacting through ever more radically direct forms of democracy. I still row in that direction through my research and activism. But when I’m advising co-op founders struggling for a foothold in an economy slanted steeply against them, I find myself more and more leaning toward conservatism — toward the examples of remarkable, accountable, not-necessarily-radical leaders of cooperatives past.

For our co-ops to survive and transform communities, we don’t need to reinvent every single wheel of organizational life at once. It’s powerful enough if you can flip a few critical levers — like who owns a company and how its most high-level policies are decided. When you do that, some of those old, widespread habits of old-fashioned organizational life can take on new meaning. Leadership, for instance. When people exhibit vision, talent, and tenacity for building the next generation of democratic enterprise, we should support them with all we have, rather than pretend we can do without them.

Cross-posted at the MEDLab website.

Digital Democracy and Data Commons (DDDC) a participatory platform to build a more open, transparent and collaborative society.

by LabGov

posted on LabGov.City on 21st February 2019, written by Monica Bernardi, The Urban Media Lab

The interest for citizens co-production of public services is increasing and many digital participatory platforms (DPPs) have been developed in order to improve participatory democratic processes.

During the Sharing City Summit in Barcelona last November we discovered the DDDC, i.e. the Digital Democracy and Data Commons, a participatory platform to deliberate and construct alternative and more democratic forms of data governance, which will allow citizens to take back control over their personal data in the digital society and economy.

Barcelona is already known as a best practice in this field: the city and its metropolitan area constitute anexceptional ecosystem in terms of co-production of public policies and citizen science initiatives. The City Council has created an Office of Citizens Science and the Municipal Data Office, as well as the first Science Biennial that just took place in Barcelona (from 7th-11th February 2019). At the same time citizen science projects abound.

In this frame Barcelona is famous to have launched in February 2016 Decidim.Barcelona (we decide), a project of the City Council to give citizens the opportunity to discuss proposals using an interface for group-discussions and comments. Decidim is indeed an online participatory-democracy platform that embodies a completely innovative approach. First of all it is entirely and collaboratively built as free software. As remembered by Xabier Barandiaran Decidim is a web environment that using the programming language Ruby on Rails allows anybody to create and configure a website platform to be used in the form of a political network for democratic participation. Any organization (local city council, association, university, NGO, neighbourhood or cooperative) can create mass processes for strategic planning, participatory budgeting, collaborative design for regulations, urban spaces and election processes. It also makes possible the match between traditional in-person democratic meetings (assemblies, council meetings, etc.) and the digital world (sending meeting invites, managing registrations, facilitating the publication of minutes, etc.). Moreover it enables the structuring of government bodies or assemblies (councils, boards, working groups), the convening of consultations, referendums or channelling citizen or member initiatives to trigger different decision making processes. The official definition of Decidim is: a public-common’s, free and open, digital infrastructure for participatory democracy.

Barandiaran remembers also that “Decidim was born in an institutional environment (that of Barcelona City Council), directly aiming at improving and enhancing the political and administrative impact of participatory democracy in the state (municipalities, local governments, etc.). But it also aims at empowering social processes as a platform for massive social coordination for collective action independently of public administrations. Anybody can copy, modify and install Decidim for its own needs, so Decidim is by no means reduced to public institutions”.

As of march 2018 had more than 28,000 registered participants, 1,288,999 page views, 290,520 visitors, 19 participatory processes, 821 public meetings channeled through the platform and 12,173 proposals, out of which over 8,923 have already become public policies grouped into 5,339 results whose execution level can be monitored by citizens. […] It comes to fill the gap of public and common’s platforms, providing an alternative to the way in which private platforms coordinate social action (mostly with profit-driven, data extraction and market oriented goals)”.

But Decidim is more than a technological platform, it is a “technopolitical project” where legal, political, institutional, practical, social, educational, communicative, economic and epistemic codes merge together. There are mainly 3 levels: the political (focused on the democratic model that Decidim promotes and its impact on public policies and organizations), the technopolitical (focused on how the platform is designed, the mechanisms it embodies, and the way in which it is itself democratically designed), and the technical (focused on the conditions of production, operation and success of the project: the factory, collaborative mechanisms, licenses, etc.). In this way thousands of people can organize themselves democratically by making proposals that will be debated and could translate into binding legislation, attending public meetings, fostering decision-making discussions, deciding through different forms of voting and monitoring the implementation of decisions (not only the procedures but also the outcomes).

Coming back to our DDDC, the main aim of this pilot participatory process is to test a new technology to improve the digital democracy platform Decidim and to collectively imagine the data politics of the future. It was developed inside the European project DECODE[1] (Decentralized Citizen Owned Data Ecosystem – that aims to construct legal, technological and socio-economic tools that allow citizens to take back control over their data and generate more common benefits out of them); it is led by the Barcelona Digital City (Barcelona City Council) and by the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute of the Open University of Catalonia (Tecnopolitica and Dimmons), in collaboration with the Nexa Center of Internet & SocietyEurecatCNRSDribiaaLabsThoughtworksand DYNE.

The pilot project was launched in October 18th 2018 and will end April 1st 2019, for a total of 5 months. It has mainly three goals:

  1. to integrate the DECODE technology with the Decidim digital platformin order to improve processes of e-petitioning, to provide more safety, privacy, transparency and data enrichment;
  2. to enable a deliberative space around data law, governance and economicswithin the new digital economy and public policy, in order to provide a vision oriented to promote a greater citizen control over data and their exploitation in Commons-oriented models[2];
  3. to experiment with the construction and use of a data commons generated in the process, in order to improve the inclusion of the participatory process itself.

The goals will be reached through several phases that foresee also face-to-face meetings, inside the platform. The infographic illustrates the phases:

Figure 1 DDDC’s phases. Source:

The pilot project is currently in its second phase. The first 1 was that of  presentation & diagnosis,dedicated to the elaboration of a brief diagnosis of the state of regulations, governance models and data economy. The diagnosis emerged from a kick off pilot presentation workshop, the DECODE Symposium, aimed to imagine possible proposal to move towards a society where citizens can control what, how and who manages and generates values from the exploitation of their data; i.e. to imagine how use digital technologies to facilitate the transition from today’s digital economy of surveillance capitalism and data extractivism to an alternative political and economic project. In this phase a sociodemographic survey was also launched to collect information about the perceptions on the digital economy and to design communicative actions to improve the inclusiveness of the process.

The current phase (2) is that of proposals for a digital economy based on data commons, launched considering the current situation of data extraction and concentration and based on the diagnosis made on the digital society in the first phase. During the Sharing Cities Summit for example a dedicated meeting took place, divided into a talk and four group work sessions, one for each axes of the pilot project (legal, economic, governance and experimental – see below). During this workshop 64 proposal were collected and in the next phases they will be voted, discussed and signed. The DDDC staff underlines that the process is prefigurative since they are trying to create and practice data commons while deliberating and talking about data commons.

In this phase the results of the survey on sociodemographic data were also analyzed with the aim to define, implement and experiment data use strategies for inclusion in participation (these strategies can potentially be used in future by platforms such as Decidim). The analysis is made by the Barcelona Now – BCNNOW.

The next phases are:

Phase 3 – Debate: discussion on the proposals received.

Phase 4 – Elaboration by the DECODE team and the interested participants

Phase 5 – Signing: collection of support for the pilot project results using DECODE technology for secure and transparent signature (based on encryption techniques and distributed ledger technologies). Crucial phase: this technology, integrated with DECIDIM, will help in the construction of a more secure, transparent and distributed networked democracy.

Phase 6 – Evaluation: closing meeting and launch of a survey to help in the assessment of the satisfaction or participants with the process and with the DECODE technology

Legal aspects, governance issues and economic topics are the three main axes followed during the different phases, since they provide a differential approach to discuss around data. A fourth axis is the experimental one, dedicated to the use and definition of collective decisions around the database resulting from the data shared during the pilot project. Il will become a kind of temporary commons useful to improve the deliberative process itself, a practice that could be incorporated in future Decidim processes.

At the end of the pilot project a participatory document, with paper or manifesto around the digital economy will be released.

The importance of this kind of pilot project is clear if we think to the huge amount of data that everyday every citizens is able to produce… By now we live in a “datasphere”, an invisible environment of data, quoting Appadurai, a virtual data landscape rich in information, cultural and social data. Our data indeed constitute digital patterns that reveal our behaviors, interests, habits. Some actors, especially big corporations and States, can act upon this data, can use them to surveil and influence our lives, through strategies such as ad hoc advertisements or even intervention in elections (see the case of the Cambridge Analytica or the referendum on an EU agreement with Ukraine) or generation of citizens rankings (such as the Chinese case). These “data misuses” can even influence and affect democracy. Nevertheless, if successful, the knowledge and insight created by the datasphere may become a powerful managing and intelligence tool and the debate about the so-called “datacracy” is indeed growing.

In this frame, and considering the little awareness still surrounding the topic, the DDDC pilot project on the one hand tries to stir critically consciousness and common construction in this arena, on the other tries to provide the necessary tools to go in this direction, improving Decidim and pushing forward the DECODE vision of data sovereignty.

[1]For more information about DECODE browse the projects documents: partnersfundingFAQs or the official website

[2] That is, models where people share data and allow for open use while remaining in control over their data, individually and collectively