Related to my interest in learning-and-earning in a disrupted, Internet-based world, and new models of organisations and ownership.
The resurgent co-op model
The worker cooperative is an old model that’s attracting new interest among the swelling precariat masses — youthful and idealistic, but with dwindling chances of finding an old-fashioned job. Co-ops help ensure that the people who contribute to and depend on an enterprise keep control and keep profits, so they’re a possible remedy for worsening economic inequality. And they can take many forms. Loomio and other tech companies, for instance, are aspiring toward the model of a multi-stakeholder cooperative — one in which not just workers or consumers are voting members, but several such groups at once. It’s the ideal model for an Internet that doesn’t draw clear lines between employees and users. But it’s easier said than done.
“When you talk about cooperatives with entrepreneurs, they’re super afraid,” says Antonin Léonard. “They’re like, ‘Are you crazy, man? Cooperatives in the digital age just don’t work.’” His fellow OuiShare founder Benjamin Tincq is concerned that too much fixation on a particular model will make it hard for well-meaning ventures to be successful. “I like the idea that we don’t need to have a specific legal status,” he says. “It’s more about hacking an existing legal status and making these hacks work.”
“I think we’re finally coming to the point where we have complex enough tools that we can start to do this stuff,” he told me over lunch and a can of Rockstar — “complex enough legal instruments and complex enough software.”
Loomio’s members use a similar system, which they call Loomio Points. But Sovolve is no cooperative; contributors are not in charge. “I wanted to give more people ownership to create more alignment,” Fenton says. “But we don’t want to have a whole bunch of people making decisions every day. I’ve tried to do that. That’s like some kind of democracy.”
It’s also like Sensorica. For the past four years, Tiberius Brastaviceanu has been trying to build a truly open-source business model from a shared lab in Montreal. He was troubled that many leading open-source projects, like WordPress and Arudino, rely on unpaid labor and are managed by a closed, traditional company. As it designs and builds high-end scientific equipment, Sensorica is an experiment in another approach. “You have to break the walls down and create a more permeable membrane,” Brastaviceanu says. But doing so is no easy hack. “There’s no blueprint for the kind of organization we’re trying to build.”
Open-source software and share-alike licenses have revived the ancient idea of the commons for an Internet age. But the “commons-based peer production” that Sensorica seeks to practice doesn’t arise overnight. Just as today’s business culture rests on generations of accumulated law, habit, and training, learning to manage a commons successfully takes time.
Like Sovolve, Sensorica pays workers for their contributions to the product. Unlike Sovolve, they participate in the company democratically. Everything from revenues to internal criticism is out in the open, wiki-style, for insiders and outsiders alike to see. The whole company, not just the product, is open source — sharing not just code but profits. Progress has been slow, though. Only one device has been sold, and the 3-D modeling and printing business barely supports one person. At the same time, Brastaviceanu is getting more and more calls from people interested in adapting the model Sensorica has pioneered. He believes a change along these lines is coming. “It’s inevitable,” he says.
If this is true, one reason may be Bitcoin. It is becoming increasingly clear that the technology underlying the digital currency — a secure network that doesn’t rely on any central server or authority — is good for a lot more than currency. It makes possible decentralized autonomous organizations, or DAOs, which exist entirely on a shared network. While a conventional corporation, for instance, exists because of documents held by the corporation itself and a government, the code that defines a DAO is shared across the network. On this kind of open-source platform, an organization like Sensorica actually starts to seem more sensible than closed-source alternatives.
Where the money is
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