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Globally Local: The rise of networked organisations

By Polly Robbins, 14 Jun 2018

I was recently asked to speak at the Labour Party’s South East Regional Economic Development conference. This was part of an ongoing series of nationwide events hosted by John McDonnell, raising issues about fair economic development, and alternative models of ownership.

Doubling the co-operative sector

The Labour Party pledged in its 2017 manifesto to work with the co-operative sector to double its size. Interestingly, some argue that the co-op model does not sit comfortably within the traditional narrative of the Labour Party, which advocates for nationalisation of industries and strong unions. Co-ops (unless you’re talking about Soviet-style ones) generally work on a smaller scale and since workers control what they do and how they do it, may not really need unions as much as traditional industries.

The conference was an opportunity to bring unions, cooperatives, policy makers and others to work out the best strategy to create fair ownership of both small organisations and large utilities companies, and find a progressive way of marrying it all together. It’s exciting that Outlandish and CoTech are able to influence this.

Here’s a quick synopsis of my speech:

Outlandish is a small technology organisation, but we’re part of a much bigger movement. I want to put that into context.

That’s us. 

John McDonnell’s office had asked me to speak specifically about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, since everyone is very worried about how increased automation and digitisation is going to affect our work and rights. The term ‘4th Industrial Revolution’ has been popularised by Klaus Schwab, Founder of the World Economic Forum. The WEF represents the richest countries and the most powerful companies.

What’s wrong with the tech industry

And yet we live in a world full of growing inequalities, on both a local level and a global level: governments sit back and facilitate tech companies to hide their profits in tax havens, and privatise public services. The rich get rich, in their Shoreditch glass towers, while the rest still get exploited. We see the affects at home in London, and they ripple right through the supply chain, having huge exploitative impacts both socially, and environmentally.

So when Klaus Schwab talks about ‘systems leadership’, ‘values’ and ‘inclusivity’ we can’t help but think that he’s really only paying lip service to these ideas. 

So we’re tying out a different model and we are excited that this is growing.

Outlandish – a worker-owned web agency

Outlandish has been running since 2007, starting as a small group of friends collaborating. Its been continuously growing in size and income, but has always been driven to remain true to its workers and its values. We searched around for a suitable structure to reflect this and finally celebrated becoming an official co-op in 2016.

Quick nod to the inauguration of the Rochdale Pioneers, the founders of the UK co-op movement, who successfully weathered the mechanisation of the wool industry by banding together and setting up a co-op.

This is us – looking like we probably have a lot more fun than the Rochdale Pioneers (still a few too many white men!)

Outlandish in a nutshell

North London: We’re not in Tech City

Co-Operative: We are a co-operative, we share responsibility for managing all aspects of the organisation and anyone can have a say in how it’s run. We also invest in our staff to keep up to date with technologies and the changing sector. This creates good quality jobs and good work. It’s not in our interest to make ourselves redundant, or undercut ourselves by outsourcing labour.

Reinvest our surplus: As we all work we generate a surplus. Some of this goes towards our overheads. The rest is put into CoBudget – which is effectively an internal crowdfunding platform. We use this to pay for projects that we believe in. Some are subsidised and some we pay for outright.

Here are a few of the projects we’ve been able to fund by reinvesting our surplus and working with great clients. They range from plugins to help you shop ethically, to open data platforms, and initiatives tackling corruption.   

CoTech – the network of collaborative technologists

Now onto CoTech…the movement is growing. Once we officially became a co-op we started searching around for more worker-owned businesses in our sector.

We wanted to maintain a medium size and our specialisms. However, we wanted to start working in an ecosystem of other organisations doing similar things to us.

So we invited everyone to get together at Wortley Hall, in South Yorkshire, and in 2016 CoTech was born:

Hooray! This is us at our first birthday last November 2017.

CoTech in a nutshell

Regional: We’re spread across the UK, meaning that each co-op is contributing financially to its region.

Specialist: As small-medium sized organisations we are able to maintain specialities, and refer each other appropriate work. We’re also able to adapt to new trends and technologies easily and develop our jobs and organisations to fit them, rather than fire people.

Some profits pooled: We’ve started to use CoBudget across the network to fund projects that we believe in and that help us achieve our aims.

School Cuts is an example of a collaborative CoTech project. The website uses the Conservative government’s fair funding formula to demonstrate how much your local school will win, or in most cases lose, after cuts to the education budget.

Schoolcuts was initially funded internally by Outlandish and was then picked up by the NEU who paid for the project to become nationwide. We worked with fellow CoTech members The Small Axe who built a publicity campaign around the site. In the 6 weeks of the 2017 snap election the site had 670k visits, and to date has had 3m.

We’ve set up Space4, which is the project I manage. Space4 is a co-working and events space for people working on progressive digital projects. We’re running this on a pay-what-you-can basis.

We have 4 co-ops from CoTech, as well as other freelancers, charities and small businesses.

We’re hoping to spin Space4 off into its own co-op which will provide ever increasing value to users, members and the wider public

CoTech has had some great successes, and we’re really excited about the future. That’s because we’re working as part of a global network. In fact, we’re really not that radical when you take what we’re doing in a global context. 

CoTech is now putting the UK on the map as part of a global ecosystem of technology co-operative networks. We’re not alone, and here is an example of other networks: Ouishare, France, Enspiral, NZ, Olatu – Basque region, Tech Worker – USA, and Mondragon.

A growing global movement

During the last industrial revolution the only tech/industrial co-operative was Mondragon, in the Basque region. This is a federation of co-operatives that is at the cutting edge of heavy industry in Europe, and recently contacted us to ask for input as they begin to work in digital technology – a sign that they are intrinsically motivated to keep on top of the latest technologies so that they don’t get left behind and need to lose workers.

Now the movement is growing. There are a whole lot of co-op networks springing up across the globe, CoTech is just one of them. 

How the government can help the co-operative sector

Despite our successes, there’s a long way to go. We need a lot of help from government and institutions, and there’s things that individuals can do too.

  1. We want to be the go-to network for other co-operatives to buy their technology from. We’re excited that this sector is growing and the opportunities for these cross-overs are expanding.
  2. The government needs to invest in better infrastructure to help the technology sector. We have some of the slowest broadband in Europe. 
  3. So far Outlandish has invested £250,000 on projects that we believe in. But none of this would have been possible without us doing work in the private sector.
  4. In London particularly, land is being bought up by huge companies and office space is a massive blocker for small organisations. We’re subsidising Space4 so that we can encourage small co-ops to start up, but we can’t keep on doing this. Through Space4 we’re providing free training for underrepresented groups, but there’s a lot more to be done.
  5. Communication – co-ops aren’t easy to find out about. That’s why I’m here.

It’s great that we’re involved with this movement and we hope that you’ll join us. Thanks to the Labour Party for inviting us to speak.