If social, economic and environmental sustainability are linked, then support for the increasing number of non-profit groups and member-owned organizations offering what Trebor Scholz has called “platform cooperativism” has never been more important. Together, these organizations not only tackle issues their members identify in the world of work, but also provide network-driven collections of shared things (e.g., books, tools) and resources (e.g., woodworking spaces, fab labs) that benefit local communities, potentially changing, not just use of resources at community level, but socio-economic structures on the ground. Yet it seems that there is very little design research aimed at the particular challenges of organizing in this way.
In contrast to for-profit services often associated with the so-called sharing economy (e.g., Uber, Airbnb) and their well-served commercial needs, platform co-ops attempt to advocate ecological, economic, and social sustainability, with the goal of promoting a fairer distribution of goods and labor, ultimately creating a stronger sense of community. While some Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) communities (e.g. Computer-Supported Collaborative Work) have started to explore this emergent phenomenon, leveraging ethnographic research methods, researchers have called for more diverse HCI approaches to address the growing scope of challenges within platform co-ops, member-driven exchange systems, and cooperativism more broadly. The first special interest group meeting on this theme at the HCI conference, CHI’19, brought together nearly a hundred researchers from different HCI communities to identify future research directions around cooperativism and platforms.
A summary of the discussions
At the inception, we offered the working definitions and presented few examples of cooperatives as well as platform cooperatives. We further outlined the key commonalities and differences among these non-profit approaches to sharing economy and profit-driven corporations (e.g., Airbnb, Uber). In brief, the non-profit initiatives have different problems to solve from the platforms that seek to create global monopolies. From prior research we synthesized several challenges that local resource-sharing communities and platform co-ops face:
- transience among and anonymity of members of resource sharing organizations;
- poor visibility of the activities of their members and lack of accountability for shared resources;
- emergent issues of trust and reciprocity within membership and supporting online exchange platforms;
- limited access to shared resources for underprivileged populations;
- failure to clearly convey social and personal benefits of participation;
- lack of competitiveness, such as lack of public profile and long-term funding, compared with multinational corporations;
- piecemeal use of interactive technologies to support their activities.
We then split our participants into break-out groups covering five thematic areas based on participants’ research interests and experience to discuss these emergent challenges and identify opportunity areas for HCI and cooperativism. Namely, participants provided insight on (1) methodological and ethical considerations; (2) social, economic sustainability and collective action; (3) ecological and other forms of sustainability; (4) intricacies of participation in co-ops and (5) aspects of trust.
- Methodological and Ethical Considerations discussion evolved around understanding how the research and design methods and tools could allow the establishing lasting relationships between researchers and community members. When it comes to working with co-ops and resource sharing communities our participants discussed the pros and cons of designing new methods and techniques (e.g., to aid unveil power relationships and structures in a community, to enable activism) vs re-using, re-mixing and appropriating existing approaches. The participants highlighted the value of HCI research e.g., through a design/technology intervention that could make an impact on the communities over time and urged to align a researcher agenda with a community/co-op agenda in order to maximize the outcomes for both. It follows that depending on the size of a co-op or a community and a level of a researcher’s engagement into a co-op’s activities, a researcher should make an informed decision what approach (qualitative or quantitative) and, subsequently, what methodological toolkit to employ at a given study. For example, participatory design techniques are often time-consuming and require significant preparation to establish a rapport between a researcher and study participants. What approaches fits better at the early stages of community involvement? What is more, researchers should aim to create a shared space between community members during the course of the study. Collaborative techniques such as board games or co-design cards may lower the barrier for establishing trust between participants.When it comes to ethics, participants contemplated on the opportunities and difficulties doing research with politically-charged (members of) communities, as well as discussed the value of data ownership for some participants who want to express their opinion publicly and/or make a statement. In this case, the data de-anonymization approach was discussed. However, it is not easy to implement in practice if a research study is bound by legal and ethical provisions. Ultimately, participants pointed out that more research is needed in the intersecting areas of sustainability/sustainable use and design methods. Beyond ecological and economics aspirations: What design methods and approaches can incorporate and facilitate sustainable knowledge and skills transfer within the community over time? How the research outputs could look like to be effectively adopted by the community (members)?
- Social and economic sustainability. The participants discussed global and local perspectives to the co-ops. While co-op movement is global, often the most successful examples are local instances where a community have space, power and money to engage in projects they want to do. The participants unpacked the concept of “cooperatives federations” and illustrated the perspective of small/local co-ops that often rely on shared technology, identity, and branding, while maintaining relative autonomy of their activities and decisions. This led to a critical discussion about the role of technology and platform design for co-ops. What kind of flexibility designers needs to account for in their systems design that co-ops have some control and can shape it to fit their purpose? How to ensure that those platforms have enough commonalities to be meaningful for users and deliver consistent user experience? How to account for the challenges of adapting platforms/systems to different countries, regulatory contexts and markets?The participants also pointed out the differences between the “capital” and the “currency” when it comes to monetary/financial systems. FairCoop (https://fair.coop) was brought up as an example of a global coop that created FairCoin, an alternative currency that could not be used for capital but could be used for currency. Tightly controlled currencies prevent market speculations. On the whole, social and economic sustainability was seen as an enabler for changes that might lead to environmental sustainability.
- Continuing with a topic of sustainability the participants expressed a need to view sustainability from the perspective of the process (Is the process sustainable?), effect (What are the outcomes? Are they sustainable?), and intervention (Is the intervention itself sustainable?). The participants started to examine the different cultures of consumption drawing on the work of Nathan Schneider and elaborated on the co-ownership models (e.g., co-housing) vs desires and needs to own a property. Furthermore, the themes of food justice and food co-ops were discussed extensively with respect towards making food production and consumption practices sustainable. In relation to that, our participants outlined significant challenges of access to co-ops for marginalized communities. How do we ensure that people aren’t being “left out”? HCI could look at the opportunity to connect people in the food context attending to the food poverty issues and in specifically de-stigmatization of the need for food for underprivileged groups.Ultimately, the participants discussed different (business) models for co-ops that would have a better chance of success. One belief is that cooperatives can’t function without some payment model, they must take a cut for operational costs. On the whole, seems like more purpose-driven niche co-ops (e.g., tool sharing, nanny sharing) have been more successful than time banking models. Prior work suggests that those seem to fail often because not all skills are valued in the same way. To further address this topic HCI should look for opportunities to draw from economics, political science, and Elinor Ostrom’s work
- When it comes to participation in the co-ops, the key challenges are related to member involvement, sustaining participation, addressing economic needs (even for volunteer-run arrangements). Does a cooperative lens require a rethink of HCI? How do we redefine HCI when working with co-ops, in both technical sense (who owns the infrastructure) and in a broader socio-political sense?Practically-speaking, when conducting research in co-ops researchers need to be aware of the organizational intricacies and to re-think the ways to partner with co-ops. Note that, even simple decisions in co-ops may take a lot of time and often not easy to accommodate within short research cycles. Thus, careful planning of the research intervention should account for that. In turn, how can researchers establish long-term partnerships with co-ops?
Next, the participants identified that co-ops often have trouble doing things at scale, HCI may be able to help on this end. Specifically, as co-ops grow it will become harder to maintain democratic member-involvement style. What is more, growth often brings hierarchy that may undermine the democratic principles of a co-op. Networks of co-ops could offer a way to work out some of those issues. When it comes to the use of technology, collective decision-making tools like Loomio (https://loomio.org) could open some opportunities to timely involve broader groups of members to participate. Furthermore, the domain of coordination technologies, which is broadly explored by CSCW scholarship, could be used for inspiration for going forward as well. An interesting research opportunity is to understand the issues of configuring ecologies of tools for co-ops, especially for local low-tech organizations that are a part of the global movement. What are the tools that could be shared across different sites?
- Trust – is a difficult concept, there is no precise definition exists and it means many different things. Our participants used some specific examples to underpin the phenomena in the context of co-ops. At the inception, they elaborated on risk and uncertainties as two constitutive elements trust. Risk means what is at stake, while uncertainties are related to the outcome. Then, the participants outlined and exemplified the emergent challenges of interpersonal trust within co-ops as well as trust within the supporting systems. Our participant considered interpersonal trust as a crucial component to building a successful co-op. The participants proposed the opportunity to look at the collaborative production systems like Wikipedia to examine trust in relation to the established (?organizational) structure vs individual relationships between peers. When it comes to the trust within software systems, use of the platform or app does not necessarily engender trust of itself, conversely, it may actually hide the trustworthiness of people behind the systems. Once trust is established within one community/platform, how can it be transferred when moving from one community to another? Note that, credible trustworthy relationships may change within the transition. Many platforms implement reputation review mechanisms and rating systems with a view towards improving trust. An interesting research avenue is to explore how those systems and mechanisms can be classified and categorized with respect to trust.Ultimately, the participants discussed institutional aspects of trust, that is trust in structure and organization of groups, trust in governance. Where co-ops should turn to when something breaks? Who do they need to talk to? How do we design systems to build institutional trust?
Anton Fedosov is completing his doctorate in the Research Group for Ubiquitous Computing at USI Lugano in Switzerland. His research focuses on understanding user experience around contemporary sharing practices of personal digital information and physical objects.
Airi Lampinen is an Associate Senior Lecturer in Human-Computer Interaction at Stockholm University in Sweden and a Docent in Social Psychology at the University of Helsinki. She has studied interpersonal dynamics in peer-to-peer exchange extensively. Her ongoing research focuses on interpersonal challenges in sharing economies and alternative, member-driven peer-to-peer initiatives.
Tawanna Dillahunt is an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. She designs, builds, enhances and deploys innovative technologies to address employment barriers among underserved job seekers. A key interest includes understanding how to integrate social science theory into the design of social technologies.
Ann Light is a Professor of Design and Creative Technology at the University of Sussex and Professor of Interaction Design, Social Change and Sustainability at Malmo University, Sweden. She specializes in the social impact of technology, and particularly the deployment of platforms. Her design work concerns innovation in social process, social justice and sustainability, researched using participatory methods.
Coye Cheshire is an Associate Professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information (iSchool). His work focuses on how various forms of exchange are produced and maintained on the Internet, and more broadly, in computer-mediated exchanges. Coye’s current research topics include: (1) the role of trust and cooperation in interpersonal online interactions, (2) collective behavior and online collaboration, and (3) social incentives and motivations to contribute in online environments.
About the conference
The ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems is the premier international conference of Human-Computer Interaction. CHI – pronounced ‘kai’ – is a place where researchers and practitioners gather from across the world to discuss the latest in interactive technology. We are a multicultural community from highly diverse backgrounds who together investigate new and creative ways for people to interact.
Anton Fedosov, Airi Lampinen, Tawanna R. Dillahunt, Ann Light, and Coye Cheshire. 2019. Cooperativism and Human-Computer Interaction. In Extended Abstracts of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI EA ’19). ACM, New York, NY, USA, Paper SIG05, 4 pages. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3290607.3311751