New Models & Tools for Mutual and Collective Action

How emerging tech is helping people work together for our mutual benefit

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski via Unsplash

Emerging to fill the gaps between the services provided by the government and commercial sectors are organizations performing functions often critical to our mutual benefit. The pandemic accelerated various trends already occurring in society. Community needs often fall into the gaps between the government and commercial sectors. A prime example of this increased awareness were the the myriad of “ad-hoc emergency response organizations” that sprung up providing important value during the early stages of the pandemic. One such example was the Covid Technology Task Force, on which I participated. These groups offered needed help from filling in the supply chain for masks, to gathering/presenting important information (e.g dashboards) to enhancing lines of communication among the tech sector, policy makers and health care professionals.

Technology has become woven into the fabric of society. AI now permeates nearly all aspects of technology, while the corporations that build and deploy it have assumed outsized roles impacting people’s lives. It’s no wonder words like “purpose”, “values”, “ethics”, and “principles” have seeped into how we talk about both technology and organizational behavior. There is growing momentum for a more responsible approach to how technology is built and deployed and the overall conduct of the organizations doing it.

Early to mid last century, there were many mutual benefit types of organizations that either provided or served as the model for government services. These institutions included unions, religious entities, and other cooperatives like we see today in REI. Even health insurance was offered via mutual benefit corporations where managed risk was the primary goal rather than maximizing profit.

Over the past several decades, due to changes in regulation and other societal changes, these types of organizations were diminished and shrunk. The Wellbeing Economy Alliance said “our society is fracturing under the weight of a broken political and economic system that puts financial wealth ahead of people and life itself”. Only recently have we seen a re-emergence of the awareness the value these organizations contribute. According to Omidyar “Mutual aid is when communities take on the responsibility for caring for one another and building new social relations that are more survivable. It comprises community-directed resources including bailout funds, childcare support, lending circles, emotional support, disaster relief, and translation services. Mutual aid is one of the most effective strategies for community sustenance, becoming an increasingly active form of political participation.”

Even significant players in the corporate world have begun to advocate for a shift away from a hyper-focused pursuit of profit to a more encompassing pursuit of purpose. They’ve recognized the collective value of acknowledging the importance of ‘stakeholder’ value over exclusively shareholders. Over the past few years people such as Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock, the World Economic Forum, and the Business Roundtable have all published on the needed change in mindset. It’s unclear, however, if the stakeholder map includes a space for our common good too.

Increasing emphasis/investment in ESG isn’t the only evidence of the growth in mutualistic thinking. That an activist investor was able to get three climate-focused directors elected to the Exxon board shows this momentum is occurring up and down the ladder. Business schools across the country are responding to the increasing demand from both students and employers. As the New York Times recently pointed out, “A decade ago, the hottest M.B.A. courses typically covered topics such as game theory, valuing securities and negotiating mergers. Today, some of the most popular classes are about climate finance, impact investing and social entrepreneurship.”

With a focus on the overall welfare of its members, mutualistic enterprises tend to be less swayed by short term profits over long term benefits. According to the 2021 National Mutual Economy Report, “Co-operatives and mutuals proved to be particularly resilient in the face of economic adversity. By keeping true to the purpose of serving their members, the natural resilience of CMEs helped them to react positively to the extreme challenges. Throughout the pandemic their business characteristics and structure led CMEs to behave in a distinctive way, often exhibiting the best examples in corporate behavior.”

Another sign of the resurgence of mutualistic behavior is the rise in employee activism in the tech sector — collective action to affect societal change . Will this activity continue or will it be short lived? Will new unions or union-like structures emerge? Like the unions helped marshal improved working conditions and benefits, might these new mutual benefit organizations define new types of outcomes pertinent to the digital age? Some early examples include Microsoft’s inclusion of Human Rights checks in government contracts and the New Wave of Strikes to Test Employee Power. What new management practices and methodologies will be deployed to operationalize this comprehensive pursuit of purpose?

Shareholder value and GDP only consider portions of our economy. We need a new narrative conveying the remainder. Robert F. Kennedy famously said in 1968 that GDP “measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Evidence of the rise or reawakening of mutualistic action is all around us. In the Wired article “Disruption is a Two-way Street”, Rida Qadri wrote “There’s a wave of innovation that we’re failing to recognize — and it’s being led by users and networks, not tech companies.” Cory Doctorow blog The People’s Disruption expands on Qadri’s work saying “This is mutual aid, with code. It is every bit as innovative and disruptive as Uber or Amazon…”. Doctorow cites multiple examples where people are using technology to turn the tables back on the tech-enabled companies themselves such as Doordash drivers seeking rate transparency.

Technology is evolving alongside society’s growing engagement towards social good. Web 3.0 technologies/platforms/protocols are enabling innovative ways of organizing, focusing intent, and driving funding possibilities. How will new emerging technologies that embed structures and governance facilitate new forms of leadership? “A DAO is essentially a programmable organization of people that form around a shared mission and fosters an emergent online community.” The Wellbeing Protocol Project is a prime example of using this new tech to create a self-governing organization with an explicit social beneficial purpose.

As Isaac Newton taught us, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It should be noted that for all the positive energy going into mutual or collective good, there is also a rise in vigilantism which has clear and present downsides to be tracked and monitored as well.

Increasing employee activism, ad-hoc social benefit task forces, renewed support for coops and unions, business leaders and evolving corporate boards, B-schools and new technologies all evolving concurrently. All these point to a future where collective action is re-emerging as a force for good. Supported by new tools, people can exert their desires onto existing organizations and create new ones. Social benefits need not be an afterthought or worse any longer. They can quite literally be baked into the DNA of new organizations constructed using the technologies appearing in this third wave of the internet. Perhaps, like the old joke about Microsoft products that got it right on the 3rd version, we will finally get the internet right with Web 3.0.

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