Thoughts on OPEN 2018

OPEN 2018 last week was an exciting event, not only because of the incredible people the organisers brought together, but because it felt like something new was starting to take off.

There were people from many different organisations, sectors, and backgrounds, and they found sometimes unexpected things in common with each other. Although we heard some big ideas from the stage, it felt like most attendees were actually working on things, and had practical questions and collaborative opportunities they wanted to discuss. To me, the diversity and the blend of pragmatic action and shared big vision feels like a new movement getting off the starting line.

But what is the movement? OPEN 2018 has “platform cooperatives” next to the logo and yet a lot of the most interesting conversations weren’t actually about platform co-ops. It felt like a melange of several things:

  • internet technologies
  • open source
  • open standards and protocols (as distinct from open platforms)
  • commons (not just of code, but of knowledge, public space and more); a mixture of collective goods, and public goods (echoing the Public Stack Summit)
  • co-operatives, the co-op principles, and the broader co-op movement
  • entrepreneurship — people trying new ideas and ventures
  • networks and ecosystems of mutual support
  • a desire for impact at meaningful scale (looking beyond local activities)
  • resilience and distributed systems (in the technical sense)
  • equality and fairness, specifically around technology and data

This is a powerful set of ideas.

They are things I’ve been thinking about and working on in different ways for some time, but I didn’t have a clear sense of them as a group or a coherent whole until now.

OPEN 2018 cover image

I wonder whether others would recognise this list as the facets of OPEN 2018?

It all fits together quite coherently, to me at least, although we’ve no catchy phrase to explain it as a whole. “Platform co-operatives” doesn’t quite do it. “Collaborative technology for the cooperative economy” is the event byline, which is good, although maybe not quite the visionary call to action a movement might coalesce around. Oli Sylvester-Bradley talked in his thoughtful introduction about “people and planet before profit” which seemed to resonate with many of us as a grand vision, although it’s perhaps a little vague? Or maybe it sets out a general dream, without defining what this particular community is doing to achieve it. Gary Alexander talked about a movement and a shared vision too: working together for mutual benefit rather than competing; a society organised for the wellbeing of people and planet (not for money and profit). He also helpfully checked what the audience thought about this (positive, but a little mixed), and admitted some of this may be too much like “new age bollocks.” Recently John Elkington, creator of the triple bottom line (where social and environmental factors are considered alongside economic ones), announced earlier this year that it was time to review whether it is still fit for purpose. So maybe we need to thrash out some more specific, compelling and useful framing…

Part of what made it feel like the emergence of a new thing was that, whilst there is a big vision for a new economy, fit for the internet age, still a little vague in some details, it didn’t feel like a hyped up rally where we all unhesitatingly cheered. Even on the main stage, as well as in smaller conversations, critical questions were posed which we do not have answers to. And there was an energy and a focus on practical action as well as reflection and learning.

Of course, there were ways the event could have been better, and I’m sure 2019’s equivalent will be different, more diverse, and maybe more interactive. But it’s quite something to convene across interests in this way and to frame an event which felt so special. Huge thanks and congratulations to Oli, Thomas and the Open.coop team!


Nathan Schneider had questions about the cooperative side of things. Are we using the language of commons, or the language of ownership? Are we escaping ownership, or doubling down on it? As I feel I’m barely on the edge of the cooperative movement, still figuring out how it works, and its relationship to technology, Nathan’s musing on whether this community is part of the traditional co-op movement or something new and different was interesting. I remain astonished how many co-operatives there are around us. In the UK there’s the Coop Group, John Lewis (as I think John Bevan said, you can take a radical stance just by getting your groceries at Waitrose), but also many others such as dairy co-ops. I learned at OPEN2018 that in the US, a surprisingly large proportion of electricity cable networks are co-operatives. I hadn’t realised that Visa and Mastercard were mutuals until early this century. But they are pretty much invisible in everyday life, in conversations about economic growth and enterprise. Cooperatives UK’s 2018 co-op economy report highlights the scale and scope of co-ops in the UK.

Nathan also talked about where we all sit relative to the mainstream, for-profit startup world. Are we doing entrepreneurship but a bit differently? Or are we doing something radically different, entirely away from concepts like disruption?

One of the things I found really encouraging at the conference was the number of enthusiastic initiatives setting out to make it easier to set up and grow co-operatives, with different combinations of toolkits, mentoring, and funding (Platform6, start.coop, incubator.coop, Solidfund, CoopStarter, and more). And boy, are there more ways to get risk financing in the co-op space than I’d realised. There’s paying a regular cash return, investment from other co-ops, token issues, specialist investment houses such as Purpose Ventures; and depending where you are, tax breaks and specialist co-op startup funds. I was surprised how different the co-op startup financing environment is in different countries. Regardless, platform co-ops are out there already, and in diverse sectors — eg. Stocksy, Savvy.coop and Arcade City. There are more tools than ever before to support scalable co-ops too, with collaborative budgeting (eg. Cobudget), decision-making (eg. Loomio), and day to day participation. There are co-ops you can work with on technical stuff, such as Outlandish or the other denizens of CoTech, and co-ops who can help you with other things such as working openly. Coming soon there will be new ways of distributing computing, organised by co-ops like RChain. Of course, there are also support networks and communities of practice, such as Enspiral.

Cristina Flesher Fominaya talked about the words we use, in a great session on narrative and the importance of stories. In particular, she highlighted that some of the most successful campaigns and movements avoided using the words that one might expect to define them; instead, focussing on stories, and getting away from polarising framings such as anti-capitalism (maybe a story about corruption might be more persuasive?). Cristina also highlighted a point I tried to make in my talk earlier that day, that collaboration is not always built on a shared discursive framework, but might involve parties with very different world views and ways of communicating.

I’m delighted to hear there will be an OPEN 2019, and looking forward to it already. (This is also motivating me to make sure that I can show up next year and feel I’ve done something useful in the interim!)


A note on hyphens: I’m sticking with “co-op.” I can’t bring myself to say “coop,” like a place chickens might live, and I think I know enough people who, like me until very recently, don’t know much about co-ops, and would be confused by coops in this business context :)