Enspiral’s future of work means trust, empowerment and creative collaboration
My interview with Kate Beecroft, a freelancer co-op member dedicated to the growth of participatory democracy
In advance of Meaning conference this November, I’ve been talking to speakers in depth about their ideas; and where they fit into guest director Mark Stevenson’s focus on innovation and systems change. This week, I had the pleasure of a call with Kate Beecroft; who is living the dream of ‘the empowered freelancer’ with the ground-breaking global co-operative, Enspiral.
Enspiral is a freelancer cooperative established in New Zealand in 2010 by Joshua Vial, who now calls himself the ‘ex founder’ of the network. It began with a group of twelve friends — mostly coders — who sought to break away from the limiting charity and business structures in which they were working to create a livelihood among themselves. At the beginning, they experimented with an 80/20 ‘Robin Hood’ model; where members would pool resources in order to spend 20% of their time on social impact projects.
Other professionals thought Enspiral could work for them too, and within seven years it has grown into a global network of 230; including developers, designers, accountants, lawyers and — perhaps most significantly of all — those who simply “create their own job description”. Of these definitions, Kate Beecroft is most certainly the latter; and refers to herself as a “steward and facilitator” of the network - a role that is especially significant at Enspiral and may well deserve the credit for its “high trust” values.
According to Kate, the fact that Enspiral is such a unique case might be because — with their large membership of web developers — they have a lot of capacity to build. Their collaboration software Loomio has been transformative for political campaigns and new businesses; allowing a central, non-linear space for storing information and making democratic decisions. It’s here that Enspiral’s world is now based, and where ‘decision-making software’ seems an inadequate description for what is essentially an experiment in participatory democracy.
“Loomio happened in the phase that Enspiral realised they had a lot of the skills to actually start building things — structurally impactful things to make a dent in the world’s problems. A bunch of activists in Wellington’s Occupy movement came to Enspiral. They sat around for a long time trying to make decisions so thought “we’ll go down to that crew at Enspiral, maybe they can build it for us and put it online.” But the Enspiral crew were like “No! You can come and build it with us.” So basically, Loomio was this love child between Occupy and Enspiral — and those activists are now very, very highly skilled business people. Kinda anarchist-activist business people, but still!”
Another of Enspiral’s recent projects is Cobudget — a tech solution built to collaboratively spend the voluntary tithes that members gave back to the foundation. Like many of their products, it emerged from the structural needs of a brand new collective; who were discovering spaces for new products through an unusually natural and unforced business development cycle.
“We want to enable structures for real participation, and build technological and cultural ways to do that — this is very much part of Enspiral’s work.”
“A lot of the philosophy around Enspiral is around the thinking of ‘bringing your whole self to work’ and feeling respected and that your voice is heard. Not just turning up and consuming something that has already been created. No, you’re actually not consuming - you’re turning up to create with everyone else and I think that’s a reason why the “no real founder” thing is so strong. When people are given the space to create they become very much part of the thing rather than passive consumers of the thing. We want to enable structures for real participation, and build technological and cultural ways to do that — this is very much part of Enspiral’s work.”
The high level of trust developed among the Enspiral network may well be its greatest asset. Such values have been consciously developed from the start; with good facilitation constantly modelled in their online collaboration spaces. This provides a sense of safety through mediation; as well as space for that great creative catalyst — divergence of opinion. Members are encouraged to meet in person at least once a year at Enspiral’s quarterly retreats and many work together in shared spaces all year round; with their largest communities in Wellington and San Francisco.
With facilitation such a regular feature of my conversation with Kate, I wondered if this function is not absolutely vital for ensuring the safety, diversity, and freedom-to-be-vulnerable that are all the basis of real creative agency. The economic benefits of such a culture in terms of innovation are obvious; but it should not be forgotten that it is this primacy of trust that forms the economic bonds themselves:
“In the last year a new experiment has emerged called livelihood pods. Groups of four to twelve people — we try to keep them small — are collectivising their income. They are still working as freelancers but trying to get around the ebbs and flows of the precariat/gig economy that makes life very hard for freelancers. So, whenever I do a gig like facilitate a retreat or some product development with the tech team, any income I make comes back into my pod and my three pod-founders are doing the same. With that we are paying ourselves and renegotiating our income monthly — even though we’re at different stages of our careers and are doing different things. We’re trying to not always be selling time and instead to build up a buffer so we can do product work as well.”
Kate laughingly claims she has moved away from her roots in politics (she graduated with an MA in political philosophy) to throw her lot in with business after “lasting three months” at one of New Zealand’s biggest government agencies. However, I suspect she’s actually very clear about the fact that she’s actually thrown herself further into true participatory democracy than career politics would ever have allowed.
“The more you can enable people to participate fully, the stronger and more abundant we are all going to be.”
“The model of governance we have at Enspiral is based on participation and the fact that in many of society’s structure we are holding ourselves back. By doing this we will surpass the binary thinking that only a few people have the ability and skills to create structures for the rest of us to participate in. We reject that, and say the more you can enable people to participate fully, the stronger and more abundant we are all going to be.
“My personal dream for Enspiral which is that it stays at it is. It doesn’t scale. It doesn’t have world domination in mind. It’s a ‘network of networks’ theory — where there are many networks like Enspiral and there is connection and communication between them. When one of us hits upon a new product or service, and we’ve worked out the business model and now how it can be sold, we pump it out through the channels of the networks and enable people to earn a livelihood. And this can actually be more dynamic and powerful. It’s in the vein of platform business model ideology, except ours is much more around co-operative ownership and collaboration rather than competition.”
As a freelancer myself (and still working on my own co-operative solution) I had a strong sense during my conversation with Kate of the different kind of time references we ‘gig economists’ employ. Rarely does she mention an Enspiral project that isn’t “in the last year” “in the last three months” or “might be happening”. What’s refreshing is that she makes these references without any of the usual anxiety of the precarious freelancer. With Enspiral, the trademark short-termism of the freelancing life is turned around into an advantage, where trusted networks of collaborators make use of their ‘economic buffer’ to decide their own creative direction; and remain relaxed about the numerous projects they have running in parallel.
“You really need to throw out your sense of competition and really latch on the benefits of cooperation and collaboration.”
“Its super-interesting and there’s a big impetus there to grow personally and professionally in a way which often as a freelancer you can’t because you’re so worried about the next contract, getting the proposal in, will the last gig actually pay, and constantly selling your time, and never getting a chance to work on something that actually means something to you — and actually might bring annuity if you get it right. So in order to step into this way of working, you really need to throw out your sense of competition a bit and really latch on the benefits of cooperation and collaboration. If you don’t really believe in those things then it’s not going to work for you.”
Compare Kate’s sense of free roaming between projects to an entrepreneurial model that is starting to feel badly out of date — where the individual has to commit to driving vigorously at one goal; honourably pushing through all the exhausting failures before one idea takes off. In the future of work, it will be hard to see why anyone would choose that option when they could instead choose to work within an alternative economy; retaining their autonomy as well as the benefits of a supportive community.
A network like Enspiral spontaneously innovates and never lacks ideas; providing a quality of collaboration to render any CEO or ‘visionary’ completely redundant.