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Cooperating is the best kind of sharing: co-ops and the sharing economy


Cooperating is the best kind of sharing

I think cooperating is the best kind of sharing. And sharing has been all the rage lately, with the meteoric rise of the “sharing economy,” which seems to encompass everything from AirBNB to couchsurfing to tool sharing to car sharing.

That meteoric rise of the sharing economy is really, really exciting. Since 2008, when the economy took a major stumble, people have been coming to the understanding that the economy isn’t going to benefit everyone the same way, and that sometimes the best way to make things better is to do things differently. That’s where the increased interest in the sharing economy comes from, really: the realization that we need to do business differently, and build a different economy, if we want it to be more fair, more inclusive, and better.

So when we discuss the sharing economy and cooperatives, I think the discussion starts to get really interesting. I think cooperation is the best kind of sharing, and this is important because there is no clear definition of just what the sharing economy actually is – and that runs the risk of dilution into meaninglessness.

Cooperating enables people to build shared resources and co-own them. Cooperation is an ownership model and a business model. It’s different from sharing as you might currently see in the sharing economy, but I think that cooperatives can and should lead the sharing economy.

Just what is the sharing economy?

So that question of the definition of the sharing economy is a good one. You hear the term “sharing economy” and “sharing organization” being applied to all kinds of things – from car rentals to dog walkers – but it isn’t exactly clear where the lines are drawn.

Over at People Who Share, Benita Matofska describes the sharing economy as being:

The Sharing Economy is a socio-economic ecosystem built around the sharing of human and physical resources. It includes the shared creation, production, distribution, trade and consumption of goods and services by different people and organisations.

Okay. Not a bad definition – at least it’s internally consistent. The sharing economy is shared creation, production, distribution, trade, and consumption of things by different people and organizations.

But doesn’t that encompass everything?

I mean, really: if the sharing economy is shared production, then any bakery or widget factory could theoretically claim to “share” production. If you’re a member at Costco – as in, you bought a card that allows you to shop at Costco – aren’t you engaging in shared consumption?

This is the kind of shifting definition that makes the sharing economy both interesting, exciting – but open to being co-opted. For example, I’ve seen “sharing organizations” that are owned by massive corporations; instead of “sharing a car” with others, you’re renting from Daimler. Never mind the “sharing economy” companies like Uber – companies who don’t actually do any sharing themselves, but rather make money through connecting other people who want to share.

Cooperatives as sharing organizations

This is where, in my mind, cooperatives can enter into the scene as the best kind of sharing organizations.

After all, cooperatives are, at their heart, built to share common services to meet common needs. No matter whether a co-op is a consumer co-op, a worker co-op, a producer co-op, or a multistakeholder co-op, the cooperative exists to share resources to meet members’ needs.

Let’s think about this in a slightly different way: if Car 2 Go, owned by Daimler, is a sharing company, it’s because you can “share” in a fleet of cars by renting them, isn’t any apartment building a sharing organization?

Flip the examples: Modo, the Car Co-op, is a Vancouver based car sharing cooperative. When you join Modo, you become a co-owner of the cooperative, and then you become one of the co-owners of Modo’s more than 300 cars. In comparison to your traditional rental building, if you live in a housing co-op, like the False Creek Housing Co-operative, you co-own your housing building.

The examples are solidly different. And the motives are just as different.

I can’t speculate on Daimler’s motives in creating Car2Go – other than thinking that a short-term car rental service is an excellent way to move stock of cars you make and generate residual income from people who wouldn’t otherwise be purchasing your cars. But that’s different from Modo’s purpose, which is to enable its members to become less reliant on cars by making them co-owners of a network of cooperatively-owned vehicles, improving access to transportation. Car2Go’s primary purpose might be profit back to its corporate owner, but Modo’s is sharing resources to meet members’ needs.

The same analysis holds for rental apartment buildings – whose purpose is revenues and profits back to the owner – versus a  housing co-op, where the purpose is to reduce costs and share the ownership in a housing solution.

Cooperating is better than renting

So that brings me to my belief – cooperating is better than renting. When you’re a member of Modo and you pay access charges for a Modo car, you’re not renting it, per se, you’re chipping in to cover the upkeep of the vehicle you own. Same with your housing co-op.

Even with the Vancouver Tool Library, where I can “share” a bandsaw with my other members, I’m not renting tools from a tool rental company – I’m sharing in resources.

Cooperatives are the best form of sharing and the best way to build sharing organizations. A key debate in the sharing economy that is starting to surface is the debate around ownership. If you’re “sharing rides” with Uber, who owns that service? Why don’t the drivers and the riders own the business? Aren’t they the ones doing the sharing?

That’s why a taxi cooperative makes more sense than a privately-held, private-profiting company. If we’re sharing in the services, we should be sharing in the success as well. Building community resources – that we can all share – doesn’t work if those resources are privately held.

Cooperatives in Europe really succeed at this idea. Even for-profit co-ops – those that might otherwise return dividends to their members – create “indivisible reserves,” or funds with a portion of their profits, that are not split amongst the members but that are instead dedicated to supporting the cooperative movement at large. This is a powerful idea!

Cooperatives should lead the sharing economy – let’s make a difference

And it’s these kind of ideas that could easily put co-ops at the centre of the sharing economy. Cooperatives have been leading the sharing economy since before it was a term with currency and popularity – and it’s time they stepped up to the plate and showed the rest of the sharing economy just how cooperation is the best way to share community resources. Cooperatives are one kind of sharing organization – but they’re the best kind of sharing organization and the one that’s the most powerful.

If you’re interested in this and how you too could build a co-op to engage in the sharing economy, get in touch, because we can help. 



About Kevin Harding

Kevin Harding is a principal of the Incipe Cooperative, and is a volunteer board member of the Art for Impact Society. He has worked in the nonprofit, public, and cooperative sector for some time, and has a passion for working with coops, nonprofits, and advocacy groups that want to make a better world. A coop developer, he strongly believes that cooperatives can build a better world.


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