Collaboration & Cooperation: The Reign of Confusion

by Colette Lebel

Collaborative economics is a very seductive notion.  I recently tried Airbnb and Uber – because we all need to get with the times?  I was able to take advantage of personalised, flexible and attentive services at an affordable price.  These transactions, through online platforms, were very convivial, even friendly.  And thanks to some excellent comments left by my chosen service providers’ previous users, I felt perfectly comfortable.

It feels good to imagine that we are all collaborating with each other in this new type of economy.  It feels so good that we sometimes, driven by an influx of affability, call it a “sharing economy”.  And then, bit by bit we start combining elements, and discover some kind of parental relationship with cooperative economics.  Cooperative economics has almost become a one-size fits all notion of economics.  And yet, if cooperative economics is an economy of collaboration, the opposite is seldom true: A very small part of collaborative economics is indeed cooperative.

In fact, beyond all appearances, business models for collaborative economy companies do not necessarily guarantee democratic governance or an equitable sharing of the wealth created.  Quite the opposite.  These business models are raising more and more questions and criticisms.  First, the wealth created by the “collaborating” collective is not usually shared; instead it is absorbed for the benefit of a small group of which we know nothing.  Guided by governance that is closed and opaque, this small group not only monopolises the wealth, but any and all data that is collected becomes their exclusive property.

In fact, since they operate from a dematerialised infrastructure, as collaborative businesses are deployed on a grand scale without having to put down roots anywhere, they compete with local and regional enterprises with a brick and mortar existence.  In the short term, the local economy as a whole is affected and weakened.

And finally, the greatest criticism of collaborative economics is certainly the breakdown of working conditions that frequently goes hand in hand with its business model.  Its workers may enjoy greater flexibility in their work hours and in the amount of work they are ready to take on, and that is obviously the biggest appeal.  However, we should realize that most of these jobs are insecure, remuneration fluctuates and benefits are nonexistent.  As for working conditions, they’re often a step backwards.

In more extreme cases, collaborative economics may also lead to the dehumanisation of social interactions.  For example, the Airbnb rental platform recently launched a service called “Experiences” in about twenty countries, which invites local businesses to cash in on the tourist trade.  Although the new offering is very appealing because it allows visitors to view and enjoy the city or town from a resident’s perspective, it also elicits some awkwardness.  As the French philosopher, Gilles Vervisch of the Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, sadly observed: “We live in an individualised mercantile society, a society that is trapped and in which individuals have become forced to pass “GO” and pay up to find the semblance of a relationship.” 

Interesting fact: Last November, Diane Bérard, reporter with Les Affaires, touched upon a crisis of growth in collaborative economics and she encouraged her readers to keep an eye… On the rise of platforms of cooperativism!  Indeed, new enterprises are now emerging from this economy and are operating differently.  They are based on collective property and are aiming for sustainability, transformation and accountability as opposed to obscure ownership, and they are for the people who contribute to it: the users.

Cooperatives have proven themselves from the very first days of the Rochdale Pioneers[1].  Their model was such that it can re-establish the true sense of sharing in a collaborative platform.  Open and democratic governance, with a fair share of the value created and ethical use of collected data: Yes, that is all possible with a cooperative business model.


[1] The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers was an early consumer cooperative founded in 1844 by 28 people, half of whom were weavers, from Rochdale (England).  It is often considered the basis for the modern cooperative movement. 

Colette Lebel's picture

Colette is agronomist and director of cooperative affairs at La Coop fédérée. She was the first woman to be appointed as head of training of the boards of director within the cooperative network and works to improve women representativeness within the boards of directors. Dedicated cooperator, Colette had the opportunity to pass on his expertise in several missions abroad both for La Coop and SOCODEVI.