In order to compete with well-funded private platforms, active government and municipal intervention is essential for platform cooperatives. This could be through procurement policies that give platform co-ops priority over private companies, look at how the law must adapt to changes in digital technology, and designate public spaces as hubs for platform co-ops. Examples of this already exist: the Kerala state government pledged to help create 4,000 platform cooperatives over the next five years, and in 2016 the Barcelona City Council launched Decidim, an open-source platform that enables citizens to participate in democratic decision-making, including establishing platform cooperatives.
“The key is to combine strong regulation at the municipal level with the gradual expansion of cooperatives,” Schor said. “One possibility is municipally-owned co-ops that are large enough to compete with private platforms – I’d like to see one or two cities try to do that.”
The Italian city of Bologna has supported cooperatives and workers’ rights for decades, and now its municipal agency is acting as an incubator and facilitator of ethical alternatives to the gig economy and its digital infrastructure. One of them is Consegne Etiche (Ethical Delivery), a food delivery cooperative, orchestrated by urban designers, local shopkeepers, academics and gig union representatives in the early days of Bologna’s Covid-19 lockdown.
Consegne Etiche started by providing anti-viral masks to residents’ homes and then expanded to provide other necessities for those unable to leave their homes. Riders have a flat rate of $9 per hour. It now also provides books to those who cannot access the library, for which it receives annual European funding of 15,000 euros (about $15,600), as well as books to people living in particularly economically and socially vulnerable areas of Bologna, for this purpose It received another 15,000 euros per year.
But government-funded cooperatives have also sprung up elsewhere. To help drivers cope with rising fuel prices, the mayor of Araraquara, Brazil, helped found Cooomappa, a cooperative that has partnered with a traditional software company to build a ride-hailing platform. Fares start at 2.50 reais (about 50 cents), and it pays drivers 95 percent of their earnings, meaning they earn 40 percent more than they would on other platforms. It’s also popular with passengers due to its lack of surge pricing and low cancellation rates.
Finding team members with the expertise to build collaborative models and develop digital tools is no easy task, even with the right funding. “Most people who learn how to build businesses do so for their own wealth, not for social change and increasing community wealth,” Forman said. Drivers Cooperative will be recruiting volunteers over the coming months, especially employees of large tech companies, who can contribute their time and knowledge to help them grow. It plans to introduce three-month scholarships that it hopes will attract high-skilled skilled workers among high-paying jobs. They will receive a monthly stipend to learn about platform cooperation models in exchange for refining the app and imparting wisdom about the inner workings of large traditional tech companies.
As these projects grow, it will be impossible to apply the same success metrics as Silicon Valley gig economy startups. The focus is not on the number of downloads, financing round value or profit, but whether it achieves its social and environmental goals and serves its member employees. “We don’t have a constant flow of travel like Uber or Lyft, but we’ve been experimenting with hourly pay, and the next step will be benefits like paid time off,” Foreman said. “Refinancing a driver’s car means one of our members, paying from $1,500 to $500 a month, can finally take time off, while another gets married because he’s no longer working all the time.”