Two types of thinking.

My son makes albums. That’s not news. Today he simultaneously released his ninth and tenth album under his musical name, Spectra.

Album cover for Oh Hi, Gemini by Uncle Eric D.

Why release two albums on the same day? One thing I love about the way my son Ivan makes albums is that he always has a spark of inspiration as to why he wants to make an album.

In this case, he realized that sometimes he has a seed of an idea and wants to get the music out quickly, in an improvisatory way. And sometimes he wants to form something with thought and planning and revisions and be more mindful of what he’s producing. Sometimes he wants to move quickly and sometimes he wants to plan.

Album cover for Giant Furry Animals by Uncle Eric D.

So he made two companion EPs simultaneously. When he had a rough idea and wanted to throw the song down and move on, he put it on an album called Oh Hi, Gemini. When he wanted to work on a song, get it right, write and re-write lyrics ahead of time, he put it on album called Giant Furry Animals.

It was super fun to help him make these albums. I learned a lot in the process about creating containers for different kinds of work. There’s fast and dirty and done-is-better-than-perfect work. And there’s planned, know-it-has-to-be-right, pre-meditated work. Both are good and important, and it’s helpful to be clear on what method we want to use at any given time and why.

So enjoy these two albums. You can pay any price you want to for them, including nothing at all. They were super fun for him to make.

What I’ve learned from home-swapping.

For the last few years, when my family takes vacations we have been swapping homes with people in the cities we visit. We did our first home swap a few years ago in San Francisco, last year we swapped with a couple in Paris, and this summer we’re swapping with families in Hamburg and Bergen, Norway.

It’s an amazing way to travel. Free accommodations mean that we can stay in expensive cities for longer. Being in a home means more space for us to enjoy than a hotel room affords, and we enjoy neighborhoods in cities we would not otherwise spend time in. We feel more like locals when we’re far from home.

Home-swapping makes me think of my early enthusiasm for the Sharing Economy. I still love the idea of sharing the idle capacity of things you own with other people, and owning things collectively through a co-op-like structure. This form of sharing creates reciprocal relationships and community, and reduces the need for so much stuff to be produced and consumed.

In the early days of the Sharing Economy, I was a major proponent of what this could mean for communities, for greater equity and environmental sustainability. I was surprised by how quickly the sharing economy gave way to value-extracting businesses like Uber and AirBnB.

I spend a lot of my working hours trying to ensure that we have a more equitable and sustainable local economy. I think about the velocity of money within a local economy so money recirculates and has a multiplier effect, creating more equitable distribution. Companies like Uber do provide work, but it is contract work, lacking the benefits that allow people a higher quality of life. In addition, profits are extracted out of local economies and into maximizing shareholder of people well outside where the work takes place.

I don’t use AirBnB anymore because I see the devastating effect it has on cities like Vancouver which have a housing crunch and near zero rental vacancy rates. I see in my own neighbourhood of Strathcona in Vancouver the rental units that used to provide stable, long-term rental to individuals and families get permanently taken off the market and turned into more profitable AirBnB accommodation. This isn’t having a healthy effect on the livability and viability of our city. (Vancouver has a vacancy rate near zero and 6.2% average annual rental rate increases.) That isn’t a form of sharing I recognize as ethical or desirable.

I sit on the board of Modo Co-operative, which allows 20,000 drivers to share over 600 cars. As a co-operative, there is no private ownership, those cars are a community asset. If Modo were to dissolve, the assets would be bequeathed to another community-owned organization like a not-for-profit. I work for Vancity, where half a million member-owners pool their money for local reinvestment. It is now a $26.4 Billion pool owned by the community, not private ownership. No one profits inequitably from those community resources. That is more in line with what I originally loved about the sharing economy.

So we have discovered home-swapping as a way of truly living out the early (and unfortunately false) promise of the sharing economy. No money changes hands, trust is required and reciprocity is created. I recommend it highly if you need your faith in humanity restored.

Final reflections on Bologna – more worker co-ops.

So many great images from our walking tour. #bologna2018 #vancitybologna

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I’m back at home and making sense of all I’ve learned and experienced over the last two weeks studying the co-operative sector in Bologna, Italy.

Nine years ago, I attended this same program, and it opened my eyes to the role co-ops can play in our economy and started me down my path of greater involvement with co-ops. This trip has given me greater depth and language to describe the way co-ops act as a counter balance to some of the harmful effects of the market.

Resist!

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I have gained quite a lot of experience over the last few years working with businesses and organizations in impact sectors. I am very concerned with a few societal issues, chief amongst them income inequality, climate change, housing and rental availability and affordability in this region and making reconciliation a priority so that gaps that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people finally start to disappear.

Co-ops can be part of the solution to all of these issues.

In BC, most co-ops I deal with are consumer co-ops. I came back from Bologna with a strong sense that many more worker co-ops are needed to help deal with these societal and environmental issues. We have some worker co-ops in BC, but it is a solution for many more people who want to self-organize to solve an issue or address a market failure.

What’s needed? Teaching the co-op model in our business schools, introducing policies friendly to people organizing worker co-ops, aligning partners in our incubators and business networks and creating education materials introducing the model to people thinking of starting a company. The model requires greater patience and care to work properly and won’t be right for most entrepreneurs, but someone starting a company should know all the business structures, models and options open to them and not just the one prevalent corporate model in our economy.

In parallel to promoting worker co-ops, there should be a greater focus on worker co-op succession, or Worker Buy Outs as they call them in Bologna. This model is timely as so many aging entrepreneurs will be looking to retire from their businesses over the next 10-15 years. If some of these are sold to their workers as a co-operative, it will share benefits and accountabilities in a way that should address inequality and keep established businesses in our community from failing.

I feel very privileged I was able to attend this program again and deepen my understanding of co-ops, and walk away inspired to focus on worker co-op creation and succession as a key part of a more equitable and sustainable local economy.

Fake co-ops!

As I have traveled around North America, I have had the opportunity to visit many co-operatives and credit unions. I have gotten to know how they operate and make decisions around their strategy and operations. It’s only in the last few years that I have become more interested in governance.

Governance wasn’t something I was interested in, or even understood very well until fairly recently. I took it for granted, governance was something that happened in the background and I never dwelled on its importance.

Visiting a social co-op employing people with disabilities.

In Bologna, we have seen many types of coops: consumer co-ops selling goods and services in which the customers are the members; worker co-ops where the member-owners are the employees; social co-ops often organized as worker coops where the focus is meeting a societal need such as helping refugees or people with disabilities; and producer co-ops where people who produce things such as grapes can work collectively to create more value by co-operatively turning their grapes into branded and marketed wines earning them all greater returns than they would earn individually selling grapes directly to the market.

I have heard people here call some local co-ops “fake coops” and they do so for two main reasons.

Some worker co-ops can be fake co-ops. A worker co-op usually has some employees who are not worker-owners and others who are. In Italy, if a co-op dips below 50% of all employees being worker-owners, they are no longer considered to be “mutually prevalent” and lose certain tax benefits encouraged to increase the number of people who mutually own the firms in which they work. Having a high prevalence of mutuality or worker-ownership at a firm promotes things that the State cares about such as higher wages, greater inclusivity in the workforce and more democratic practices. Most worker co-ops in Emilia-Romagna have 70% of staff buying in as worker-owners and only 30% being strict employees. Some people call worker co-ops who have a small number of their employees as worker-owners to be fake coops. They are set up as a co-op, but the benefits are not widely shared, and are concentrated in the hands of a few, like in traditional firms.

Another way in which a co-op can be fake is when the bond between members is very small and meaningless. Consumer co-ops, a very prevalent model in North America, are at constant risk of becoming fake co-ops, as the bond between members is shallow, the commitment needed to join is often low and the benefits of membership are limited. For example, you join a food co-op for $25, a fairly low amount, you get some discounts, vote for the board, but what’s asked of you is minimal. These co-ops have to work harder to compete in a non co-operative market and retain and promote their principles and mission.

Compare that to a worker co-op, where you may be spending hundreds or thousands of dollars to in order to buy a share and become a worker-owner. While voting rates at consumer co-ops tend to be 2-5% of members, at worker co-ops 80-100% is more typical because they’re voting for a board which directs their work-life and the strategic direction of the firm where they are a co-owner.

As I work with co-ops and credit unions, I am amazed by how many don’t have active democratic practices. They limit the number of candidates who can run in board elections and seriously screen their candidates, so that board directors are acclaimed instead of elected. They don’t promote to their members that they can run for the board. In BC, credit unions have seen a shift where our regulator requires credit unions to recommend certain candidates who best represent the skills a regulated, complex financial institution requires today. But there are practices I see in play at credit unions who still operate democratically, including Vancity, such as having a Nominations & Elections Committee made up mostly of members-at-large (who aren’t on the board) and only a couple of sitting board members. This is done so the existing board can’t control who can stand for elections. Allowing all members in good standing to run, whether they are recommended or not, and having more recommended candidates than there are open seats so there is still an open election among the recommended candidates as well as all candidates are important practices to keep a co-operative democratic and real.

If you work for a co-op or are a member of a co-op consider how democratic your organization is. Are control and benefits shared broadly, or concentrated? No co-op is perfect, but all should be striving to live out their principles as best as possible and share benefits broadly.

Worker-co-operative succession.

After meeting with CoopFund, where in addition to understanding their model we learned of their support for Worker Buy Outs, we met with Arbizzi Cooperative Society. This is a packaging company whose founding owner sold the company to his employees who mutualized this small business and run it as a worker co-operative.

Visiting Arbizzi Co-operative Society in Emilia-Romagna.

They spoke of their challenges in shifting their mindset from employees working 9-5 to worker-owners who run the company and make key decisions together. It took quite a bit of effort from the owner, the staff and their financial partners to make it all happen, but the results are extraordinary.

In Emilia-Romagna, similar to BC, most people are employed by small businesses. We are expecting a Silver Tsunami, a wave of retiring age small business owners who either started their business, or who took it over from their parents. In many cases the children of these owners don’t want to run the business. They are seeking a transition, selling the company to keep their life’s work intact.

In places like Vermont (go Matt!), we see success of worker co-op succession of small businesses. In these businesses, the people who tend to know the current state, operations, challenges and opportunities best are the staff. They are in a unique position to run it together and share in profits from their labour. Business successIon like this serves many purposes: it fits what many young people want from workplaces today, it creates greater entrepreneurialism, it serves to mutualize part of the economy for future generations, and it spreads wealth and profits more equitably amongst staff.

This has been a big focus for CoopFund, who have done 60 Worker Buy Outs since 2008, and most of those since 2012. Most of these companies have 15-20 employees. If you do the math, admittedly, that’s only 1,200 people who have been impacted since 2008, which doesn’t sound like much. But when we think of that kind of impact, there are a lot of downstream benefits that need to be considered, like the suppliers who don’t lose a contract causing them financial hardship, the purchasing power of all those new worker-co-operatives to purchase for their needs, and the families who don’t suffer from loss of employment.

I think this is a great opportunity, directly relevant to BC, as we face a similar societal pressure. We just need some intrepid business owner looking towards retirement to give it a shot to see how it can work and then promote the model  to others to try and replicate it.