Berlin’s sharing economy is not dead, it just needed a reboot
This article was published under Creative Commons first on Shareable. Releasing it again, author and Platform Cooperative Germany founding member, Andreas Arnold, has extended the article to see the big picture of the shift from the sharing economy to the platform coop movement in Berlin.
When we talked about the 7 Reasons Why Berlin is a Successful Sharing City in 2017 some scholars already called the sharing economy dead. From Berlin’s view, the ‘sharing is caring’ movement from the early days just needed a reboot. While at peak times around the years 2014/15 more than 200 projects and startups were aiming to achieve social or environmental goals and working based on collaborative practices in Berlin, many of them did not prevail and have ceased activities by now.
At the same time, Berlin has experienced the proliferation and growth of large platform companies such as Airbnb and Uber – companies that are based on the idea of externalizing labor and parts of the value chain aiming at making their business more efficient, effective and lean. As a result, those who are responsible for providing services and products are not employees of the respective companies but oftentimes self-employed and private persons. This means that they are not equally protected by social security systems and have to compete with others to offer their workforce on the platforms. Furthermore, there is at least anecdotal evidence that cities and states are bypassed easily when it comes to the payment of taxes generated by these large platform companies.
This development has motivated many former project initiators and social entrepreneurs in Berlin to think of the idea of sharing on a new level. Instead of focusing on sharing of products and services, sharing of ownership in the organization is a key component of the new movement. Implementing democratic governance and collaborative ownership structures is seen as a promising way toward overcoming potential negative effects that tend to accompany the gig economy. One form of legal vehicle to accomplish such efforts is the ‘cooperative’, where every participant of the value creation – from programmers and marketeers to the active prosumers – can become a member of the organization and thus participate in decision-making process and profit from the overall value created by the ecosystem. Voting rights are thereby typically not linked to the amount of invested capital, but follow the basic rule “one member, one vote.“
One of Berlin’s most famous cooperatives is the daily newspaper taz, which prevented bankruptcy in 1992 when employees decided to transform the self-administered project into a cooperative. Together with their readers they became the owners of the newspaper “enabling independent journalism, education for reporters from other countries and support for irrepressible voices around the world”, so Konny Gellenbeck, board member of the taz foundation. Today more than 19.600 coop members contribute to the success story with an annual subscription fee in addition to a cooperative share.
Another example of how a challenge can be the ground for a liberating transformation is the food delivery collective Kolyma2. In 2019 a last battle was fought between the competing food delivery giants leaving the market to a new-born monopolist. An estimated, but well kept secret number of 400-800 Deliveroo drivers in Berlin found themselves without a job from one day to another. Out of the ashes different rider groups popped up and prototyped niche services ranging from lunch delivery, social media channel ordering to crypto-target audience. After a short break for exchanging and consolidating the learnings Kolyma2 will soon restart its operations underneath the umbrella of the freelancer cooperative SMartDe delivering food to a business-target group. Collaborating with best-practises from New York and Paris the co-owned SuperCoop asks their members to co-design a supermarket through democratic governance and work 3h/month. Almost 500 crowdfunders backed the project to found the cooperative in 2020.
Besides food, more and more basic demands are being prototyped or mastered by cooperatives in Berlin. BürgerEnergie Berlin and its plus 3000 coop members are on the way to buy-back the Berlin energy grid in order to democratize the city’s energy future and subsidize renewable sources. The SportCoop wanted to copy a promising business model that grants access to various sport facilities based on a monthly subscription – negotiating a fair deal for all its members among gyms and athletes. Facing the market dynamics and strong competitors the project founders saw no chance for their niche as Adrien Labaeye reflects: “Nobody knows really if they’re making any money or if they’re not just burning cash until they reach a market position that is dominant enough to start making money in some way”. Also, more and more cooperativism starts to arise in the housing sector: The Selbstbaugenossenschaft and its 220 members are owning several houses in Berlin that were built not only with financial support by the coop, but also with a lot of do-it-yourself mentality and capacity by its inhabitants. The Cooperative for urban creativity took this even further and established the urban village “Holzmarkt” (translation: Timber Market), which combines nature, economy and culture by hosting apartments, a coworking space, a kindergarten, a bakery and gastro facilities, several small businesses and above all, one of Berlin’s most famous clubs. The coop, incl. its 150 members, is granted with a long-term right of use for the land by a Swiss pension fund that is renowned for its sustainable investments.
Berlin’s cooperative ecosystem has also given birth to a few tech companies. By creating a fair and sustainable online marketplace Fairmondo pitched the vision of a ‘democratized amazon’ and attracted more than 2200 coop members. The German platform is powered by a self-programmed marketplace software that already attracts interest from marketplace entrepreneurs in other countries. Recently Fairondo launched the coworking studio “CoopSpace”, which is supporting other coops and social entrepreneurs in Berlin. Compared to other platforms, the community-owned music streaming platform resonate distributes an up to 2.5 times higher share from its ‘pay as you play’ model to 700 artists and encourages its more than 1000 legal members to participate in decisions and on profits. A rather exotic case, RChain Europe cooperative founded in Berlin in 2018, was mandated with the task of creating a decentralized governance (dgov) ecosystem and thereby supporting the internal processes of the US blockchain cooperative and mother company with its more than 2000 members. The endeavour didn’t last long due to the burst of the last crypto bubble and financial shortcomings.
Nevertheless RChain Europe’s contributors still engage in the topic and help other companies and projects to decentralize their working structures. Partnering up with a network from the think and do tanks of SUPERMARKT and Ouishare, those ecosystem facilitators recently ran events like a Platform Coop Learning Journey (video documentation) or Building a local food delivery network (event report).
As mentioned before, another important ecosystem supporter is SMartDe, a cooperative that takes the hassle out of freelancing. According to the CEO and board member Magdalena Ziomek “for many freelancers joining the cooperative is the entry to affordable health insurance, retirement contributions, help with paperwork and guaranteed on-time payments for all it’s now over 90,000 members in the network of smart cooperatives in nine European countries”. Berlin is the headquarters for the German cooperative, from where the service explores new opportunities to get engaged in the local scene.
Looking forward to a new wave of true sharing initiatives, 2020 seems to be very exciting for the Berlin ecosystem. With the newly incorporated “Platform Cooperatives Germany” the movement will grow its working capacity and expand to new horizons. Therefore, in collaboration with the Platform Cooperativism Consortium the local facilitators will bring this year’s Platform Co-op Conference (November 13-15, 2020) and the international momentum to the Europe gathering in Berlin. Ela Kagel, founder of SUPERMARKT and one of the organizers, explains that “the conference will focus exclusively on how platform co-ops, rooted in the principles of broad-based ownership and democratic governance, could thrive in the EU”. By gaining recognition from administrations, established cooperatives, the public and other like-minded partners the Berlin coop ecosystems envisions to attract more funding for the local rise of the coop movement.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Andreas Arnold is a Berlin-based entrepreneur who works in the fields of social impact, sharing, collaborative & circular economy (CEO of Leihbar, Ouishare connector), as well as platform coops (Business Development at RChain Europe, founding member of Platform Cooperatives Germany), blockchain, decentralized governance and decentralized, autonomous organizations (Contributor to DAOstack “Genesis Alpha”) since graduating with a Diploma in “Industrial Engineering and Management“ in 2012. As a business consultant Andreas offers professional services (e.g. concept development, project management) and introduces different stakeholders to each other and potential matches. Additionally he supports startups with their business development; especially in regards to building marketplaces due to the expertise he gained translating the book “The Lean Marketplace“ for the German audience.