Imagine transparent, democratic and decentralised organising for everyone. A society in which anyone can become a co-owner of the organisations on which they, their family and their community depend. A world where everyone can participate in all the decisions that affect them. This is the world United Diversity and the emerging network of people working on the legal structures and open source tools that enable Open Co-ops are working towards.
Here I share some of the projects and ideas that have inspired us on our journey, and some of the legal structures and tools that are now available to put our vision into practice.
The Open Organisations Project
Out of a desire by the Indymedia UK London Working Group to go beyond both the formal top-down power structures found in governments and corporations and the informal ‘Tyranny of Structurelessness’ found in many voluntary and activist groups, The Open Organisations Project emerged. Their goal was “to explain how to set up and maintain transparent, accountable and truly participative communities” and they came up with a useful set of six process and eight functional rules together with some basic guidelines for how to implement them. At the time (2002), it was the clearest guide to organising openly we’d found and we still point people to it today.
A New Way to Govern and Gaian Democracies
Two books, A New Way to Govern: Organisations and Society after Enron by Shann Turnbull (2002), and Gaian Democracies: Redefining Globalisation and People-Power by John Jopling and Roy Madron (2003) were both very influential on our thinking. They introduced us to the principles behind Spain’s huge co-operative network Mondragon, and other large scale business with innovative organisational structures such VISA International and Semco in Brazil.
In A New Way to Govern Turnbull summarised the terminal flaws of command and control hierarchies: the tendency of centralised power to corrupt; the difficulty of managing complexity; and the suppression of “natural” — human —checks and balances. In their place he proposed organisations which are able to “break complexity down into manageable units, and decompose organisational decision-making into a network of independent control centres.” In short, his thesis argued that command and control hierarchies must be replaced by “network governance” and that where this includes stakeholders — not merely staff but customers, communities, suppliers or distributors — a whole new dimension of economic, social and political benefit opens up.
Viable System Model (VSM)
The chapter about network governance in Gaian Democracies explained Arthur Koestler’s term ‘holon’ (from the Greek ‘holos’ meaning ‘whole’, and the suffix ‘on’, meaning ‘particle’ or ‘part’), which he devised to describe entities that are simultaneously self-contained wholes made up of parts, and themselves a part of a larger whole. Stafford Beer used the term ‘viable system’ to describe the same thing and outlined some of their properties in the VSM. In short, the model says that in order to be viable (i.e., able to autonomously adapt and survive in response to a changing environment) a system must have the following five sub-systems:
System 1: Interacting operational units. Think organs in a body, or players in a team.
System 2: Responsible for stability and conflict resolution between operational units.
System 3: An ‘Internal Eye’ optimising and generating synergies between operational units.
System 4: An ‘External Eye’ allows strategies and plans to adapt to a changing environment.
System 5: Where ultimate authority lies and is responsible developing policy.
Bettermeans and The Open Enterprise Manifesto
In April 2010 a project called Bettermeans “formed to promote the values of openness,
transparency, autonomy, contribution-based-rewards (meritocracy), democracy, integrity,
and values-oriented, purpose-driven work” released The Open Enterprise Manifesto. It was a familiar story: replace “the command and control hierarchy” with “collaboration and open participation;” create organisations “more like living dynamic networks, and less like pyramids;” plus the standard mentions of Linux, Wikipedia, Mondragón and Visa to demonstrate how aspects of the model had already been shown to work at scale. Bettermeans were trying to bring these various aspects together in a single cohesive model, and they made a pretty good stab at building the necessary tools to make such a model widely available and adoptable.
Sensorica are an ‘Open Value Network’ focussed on two primary activities: creating open hardware products; and developing the Open Value Network (OVN) model. OVNs are variously described as “people creating value together, by contributing work, money and goods, and sharing the income” a “framework for many-to-many innovation” and a “model for commons-based peer production.” The basic concept is very similar to the Bettermeans “contribution-based-rewards” idea, but in OVNs contributions other than completed tasks are also accounted for. They are currently working with Bob Haugen and Lynn Foster at Mikorizal Software to develop a prototype open source value accounting platform called ValNet.
The Enspiral Network
Enspiral is made up of three parts: The Enspiral Foundation, Enspiral Services and Startup Ventures. I’d say they’re the best current example of an Open Co-op, but how they actually describe themselves is as “a virtual and physical network of companies and professionals working together to create a thriving society” and as an “experiment to create a collaborative network that helps people do meaningful work.” A core part of their strategy is to open source their model. In short, not only are they doing almost exactly what United Diversity wants to do — they’re also building the open source tools actually needed to do it!
The Enspiral Foundation is the charitable company at the heart of the Enspiral network. It’s the legal custodian of assets held collectively by the network, and the entity with which companies and individuals have a formal relationship. Decisions are made using Loomio and budgets are set using Cobudget (see below).
A network of professionals work together in teams to offer Enspiral Services, a range of business services under one roof. By default members pool 20% of their invoices into a collective bucket, 25% of which goes to the Foundation. Loomio and Cobudget are then used to decide how to spend the rest.
For Startup Ventures, Enspiral works with social entrepreneurs to launch start-ups who then support the work of the Foundation, and Enspiral as a whole, through flexible revenue share agreements: ventures choose their own contribution rate, usually around 5% of revenue.