Articles

Young Co-operators Network

by Constance Lasine

Every network has its origin story. For young people in the United Kingdom, although our disposable income is almost 4.5% greater in real terms than in 1979 when our parents were our age, our household disposable income is shrinking at a rate of 2% below the national average growth rate across the same timeframe, compared with a growth rate of 62% above the national average for our parents generation. The number of university graduates has more than doubled, yet the job market has not shifted to reflect this. One in six of is presently employed in a job they are overqualified for, almost half of them are in non-graduate jobs, and the competition for scarce graduate positions is as fierce as ever.

The Young Co-operator’s Network (YCN) was founded in this climate out of a sense optimism and frustration. In 2015, AltGen, a worker’s co-operative that helps other young people set up co-operatives, created the Young Co-operator’s Prize in collaboration with Co-ops UK, to provide a start-up grant and twelve months mentoring support to five co-operatives working towards a new economy. The winners of this prize have come to form the founding members of the YCN. 

Our objective is simple: We want to support each other, learn from each other, and inspire both ourselves and other young people. Co-operatives are in the minority and, especially when we are spread out geographically, it can feel isolating. We need to be able reach out to each other, offer our skills, advice, and knowledge to ensure we achieve the best results in our businesses.

Since the 1980s the influence and impact of centralised control provided by large-scale organisations on wider society has been in decline, particularly in the third sector. With the rise of the internet and digital communications networks, the capacity for groups of individuals to converge on a problem and solve it far outpaces that of bureaucratic hierarchical organisations.

While this is certainly true of the charitable and traditional business sectors, it would be unfair to say that of the co-operative sector. The importance of Co-operatives UK as an advocate for the sector cannot be overstated. Yet as a younger generation of co-operators with specific goals, we do not want to wait for governments and organisations to catch up to addressing our needs and aims.

The work we want to achieve we want to do ourselves, in the spirit of the co-operative self-help ethic, and the dynamic nature of this work and the scale of the problem we wish to overcome is better tackled by a network that allows us to adapt, collaborate, and support each other, especially when we are a group of geographically dispersed people.

When different groups of people get together to do something you have, in very simple terms, a social network. It could be a group of parents and teachers looking to generate links between students and adults in workplaces to create a mentorship programme; a consortium of businesses coming together to exchange ideas, practices, and strategies around a unifying purpose, such as to share best practice on sustainability and how to fortify their local economies; or a group of like-minded individuals seeking social change through creation.

In their book Connecting to Change the World, Plastrik, Taylor, and Cleveland call these types of networks generative social-impact networks; that is, networks aiming to produce on-going, adaptive action over time to solve a complex social problem, and they fall into three categories: connectivity, alignment, and production networks. 

A Connectivity Network links people together, allowing them to learn from and exchange information with each other. Such networks are useful when trying to connect isolated groups or individuals, like bridging the gap between generations of an immigrant diaspora to protect their heritage, for example.

Networks can be bold in their aims; their flexibility affords them the opportunity to do so, and allows them to pool their resources to achieve them, especially in the 21st Century digital information economy. As Robin Murray and others have noted, the internet has co-operation at its heart.

An alignment network expands on these connections. It unifies its members around a common goal, such as changing the nature of work for young people, and enables them to share not just ideas but also strategies to fulfil these goals. This is the stage the YCN is currently at. We have come together to support our businesses and each other, and digital communications enables this. “The fact is, if we were traditional businesses starting out, there are tons of support groups and places we could go for advice. That simply doesn’t exist for the co-operative sector,” says Simon Ball of Blakehouse Filmmakers’ Co-operative.

Compared with traditional businesses or individuals, it is much easier for co-operators and commoners to build alignment networks as they already implicitly agree to sets of established values and rules, and are already familiar with the concepts of reciprocity and mutual exchange—that is, how sharing, helping, and co-operating lead to collective prosperity. This has been of great benefit to the YCN. In our first gathering in November 2015, we were able to quickly draft a mission statement and values document based on the seven co-operative principles.

Production networks take the implicit alignments of their members and channel them into creating outputs for social impact. Whether that is drafting public policy proposals, coming up with new strategies to old issues, or creating content and products to both promote and bolster the network, such as books, films, or open-source resources. Most networks aim to become a production network. To have a creative output and presence enables members to steer the public conversation in their favour. Of course, commitments like this require members to agree to additional responsibilities, and establish processes by which schedules and inputs can be enforced.

In order for networks to collaboratively produce anything in a coherent manner, they require someone to build and coordinate the necessary procedures. While there are many different ways of arriving at the decision to create a network, for democratic networks the issue of exactly who the network builders are is important. Are such roles performed collectively, or by individuals? Should they be members of existing co-operatives, or do they exist in their own right, performing the networks necessary functions and providing representation for co-operative members who do not have the time to commit to a network building project? At least during the early stages of a network, collective network building can be both pragmatic and a useful way to bond members, but only up to a point before it becomes unwieldy.

When forming a network of any type, there are many considerations to be made. What is its purpose? Who can join the network? Why are the benefits of joining? And what is expected of them if they do? What rules will guide the network’s actions? How will these actions be decided upon? 

Many of these questions are yet to be solved for us, and there is no one correct answer. While as co-operators we are committed to free and open membership, does this extend to the network? One concern here is whether all members ought to have voting rights. Where are the outer limits of democratic decision making? In answering these questions, we have looked to how other networks have approached the issue, such as Radical Routes in the UK and Enspiral Network in New Zealand. Whilst the former has a long and strict application process for full membership, both offer a tiered membership structure to allow for varying degrees of member engagement. Only full membership offers voting and veto rights, as well as access to broader network benefits, but a tiered structure allows for newer members to understand the value the network can offer, decide whether it is for them, and come to offer value in return, without diluting member control.

At least for the YCN, progress is optimistic yet far from complete. Indeed, the aim is for network building to never be completed. A social-impact network can only retain its impact value if it remains dynamic and does things both for and with its members. Otherwise, once network building has been ceded to a group of individuals, even within a democratic network, it risks becoming static and less competent at fulfilling its aims. The next step for us is the Worker’s Co-op Weekend in May, where we hope that, for now at least, many of these issues can be resolved.

Henry Naylor-Stead is a network co-ordinator for the Young Co-operators Network. He is particularly interested in co-operative history and the role co-operatives and workplace democracy can play in the 21st Century.

The scale of the problem we wish to overcome is better tackled by a network that allows us to adapt, collaborate, and support each other.

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Published in STIR magazine no.13, Winter 2016'

by Henry Naylor Stead

by Constance Laisne