Game changer #2: From sharing economy to community economy
What if we no longer take the growth of the economy as the ultimate goal, but for example solidarity, circularity or the assurance that we can still breathe in 2090? In other words, what if we change the rules of the game?
In the blog series game changers we talk to artists, musicians and change makers who do things differently. We ask them: 'What new rules are needed for an open, fair and inclusive future?' Today we spoke to Socrates Schouten, researcher at Waag Futurelab in the field of the new economy.
How would you introduce yourself? ‘I am Socrates Schouten, I lead the Commons Lab at Waag. We investigate the new economy in relation to digital technologies. We look at alternatives to current (economic) systems, like the concept of the commons: shared resources that are managed by a community. Sustainability and inclusiveness are paramount.’
'The current digital domain is dominated by platforms with extractive business models.'
What do you think are the rules of the current system? ‘The current digital domain is dominated by platforms with extractive business models. That means they make a profit by extracting value. They steal data from users ata, and natural resources from the planet. This is not new in itself, but digitization has greatly increased the possibilities for this type of model. Every online user is reduced to a data point to maximize ad revenue. In addition, market dominance within this system is often the first objective. Like Uber throwing billions over just to be the biggest player in the market. And Deliveroo that leaves because they can't make a profit in the Netherlands, and they don't think our country is worth the effort.’
What's not working about these rules? And why? ‘The influence of large platforms on the city is driving out small shops. That means something for social connections. Speed delivery and dark stores have nothing to do with the local economy. For both employees and customers, the connection with the local identity disappears, which puts local social structures under pressure. And that while we face enormous challenges when it comes to the climate and the energy transition. For that we need the power of the collective, cooperation and solidarity. That's exactly what the extractive platform companies are eroding with their digital solutions.
'The conversation between the farmer and the consumer has gradually disappeared completely. Going back to that small scale would help restore the social structures as well.’
Another example is the nitrogen crisis. It seems as if the consumer is arguing with the farmers. But there too you see the underlying problem of hollowed-out social structures. The conversation between the farmer and the consumer has gradually disappeared completely. Going back to that small scale would help restore the social structures as well.’
How does your work support an alternative to the current system? ‘In Amsterdam we work together with existing cooperatives in, for example, retail, food and mobility. We are investigating how we can organize this activity locally. Which revenue models are feasible and are appropriate for a community economy? Together we shape platform coops: democratically managed platforms that serve employees and users, i.e. those who add the most value to them. An example of this is a data commons. This is a platform that does not have the purpose of collecting data, but makes data (anonymised) available to local companies and organizations to offer services on an equal footing.
We are also investigating what this way of working together can mean for our energy needs. We are currently writing some design principles and ground rules for smart energy systems in the home. How do we ensure that local needs and democratic values will soon be leading in the distribution of our energy for heating, light, charging electric cars and operating the heat pump? We must now prevent this from being done by closed, extractive platforms from Google and Tesla. These companies are rapidly rolling out their energy services, also behind the front door, with all the undemocratic and privacy consequences that this entails.'
'We need to empower people to act locally.'
Suppose you are allowed to redefine the rules of the economy? What would you change then? ‘I would focus on the local economy, at the neighborhood level. We should design all new buildings and homes as positive energy districts so that they generate more energy than they use. This requires a change in thinking: first look at what can be done locally, before scaling something up. For example, you can tax energy that you have to import into your neighborhood, or introduce local currencies to strengthen the local economy. We need to empower people to act locally. This requires training, tools and help. In doing so, I would break up the existing major platforms and institute active enforcement of data minimization. Only then does the local economy have a fair chance to use its local strength and knowledge for an open, fair and inclusive future.