From Platform Coops to Exit to Community— with Nathan Schneider



From Platform Coops to Exit to Community— with Nathan Schneider

Nathan Schneider joins us in a conversation where we explore the platform cooperative movement and the different forms of community opportunities it provides, including exit-to-community and community ownership. We discuss ‘benevolent dictatorship’, levels of participation, multi-stakeholder structures, and what we really mean by community.

Podcast Notes

We’re excited to be joined by Nathan Schneider, a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, who we know from the early days of the platform coop movement, when he participated in the first-ever Ouishare Fest in 2013. We explore how entrepreneurship within cooperative movements help to drive community ownership in the online economy.

The very fact that Ouishare Fest brought Nathan together with Trebor Schultz for the first time is telling of what a powerful space that Ouishare Fest provides.

Currently, Nathan Schnieder directs the Media Enterprise Design Lab, and he has written books on cooperative enterprise, the Occupy movement, God, and the Internet. He is truly fascinated by the chronicling of ideas, of perfect worlds, of ordinary imaginations in practice. With his experimental attitude, Nathan believes that every word is a hypothesis and a test.

Tune in to this episode as we explore the cooperative movement and the different forms of community opportunities it provides. We also discuss ‘benevolent dictatorship’, levels of community participation, multi-stakeholder structures, and what we mean by community.

To find out more about Nathan’s work:

Other references and mentions:

Find out more about the show and the research at Boundaryless at

Thanks for the ad-hoc music to Liosound / Walter Mobilio. Find his portfolio here:

Recorded on 1 June 2021.

Key Insights

1. To start a successful cooperative movement or organization — whether on- or offline — it is not enough to be attracted to the idea of cooperativism. You need to pay attention to the core business vision, product-market fit, or even a community of interest. Looking at the history of successful cooperatives, there has often been that key entrepreneur, sometimes acting as a “benevolent dictator”, who makes things happen (think Alphonse Desjardins for the credit union movement). Still, according to Nathan, the “real problem” is not the leadership, but “to make sure that organizations are able to mature from having that strong leadership at the outset toward having appropriate accountability as the organization matures”.

  •  Listen to the discussion around entrepreneurship and cooperativism from around min 7:49.

2. Nathan believes that while we need different pathways for community ownership, we don’t need infinite stories. What’s often lacking at the moment are practical tools able to create the kinds of outcomes that communities need. In his recent Georgetown Law Tech Review paper — co-authored with Morshed Mannan — they outline three possible tools to allow ventures to “exit to community”: i. the trust model, where ownership is centralized in a trust that is governed by a trustee; ii. the federation model, businesses composed of multiple independent business entities, and; iii. and the tokenization model, using blockchain technologies, whose rules are yet to be fully explored. What the three models have in common, is that ownership is malleable, and more like a bundle of ownership.

  •  Listen to the different options that Nathan finds important for the question of community ownership and governance around min 15:55.

3. Going deeper into the rabbit hole of governance, we explore some of Nathan’s most recent work on what he has called “Modular Politics” in a recent paper, and which in the conversation he likens to a renaissance of democratic accountability “catching up to my mother’s garden club” and experimenting with governance “legos”. As he sums up: “I think of the metaphor of […] WordPress plugins, where every time you build a new site, you have to cobble together a bunch of tools that people have built. And you bring in your e-commerce thing, and you bring in your newsletter plugin, and you bring in your social media plugin, and suddenly you’ve got a real working website. You know, I imagine something like that, where people are able to cobble together the right mechanisms for the kind of job that they’re trying to accomplish, the kind of community that they’re trying to build”.

  • Listen to the last part of the conversation on governance around min 44:29.

The Boundaryless Conversations Podcast is about exploring the future of organizing at scale by leveraging on technology, network effects, and shaping narratives. We explore how platforms can help us play with a world in turmoil, change, and transformation: a world that is at the same time more interconnected and interdependent than ever but also more conflictual and rivalrous.

This podcast is also available on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle PodcastsSoundcloudStitcherCastBoxRadioPublic, and other major podcasting platforms.


This episode is hosted by Boundaryless Conversation Podcast host Simone Cicero with co-host Stina Heikkila.

The following is a semi-automatically generated transcript that has not been thoroughly revised by the podcast host or by the guest. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Simone Cicero:
Hello, everyone. So, we are back at the Boundaryless Conversations Podcast. Today, I’m here with my usual co-host, Stina Heikkila.

Stina Heikkila:
Hello, everyone.

Simone Cicero:
With us, we have Nathan Schneider.

Nathan Schneider:
Hello. Good to be here.

Simone Cicero:
Thank you. And we’re really looking forward to catch up with Nathan whose work we follow since several years now. We have been meeting in 2013. We were just catching up with our last real-life meetup. It was at a Ouishare Fest. Yeah, I mean, 2013 sounds like many years ago. It was the same year, I came up for the first time with Platform Design Toolkit. And Nathan was already wrangling with this idea of cooperative ownership of platforms, and how do you rethink the ways that internet-based organization, so what we call platforms could be rethought from the ownership perspective. So, Nathan, I would be really curious to know if you can just give our listeners kind of highlight of the story, how it started and how the platform coop movement unfolded for you, and where you are basically now?

Nathan Schneider:
Sure. Well, I really have a lot of gratitude for the Ouishare events, because they were really eye-opening, these events in Paris. If anybody’s not familiar with Ouishare, O-u-i-share, it’s an organization that that came up around this idea of the collaborative economy and the sharing economy right at the moment where people were starting to have this kind of deep ambivalence about the platform economy, right? So, you had the convenience starting to arise of companies like the Ubers, and Airbnbs and BlaBlaCar and all these and these companies were kind of present, in that Ouishare nexus. But there were also people in that conversation who were skeptical and who were calling in to question some of the patterns and practices of this phenomenon. It was actually at a Ouishare event that I met Trebor Schultz, even though we lived both in New York City at the time, we first met in Paris at Ouishare, I was actually grateful for something he said on a panel about how the sharing economy was taking away things that workers had fought for, for generations.

And that combination of excitement about what platforms could provide, and also a kind of deep skepticism, and concern about where they were heading was motivating for both of us to build what he coined as platform cooperativism. His vision for bringing the old cooperative business model of co-ownership and co-governance by participants in an organization and a venture to the online economy where it really hadn’t taken root much at all yet. And for years, we were organizing conferences on platform cooperativism, helping to support businesses getting going. I co-founded an accelerator called Start.Coop that focuses on new generation cooperative businesses, and lots more stuff. But we’ve been trying to build an ecosystem so that it’s easier for startups to use this model. And in the process, we’ve also had to recognize all the deep barriers, deep challenges there are for people trying to build cooperative businesses in the online economy.

Simone Cicero:
I mean, that was great. I didn’t know that you met at the Ouishare Fest. So, it was a discovery for me and you know, it has made me realize how much this space that we created in early 2010 was really rich context of conversation. And I think I really miss that space and to some extent. For those that were there, I think you can imagine. But coming back to the conversation from the very start of this Platform Coop movement, you know, I think I was extremely interested. But if I recall, the first years of even my work as a designer, as a strategist, and as a thought leader in this space, I was often pointing out not just towards, I think of the Platform Coop movement, but also I must say towards the commons and peer-to-peer movement. So, I recall, for example, some conversations with Michel bauwens once around this.

The fact that to really achieve the full potential of this vision of building platforms so that could generate larger-scale impacts and really transform the entire industries, it was not just a matter of governance. It was not just a matter of ownership, but it was the question that I think the Platform Coop movement didn’t really capture at the very start, and now increasingly does. And I would love if you can spend some word on that. What’s exactly this idea of entrepreneurship and this need of what recently Ethereum founder, Vitalik Buterin called the “benevolent dictatorship” that you need at the start and, of course, of a startup, or at the start of creating a new product or a new vision, entrepreneurial vision. So, how did the movement catch up with that and what kind of major transformations in the idea of a Platform Coop happened in the last few years that now help you to integrate, let’s say, this idea of the early-stage entrepreneur that is needed to get things off the ground?

Nathan Schneider:
I’ve always appreciated that critique that you’ve made about the importance of entrepreneurship, and it’s something that it’s a — an approach that I share. Over the years, I’ve worked with a bunch of people who are interested in like cooperatives or some vision that they have of cooperatives and want to start a cooperative just because they like the idea of cooperatives. But they’re not really motivated by a core need or business, vision, or even a community of interest. It’s kind of more theoretical, and that’s where I think that critique is really strong. But if you look at the history of cooperative movements, they have had precisely these kinds of entrepreneurs, really amazing people, often whose stories have not been told nearly enough think of for instance, like Alphonse Desjardins, who virtually single-handedly brought the credit union movement to North America, first in Canada and then literally brought it to the United States, where he was supported by Edward Filene, a department store magnate to spread the vision around the country.

And wherever you overturn a powerful cooperative movement, you find powerful entrepreneurs. And I think it’s really important to tell those stories and recognize that yes, even though cooperatives are about shared ownership and community ownership, it’s still okay and still really, I think, quite necessary to have amazing leaders. And to also have those leaders able to hold and implement their visions with accountability from the community. Another thing that people often mistake about cooperatives is that it’s just like the mass of people, this amorphous mass of people who are making every decision, and that’s virtually never the case, except in cases of quite small cooperatives where you might be able to make decisions by consensus. Generally, you have some kind of leadership and accountability structure. And the major difference with another kind of company is, is really just how the ultimate decision-makers are chosen, and how some of the biggest decisions might be made. But in other ways, it’s absolutely important to empower motivated people with strong visions to be leaders within their cooperatives.

And in my book, Everything for Everyone, I was really interested in trying to hold up some of those stories of leaders who are not solitary salvific figures of the Steve Jobs mold, but who are still very much leaders and who saw value in being leaders for the communities who would ultimately own their businesses. When Vitalik Buterin talks about benevolent dictators, that’s a term that comes from open-source communities. You know, the most famous one is Linus Torvalds, the founder of Linux. And I think one of the problems and this is something I know Vitalik has himself suffered from is that we have benevolent dictators and a lot of online communities, but we don’t have an off-ramp for them. You know, Vitalik is struggling to get his community to take ownership of the thing that he helped build. And yet, he’s kind of shocked that even in this decentralized protocol of Ethereum, there is so much reliance on his kind of centralized authority. And so I think the real problem is not the leadership, the problem is to make sure that organizations are able to mature from having that strong leadership at the outset toward having appropriate accountability as the organization matures. And there, I think the cooperative tradition has a lot to offer the online economy right now.

Simone Cicero:
What is the market thesis? So, basically, you said something very interesting when you were starting this section when you basically said sometimes these people thinking about Platform Coop, they didn’t even have a community or reference community in mind, or a product idea, that feels a bit like a dual option. And also, you may have a context where you start addressing let’s say a need, a more general need. So, you talking about, for example, these internet platforms that solve a problem, let’s say that is fairly applicable, at a global scale, or in general, without many constraints. We can think about, for example, the Stocksy or something like that or that basically this problem of selling pictures to publishers is general. You know, there is no real need of a community at the onset of this process of developing these products, more like a product is going to solve the problem, is going to give new economic opportunities to people. That’s where platforms come in this direct-to-customer space, this is where these ideas come from.

And on the other hand, you have another context, which may be more like we already have a community, and this community needs to take over some kind of venture building. It needs to build some entrepreneurial effort to strengthen the capabilities to reach markets or even to create more resilience. And also, I’m thinking about a kind of different thesis to start on an organization that is more like community-driven is more like, it needs a community, even before you actually have the entrepreneur. So, I’m thinking about your work on the exit to community that seems to be a part of it that fits very well with this idea of how do we transition, let’s say ownership and governance of a certain value creation system that solopreneur creates at some point by addressing a problem and giving an opportunity to create value to the producers or consumers.

And on the other hand, my question would be: do you see instead also another context, which is more like requiring a different constituent for a new entrepreneurial and organizational development that is much more about community from the very first moment? So, I’m curious to know if you see these two things in the Platform Coop community, if there are these multiple, let’s say, market rich thesis, and different context of product and organizational creation, and that could express different needs and paths evolving from about — around the role of an entrepreneur?

Nathan Schneider:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we need multiple options. That’s really key. In some cases, it is going to make sense to start with a community and build from it. Some projects have just a very clear value proposition, people immediately get excited about it, and it’s the community that can power it. So, there you think of things that do well on Kickstarter, right, that do well, on crowdfunding campaigns, they have an idea that immediately draws people to them. And they’re the ideas, let’s use community ownership as a way of incentivizing early adoption. So, there you see people who are talking about like the ownership economy, people like Jesse Walden of Variant Fund who are interested in building startups on the basis of incentivizing early adoption. And that’s one trajectory that makes sense for some projects. But other projects, they have to figure out their product-market fit, maybe, maybe they have to do a bunch of work in order to convince people to get on board for what they’re doing. And maybe they need some early — they have an investor or two who sees promising this, but they need some runway in order to persuade a larger number of people that this is something worthwhile for them.

And in that kind of case, something like exit to community is a more appropriate framework. You know, I don’t think we want infinite stories. I think it’s really useful to have a lot of isomorphisms, a lot of similarity among different projects because it enables you to replicate and ease the pathway for all of them. But I do think we need a few more options. And we, in particular, need a few more strategies for how to build community ownership into the startup trajectory, and into the stories we tell, and also into the financing pathways. And unfortunately, the venture capital model that we’ve built, the startup — the tech startup world on, doesn’t work very well for this stuff, particularly in the context of current financial regulations, which, when it comes down to it, they support investors doing things that they don’t support groups of people doing.

So, investors can come in, and they can even borrow money to then invest in a project and not even putting up their own money, and enable something to happen that has high capital costs, and that sort of thing. Like, for instance, putting a broadband network in an urban community that’s really underserved. An investor can do that, but the people who live there really can’t raise the money on their own to do that. And that there, to me, for both the cooperative model and other kinds of approaches supported by exit to community are really hindered by the fact that they — that groups of people can’t access capital in the way that solitary wealthy investors or organizational investors can. That’s something that I think is a pain point we run into all the time. It’s something also we have to recognize we’ve addressed in the past.

Whenever I get frustrated about the fate of the cooperative, the platform cooperatives or whatever, I always remind myself, there’s $130 billion Cooperative Bank down the road from me. It was set up for farmers over the course of the last century using both a mix of entrepreneurship and public policy. And in very specific parts of the economy, we have had a policy established that enables groups of people to access capital in order to build community-owned businesses. But those have been very narrow and targeted. I think what we need to recognize is the need for a much more general flexible framework through which people can do these things as a matter of course, in order to get there, we need experiments to show the value of what community ownership can look like.

You mentioned the case of Stocksy United. That platform has been very successful, as a platform for artists-owned stock, photo, and video. And they were able to get started because the founders happened to be part of an earlier exit and had a million dollars, they could lend to the company to get going. Most entrepreneurs don’t have that. But Stocksy is a demonstration of what can happen when capital is available. And it’s that kind of widespread availability that a bunch of us are trying to figure out so that people who are trying to build community-owned businesses are not at such an incredible disadvantage, compared to those who are trying to build for investors.

Stina Heikkila:
I actually, I wanted to ask you, Nathan, if you could double-click a bit on when you talk about community ventures or community-owned businesses, if you could double-click a bit on this community aspect and who is in this community? And in particular, I would be interested to hear this in relation to platforms, because I know that you’ve written about this, how you identify the stakeholders and the users. And how to decide sort of who is in and who is out, and how do you measure contributions, and value and those kinds of aspects that I’m sure that many would be interested in when thinking about, especially in the online economy? What communities and users are we talking about here, and what role do they play?

Nathan Schneider:
Thank you. Yeah, it’s an intentionally vague term so I’m glad you called me on it? Yeah, community is basically a meaningless word that stands in for a lot of things that hopefully are much more meaningful. And the reason I use it is just that it varies so much from project to project and we want to make space for that. So, in the context of a — something like a social media platform that maybe the community is all the users. But what they want out of their ownership might be very different from, say, a ride-sharing platform where the community might be the drivers. The drivers are in it mainly for income. And so their goal would be to own the company in a way so that it gets them a fair wage for the work they’re doing. Whereas users of a social media platform might be more interested not so much in getting paid for, like interacting with their friends, but in protecting their privacy and having oversight and having a say in what kinds of messages are and aren’t allowed on the platform. So, it can really vary.

We see some interest these days in multi-stakeholder structures where you incorporate many different kinds of stakeholders. So, that might be employees of the company and users of it, maybe different sides of the platform, like the service providers and the consumers. I tend to be a little skeptical of that kind of complexity. I think there are a lot of good reasons to really focus on one stakeholder group that’s really core to a business if at all possible, because it just enables you to focus and to have a bit more clarity in terms of governance. But I can also see arguments for that more complex strategy. What it comes down to really, though, is that it depends. It also depends who has capital if part of their role is to bring capital into the business. For instance, in many cases, in the cooperative model, we have businesses as the owners. So, one new example of this is a coop that’s starting to spread around the United States now called LoCo, which is a food delivery platform, but it’s owned by restaurants.

And one reason that it’s owned by restaurants, rather than say drivers, is the restaurants have cash flow that drivers don’t have. So, they’re able to really invest in the business together and get these things going in new cities. And they have clearly an incentive to build alternative businesses that they own and control. So, yeah, that community can vary so much. And it’s what we face in trying to build community-owned businesses is that challenge of just identifying what is the core stakeholder group in your business. And when I talk to founders, as I do virtually every day, that’s always the first question. And often they’ll start out with talking about all their different stakeholders. But usually, it will kind of distill down to one clear group that they really — One way of thinking about it is, who do you want to be worrying about when you’re lying awake at night trying to make a big decision? Because that’s ultimately what stakeholders are for. Do you want to be worried about your investors? Do you want to be worried about your employees? Do you want to be worried about your customers? You know, that question sometimes distills most clearly what a community means for a given platform.

Simone Cicero:
Thank you so much for this. I think this brings me to a question that connects with your recent paper that you published in Georgetown Law Tech Review. I was fascinated to read the article and see how you went very deep into explaining three actual processes, I would say, of exiting to community. And so I would like for you to maybe explain a bit to our listeners these three approaches and how they connect with the nature of business and the nature of community that you’re talking about. So, these three approaches, let me recall, I’m talking about creating a stockholding trust and then shifting these stocks to the community, then the federation pattern that is more applicable in terms of technological choices and tokenization. That is, how do you leverage basically on the new possibilities that Blockchain gives us as economic space designers and entrepreneurs.

So, it would be great if we can double-click on those three patterns quickly and connect those patterns to a particular nature of the community and the business and when a particular pattern could be more applicable as a way also to generate interest in our listeners that are entrepreneurs, them thinking about where should I look into as an entrepreneur to think about that. Also because my feeling is, and this is also something that maybe you can quickly touch upon. My feeling is that choosing to exit to community now makes it long, you know, it’s kind of a choice to go long term. It’s like I want this to be something that stands time. To do that, you need to be more embedded in the community. You need to be more defensible, let’s say, in a positive way, in a way that makes you root for the long term, you know, for the long haul with your community.

Nathan Schneider:
Yeah. Well, thank you for that. The paper, this law review paper, I want to make sure to acknowledge was co-authored with Morshed Mannan who’s a really brilliant legal scholar working at the intersection of cooperatives and Blockchains, and has been an amazing partner in this work. And the proposals that we articulate really come from a question of, okay, if we — Let’s consider for a moment that like, the cooperative model, or community ownership is not just a single ownership structure. I think sometimes often are people interested in this stuff, get fixated on an ownership structure as if like, the goal is the means. And I think that’s really a mistake, particularly when we’re undertaking new challenges. Often, we’re dealing with legal structures designed for very different kinds of challenges. And so we need to be opportunistic, and the capitalists are opportunistic. They’ll use a zillion shell companies to do whatever they need to do.

And similarly, I think it’s important for community ownership, the movement for community ownership, and the cooperative movement more generally, to explore whatever tools we can possibly get in order to create the kinds of outcomes that our communities need. And so we look at a few different ones here. The trust model, the idea of holding a company in a trust comes from the history in the US as well as in your — particularly the UK, of — In the US, it’s called the Employee Stock Ownership Plan or ESOP, which is a structure that actually does enable financed worker ownership conversions. And in the UK, it goes by different names. But basically, the idea is to simplify the process by centralizing the ownership in a trust that is governed by a trustee, and making the conversion process a little more streamlined. It does come at the costs of some reduced participant governance and so forth. But it has some real advantages as well. So, we explore what that could look like in the context of the online economy where those older models haven’t really been applied. We also look at this, again, a historic example of federation, businesses that are composed of different businesses, different smaller businesses. So, what would it look like to have a platform where like, imagine Reddit, rather than being one big company, what if each subReddit was its own company, and they co-owned Reddit together? And so more of the control and ownership was, maybe it’s not held by every user, but it’s much more distributed across the system, across the network. And there are many ways in which that kind of model actually reflects the structure of our — the technical structure of our networks themselves.

And then the final one that we look at is tokenization, you know, using Blockchain like technologies, this stuff is a little tricky from a regulatory perspective. A lot of the rules haven’t really been figured out yet. But it does seem like there’s some real potential for using tokens to explore, to create shared ownership, and to really extend that into the companies themselves. And so we explore some of the ways in which that could be. All of these really treat ownership as something that is malleable. I did a paper the subtitle of which is called Capitalist Media. You know, it’s the same idea that lawyers talk about ownership as a bundle of rights, a bunch of things that look very different in different circumstances. I think of ownership as a canvas that we need to play with and explore that can take many, many different forms.

And the challenge before us now in building trustworthy and powerful and satisfying platforms is to recognize the need to not just take for granted some of the models of ownership that have been absorbed into this ecosystem, into the startup world. But to play, and to see ownership itself as something that we need to make a kind of community art with. And that the paper is kind of an invitation for lawyers into that kind of play. I hope lawyers are willing to go along with it. Some of the people who’ve accompanied me most closely in all this work over the years have been some of those few lawyers who are both deeply attached to the law, and also willing to explore its untapped potential. And we wrote that paper kind of to convert more of those types of people into our world.

Simone Cicero:
That was one point that I wanted to double-click on the line for our listeners. So, this idea that we have been talking so long about platform coop, and similar patterns emerge with other topics. But I think at the end of the day, the whole conversation was really strangling. The real multiplicity and the real, you know, several dimensions and the spectrum across those dimensions that the conversation should have been focusing on. So, I mean, for example, not to just ownership, but also profit-sharing, key decisions, taking key decisions, data and IP ownership, interoperability. So, all these things are dimensions of how you build a venture that maybe we have been focusing too much of this idea of sharing ownership of the internet ventures but really, it didn’t make much advancements in terms of schematizing, for example, the design dimensions that we had as entrepreneurs. And we ended up kind of being engrained too much in the limiting spaces that we have been creating. So, we haven’t been very much, I would say, ambitious in thinking about what a venture could be — could have been in terms of playing out along these dimensions. And Stina, let me hand it over to you because I know that you want to kind of insist on some of these aspects.

Stina Heikkila:
Thank you. I’m curious about how to make this equation work. We had just released an episode talking about this ecosystem enabling entrepreneurial organization, now probably, I got the wrong order, but listeners would know what I’m talking about. I’m thinking about this question of participation. So, if you have this kind of community or whatever model you choose, essentially, how important is it that everyone participates? And can there be different levels of participation? I’m just wondering, how important is it if one group takes more over, how inclusive do you have to be? What are your considerations there? Because of course, maybe if you’re more inclusive, it can slow things down. And that might have been a traditional problem with sort of more traditional coops as well. So, if you can provide some thoughts on that, that would be great.

Nathan Schneider:
Yeah. And my work in the last couple of years has started to veer more and more into imagining the future of governance. Because that has been so much an unanswered question throughout the efforts around cooperatives and that sort of thing. And it also has bigger ramifications around politics and so forth. But yeah, if you can imagine, like, how many apps do you have on your phone, right? And what if you had to, like participate in the annual meeting, or a weekly meeting, or every decision of each of those? That sounds really, really overwhelming and unpleasant. And is absolutely not what I think we want here. You know, there are a lot of ways in which co-ownership can be pretty passive and appropriately so and it makes sense to stay that way. You know, for instance, the credit union that I’m a member of, that has the mortgage on my house and stuff like that, I don’t really want to participate in that in any day-to-day decision making there. But I am quite invested in it and it’s a major institution in my community.

So, I have actually gone to the annual meetings and raised issues that I think they’re not handling, very well. Other things, you know, an app I use or a product I buy or a place I get my — get order groceries or something, I might not want to participate at all. I trust the people who have a deeper passion for those things to run it, and yet still I’m grateful that they are running it with at least the notion that they are running it on my behalf and the expectation that they’re running it on my behalf. So, a lot of these questions I think can be addressed by trusting that we can create layered structures that enable people to allocate their time reasonably. And historically, we’ve done that a lot with electing boards. That’s the typical way, both an investor-owned companies and in cooperatives, that we handle delegated authority so that most people don’t have to be worrying about most questions most of the time.

Online platforms and technology introduce some really interesting new ways to do delegation more fluidly. You know, this idea of liquid democracy is an example where you delegate somebody to vote for you based on your perception of their expertise in maybe just one area. So, I could delegate Stina to vote for me on issues related to economic policy, but maybe I’ll delegate to somebody else on issues related to foreign policy, whose perspectives I really trust. But there’s a lot of experimentation and that stuff going on right now in, for instance, the Blockchain world where they’re kind of inventing new governance systems from scratch. And I have these kind of conversations with Blockchain people all the time where they’re making discoveries that like the rest of the world kind of came to a long time ago. Like, for instance, I have been having conversations lately where they’re complaining that only three to 5% of people are participating in a vote on a good day. And I remind them, yeah, that’s what cooperatives have been experiencing for generations. Let’s design with that in mind, rather than trying to get everybody to vote on everything. And we’ve done this sort of thing before, we’ve created structures of trusteeship or representation that we’ve more or less felt able to trust. And I think it’s really exciting to be able to explore that question anew in the context of the wide variety of things that platforms and other organizations do in our lives.

We’re in the process of entering a kind of new evolution of democracy that is much more accountable, that enables us to be citizens of many more kinds of things all at once, while at the same time being able to judiciously focus our attention on the things that we most feel called and equipped to participate in. And so just as an individual investor might have stock in many, many, many companies and have forms of trusteeship that they trust to ensure that those companies are acting in their best interests. I think we can do that with forms of community ownership, where we can be involved in democracies of many kinds all at once without having to participate in ways that go beyond our expertise or that go beyond the availability of our attention. You know, it’s that question of what does this future look like that I think is being explored now by a bunch of really creative pioneers.

Simone Cicero:
I mean, that’s very interesting. And I think it’s a key point. And also, so let me try to expand — as our last, let’s say, reflection in this conversation — a little bit on this. And that example of people not showing up to vote, that was crazy. It was really funny to hear that stuff. I was thinking about you listening to this for the first time. And it made me think about this duality between technology and capabilities. Let’s say between the idea of reducing the friction, for organizing through technology, and on the other hand, being aware that you still need capabilities there and you still need some kind of intentions and energy and potential to organize. So, you actually need — you said, I think, first you said we had — we didn’t have the cooperatives. So, I think you didn’t need the entrepreneurial capabilities. And this deals with more generally capability building, let’s say in the community.

So, I’m curious if you can spend some words on the work that you have been doing on modular politics and a more generally expanding, to what extent reducing friction, through technology, through modular technologies, composable technologies — I can call it, you know, now there’s a lot of people talking about these money legos now. So, let’s talk about organizational legos or cooperativism legos, let’s say. How much can you achieve by just reducing friction and creating technologies that can help you organize and distribute governance and decision making and profit sharing and whatever, to a community if you don’t have the capabilities? And what is the role of capabilities building and building the capacity to organize, to take over, I would say big issues that we’re going to face. We’re talking about — a lot of our work is focused on, for example, on this idea of essentials and economics around food, energy, not “sexy” as an internet consumer startup would be, but still things that we need to take over. Because risks and disruptions are coming. We’re talking about climate change all the time. But this ends up in, you know, we have to deal with these new institutions, we have to create those. So, what is the role of technology and capabilities? And if you can connect these with modular politics, I would love to hear more about that.

Nathan Schneider:
Yeah. So, for me, the question of capabilities is really important. And this emerged kind of, in my personal experience, as a kind of connector in the cooperative world is I was using online platforms, typical stuff from like, simple email lists to Facebook, and other things to help connect people interested in this movement. And I started realizing, wow. This is a bunch of people who are really into practicing democracy in their daily lives. But the tools that we have available to us are really, really bad for this. And they all assume this, like, admin dictatorship, that the founder is the permanent sole power holder. And the main mechanisms of dealing with problems is censorship or exile from the community spaces. And it just struck me like, wow, this is a really impoverished toolset. At the same time, as I was starting to realize this, my mother was — had just been elected president of her local neighborhood garden club. And I was just blown away by how much more sophisticated the governance tools available in that offline old-world garden club were compared to like any of the online communities I was using.

I started exploring also like the world of Wikipedia, and started running a media wiki instance, and realized none of the cool democratic structures in Wikipedia are actually in the software. You have to painstakingly create those. And so then it kind of stands to reason why those big benevolent dictatorships that we were talking about earlier, are so persistent. It took decades for the founder of Python, to finally like, relinquish his power through a process to like a reasonable board structure. Because all the technical tools around like GitHub and mailing lists and everything that people use to coordinate online is based on like very undemocratic kinds of processes. And so I got kind of obsessed with, first of all, understanding that history, why is it that these tools that are supposed to democratize you know, access and power just don’t have any means of enabling basic democratic processes. And then started working with this group called the Meta Governance Project to explore how things could be designed differently. And this is people who are working — some in the Blockchain world, some in sociology and social theory, and doing big data, research on online communities, all exploring how we could build more accountable, appropriate tools to enable people to practice basic reasonable democracy online.

So, the modular politics paper which was recently published in the kind of computing journal, it proposes a vision for a framework for online governance that is based on little modules, rather than saying, okay, there’s one true solution for online governance. Instead, as you said, Legos, we want to be able to assemble pieces together. I think of the metaphor because I built a lot of WordPress sites of WordPress plugins where every time you build a new site, you have to cobble together a bunch of tools that people have built. And you bring in your e-commerce thing, and you bring in your newsletter plugin, and you bring in your social media plugin, and suddenly you’ve got a real working website. You know, I imagine something like that, where people are able to cobble together the right mechanisms for the kind of job that they’re trying to accomplish, the kind of community that they’re trying to build.

And this idea has gotten some momentum to the point that we’re now actually doing some building and in the process of building a prototype that, for instance, enables groups to on a Discord forum or in Slack or in Reddit; places that people exist already, are able to carry out governance decisions, have this software register that, for instance, a vote occurred or something like that, and actually implement what was proposed and in the vote. With the goal that now we have the ability to not just rely on admins to be the ultimate dictators of our online spaces. But we can create trustworthy processes in which the governance is kind of self-executing in many respects. You know, this is also stuff that people in the Blockchain world are doing quite a bit, really realizing, over the past few years, if nothing else, how much there is to build. A couple of years ago, it felt like there was that urge in the Blockchain world to discover the one true mechanism of governance, right?

And increasingly, what we see is fragmentation, where there’s lots and lots of tools out there, and they’re all kind of composable with each other through the protocols they’re working on. And that’s really exciting to me because people are rediscovering just how complex and interesting and creative governance can be. And that seems to me, like the beginnings of a Renaissance, where we’re in the process of kind of reinventing, of catching up to my mother’s garden club. We’re also building the means to start iterating and experimenting with forms of democratic accountability that the world has never seen before.

Simone Cicero:
Seems like an inflection point, so a moment where software is eating the organization. So, to some extent, we have seen these coalescing of technology and organizing at a stage that we’ve never really seen before. And I really appreciate that there is this convergence between people like you with your background, with your studies, and people from the Blockchain community that are building, you know, you mentioned, for example, you’ve been in touch with people at Aragon and we have been talking with people at Commons Stack, and I’m going to talk with people at Colony very soon. So, I think we are seeing these things emerging. And on our side, for example, we are also now developing our organizational frameworks and translating them into software. So, I think this, it really feels like an inflection point that we can help us to go beyond, for example, the idea of a single organization and more into you know, organizing at scale.

So, how can we maybe share some elements of language, of grammar, of organizing that can enable us to connect across borders and achieve rescaling across that has been, I would say, an objective of complexity thinkers and systems thinkers for so long instead of just having to scale up by centralizing. We have to deal with this — we have to share a grammar, share a language of organizing that seems emerging. So, I really imagine our listeners looking through your paper, Modular Politics with you and others and check it out. Besides that, Nathan, as we close the conversation, I would like to ask you to just highlight for our listeners, where they should look into to catch up with your latest work. And maybe if there is some exciting work you’re doing these days and some paper coming up or some events that you want to speak to, if you can also mention that, it would be great for our listeners to catch up with you.

Nathan Schneider:
Sure. Well, my personal website is But a lot of, increasingly, a lot of this work is happening through my lab at the University of Colorado Boulder called the Media Enterprise Design Lab. It’s probably easier to search than to give the URL, but it’s And we’re doing events about every month, sometimes more. And a lot of these have to do with exit to community ideas or online governance, or other kinds of emerging things. Often, what those come out of are just some things happening that we want to understand better. And so we get the people who are doing it into an event to explain what they’re up to. And so if you’re interested in these kinds of conversations, please follow our lab. One thing that we’re doing this summer that I’m really excited about is an artist’s residency for people who are exploring the future of online governance by looking to past and present offline governance practices, and looking to how we can translate some of those powerful legacies of human self-governance into our online spaces. So, if there are any artists out there or any people who like to support artists, love to hear from you and really excited about the kind of inspiration and an energy that that process will bring. But thank you so much for this. I’ve admired your work over the years and I look forward to continuing the conversation.

Simone Cicero:
Thank you, Nathan, very much. You know, it’s really, I feel like it’s a start of a new kind of collaborations and exchanges of ideas and knows in the coming years. Stina, do you want to add something?

Stina Heikkila:
Thank you for the conversation and I’m very grateful also like Simone mentioned that there is someone who is connecting those dots between maybe the Blockchain and with other thinking, making sometimes these ideas a bit more accessible, personally grateful also for this. So, yeah, I really enjoyed it.

Simone Cicero:
Thank you again. And to our listeners, catch up soon