Building Cooperative Ownership in the Digital Economy: What Policy Can Do

December 6, 2021

9am Virtual

Time: 9:00 am PST – 10:20 am PST | 12:00 pm EST – 1:20 pm EST

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Despite the promise of revolutionizing work itself, the rise of “gig economy” has been disastrous. The platforms that dominate the gig economy are not only unprofitable but also exploitative: their aggressive expansion has weakened public infrastructure and labor protections, demonstrates harmful environmental effects, and has exacerbated inequality, especially during COVID-19. Building back better from the pandemic and designing a fairer economy requires a different solution. One way of remedying the abuses of privately-owned platforms is for governments to actively promote the establishment and use of platform cooperatives. Platform cooperatives do the same work that privately-owned platforms do. They match labor with customers. However, they are democratically governed organizations owned by workers, customers and other stakeholders that return a greater share of income to workers, increase labor protections, and build communities.

To announce the launch of their new joint report, Policy Recommendations to Support Cooperative Ownership in the Digital Economy, The Berggruen Institute and the Platform Cooperativism Consortium bring together Hilary Abell (Project Equity), Dr. PV Unnikrishnan (Kerala Government), and Councillor Matthew Brown (Preston City Council) in conversation with Trebor Scholz (The New School) and co-authors Jonas Pentzien (Institute for Ecological Economy Research/PCC), Morshed Mannan (European University Institute/PCC), and Hal Plotkin (US Department of Education, 2009-2014). Our panelists will be discussing how platform cooperatives provide a viable alternative to the gig economy, and how policymakers, governments, and communities can cultivate a strong ecosystem for platform coops through policy and structural changes.

This event will be hosted by Dr. Yakov Feygin and Leila Lorenzo of the Berggruen Institute.

About the Speakers:
Hilary Abell
was bit by the cooperative bug” when she was a worker-owner at Equal Exchange in the 1990s and forever changed by witnessing how Latin American farmers used coops to transform their communities. After a decade of international community empowerment work, Hilary has been advancing cooperative development and employee ownership in the U.S. since 2003. As Executive Director of WAGES (now Prospera), she led the organization in creating a network of five worker-owned green cleaning businesses that sustained 100 healthy, dignified jobs for low-income women. Worker-owners increased their family incomes by 40-80%, built assets through robust profit sharing, and gained business skills and social capital.

In co-founding Project Equity, Hilary hoped to make these profound benefits of employee ownership a reality for millions more workers all over the country. For her work with Project Equity, Hilary was awarded Presidio Graduate School’s Big Idea Prize (2013), an Echoing Green Fellowship (2014), a 2016 Local Economy Fellowship, and a 2020 Executive Fellowship with the Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing at Rutgers University.

Hilary is a passionate advocate, practitioner and thought leader and has authored or co-authored several publications, most recently The Case for Employee Ownership (2020) and California Cooperatives (2021). She has her B.A. from Princeton University and her MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School.


Dr. PV Unnikrishnan has a rare blend of academic, research, government, professional, consulting experience of over 36 years. Trained in EC Engineering and e-Gov both in India and abroad, he has worked 36 years in the Government in roles like COO/CEO. He has rich experience in technology development and development sector. He had 5 years sabbatical at KSSP research center, where he was exposed to Innovation, Emerging Technologies, livelihoods, renewable energy, small hydro development, watershed management. He was involved in the Kalliasseri integrated planning exercise evolving as the Peoples’ Planning Program solutioning capability building for equitable growth. He spearheaded, for 15 years, planning, implementation of mission critical projects in decentralized planning- administrative reforms, BPR, service delivery, e-gov, KM, and energy. He consolidated domain Knowledge in a 7-volume systems manual on LSG systems and developed twelve software apps covering resource utilization and customer management in the first ever e-gov for LSGIs in India with a team size of 300. He won several national and international awards for this meritorious work including the Data-Quest e-governance Champions award, and Microsoft e-gov award for delivery excellence. He completed meritoriously the first batch of e-gov champions training under the NeGAP. During 2006-11 he was non-ministerial member of the SPB, Kerala with rich experience in Infrastructure, Energy, Governance, Tourism. He had worked for 4 years as SteP Trainer for NISG. He was also working as consultant-(MIS) at the NRLM, developing SPIP for MSRLM, providing domain expertise for Knowledge Management. He is presently in charge of the Kerala Knowledge Mission which is entrusted the responsibility of Kerala’s transition to the Knowledge Economy. He worked as a lecturer in CET, Trivandrum. He was involved as the member of Board of Studies for courses in Imaging Technology, Computer Science, Futures Studies in various Universities. He has several publications in e-governance, energy, and development studies. He is a specialist PG trainer in social enterprises., MLP, and decentralization. Dr P.V. Unnikrishnan currently heads the ambitious transition of Kerala to the Knowledge Economy.


Councillor Matthew Brown is Leader of Preston City Council in the north of England, where he has been widely credited as the driving force behind the ‘Preston model’, an economic strategy at the city and county level that presents a comprehensive, interlinked approach to community wealth building as a practical and transformative alternative to austerity and disinvestment. First elected to represent the Tulketh ward in 2002, Councillor Matthew Brown subsequently took on portfolios that included community engagement and inclusion, social justice and policy initiatives, leading to his election in 2018 as Council Leader, and to a position as an advisor to the Labour Party’s Community Wealth Building Unit.


Trebor Scholz is a scholar-activist at The New School in New York City. His book Uber-Worked and Underpaid. How Workers Are Disrupting the Digital Economy (Polity, 2016) introduces the concept of “platform cooperativism” as a way of joining the co-op model with the digital economy. He has edited and co-edited volumes including Ours to Hack and to Own: Platform Cooperativism. A New Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet (listed by Wired Magazine as one of the Top Tech Books of 2017), and Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory (Routledge, 2013). His articles and ideas have appeared in The Financial Times, Le Monde, The New York Times, The Nation, and The Washington Post. He is the Founding Director of the Platform Cooperativism Consortium (PCC) and the Institute for the Cooperative Digital Economy (ICDE) at The New School, which are key hubs for the research and coordination of the cooperative digital economy. Scholz keynotes conferences and presents on the cooperative digital economy to audiences around the world. Dr. Scholz is a guest professor at Mondragon University, fellow at Open Society Foundations, and the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University. At the Berggruen Institute, he will work on an activist guide to the future of the gig economy tentatively titled Own This! The book tracks and analyzes the global platform cooperativism movement through the lens of numerous case studies and worker interviews — focusing on what happens when you take the cooperative business model to the digital economy. Structured as a globetrotting tour—from the U.S., around the world, and back—meeting workers, activists, and scholars from all walks of life, encountering again and again not only the dehumanizing effects of the extractive economy, but also the dignity and unity, the vision and the principles, required to withstand and ultimately transform it.