21st-century cooperatives, again: can tools like Loomio’s de-fang hostile, squabbling members – becoming digital go-betweens for conflict resolution?

Cooperating and conferring can be effortless and delightful … or … - photograph by MIL22

Cooperating and conferring can be effortless and delightful … or …
– photograph by MIL22

… cooperating can try cooperators’ patience and goodwill  - photograph: Biocentre-building, Kenya: Nordic FolkeCenter for Renewable Energy

… cooperating can try cooperators’ patience and goodwill
– photograph: Biocentre-building, Kenya: Nordic FolkeCenter for Renewable Energy

Loomio — fashioning software aids to joint decision-making that any group, anywhere, can use for free – was born from the collective activism we know as the Occupy movement. Its founders know that defusing the conflicts inevitable in almost any cooperative is the trickiest part of running one. An excellent encapsulation of its history by Hamish McKenzie in Pando Daily says:

Like their peers at Occupy Wall Street, and at other Occupy camps around the world, the Wellington demonstrators would make group decisions through an inclusive process in which anyone who wanted a say got one. The group would then vote on which proposals to adopt.

…[T]he model … would come to form the basis of Loomio, a Web app that facilitates collaborative decision-making – but the process had a dark side. For a start, the people with the loudest voices and the most confident speakers eventually came to dominate the discussion; even simple decisions could become long, drawn out, highly argumentative ordeals. Meanwhile, as the camp ran its course and people started to leave, the only people left were the hardcore occupiers and the homeless people who had come in search of social support and meals. It got to a point where the group discussion was lopsided in favor of male, white voices, and not particularly inclusive after all. Occupy eventually ended its presence in the square, and people moved on.

However [the software’s designers] didn’t want to give up on the idea of spreading Occupy’s brand of participatory democracy to wider society …

The job of wresting peace and concord from the jaws of animosity and resentment has never been one for the impatient or faint of heart – as long as there have been human beings. If post-Gutenberg is optimistic about organisations run on the net being more successful at managing conflict than the cooperatives of the 1970s it is because …

  • the discussions and arguments are transparent – viewable by everyone
  • there are records of who said what that make lying, manipulation, scheming and every form of slipperiness and bullying more difficult

The larger the audience for scrapping antagonists, the more people there are to punish bullies (as in imposing penalties on or sanctions against them), and the harder it is to resist peace-brokering efforts without looking deranged, stupid, or evil.

At least this is what we have long suspected at post-Gutenberg. When we set off in search of other people’s ideas about defusing hostility, we came upon the conclusion in a 2000 paper on the subject – ‘Conflict prevention and conflict resolution: limits of multilateralism’ — by Fred Tanner, a top-ranking Red Cross (ICRC) expert in Geneva, that ‘conflict prevention remains an enigma’.

Of course his subject was the prevention of war and butchery between countries and tribes. And of course digital transparency and communication, now part of the fabric of daily life and negotiation, were far less developed fourteen years ago.

That there might be reason to hope for change through digital go-betweens – software tools used by groups to manage conflict – was confirmed in a surprising article by Albert Sun in The New York Times about applying mathematical modelling to a specific problem. We leave you to this excerpt from it, and strongly recommend following the link to the rest of the piece:

Every month, unrelated people move into apartments together to save on rent. Many decide to simply divide the rent evenly, or to base it on bedrooms’ square footage or perhaps even on each resident’s income.

But as it turns out, a field of academics is dedicated to studying the subject of fair division, or how to divide good and bad things fairly among groups of people. To the researchers, none of the typical methods are satisfactory. They have better ways.

The problem is that individuals evaluate a room differently. I care a lot about natural light, but not everyone does. Is it worth not having a closet? Or one might care more about the shape of the room, or its proximity to the bathroom.

A division of rent based on square feet or any fixed list of elements can’t take every individual preference into account. And negotiation without a method may lead to conflict and resentment.

… I came across a paper by Francis Su, a math professor at Harvey Mudd College in California, about a mathematical proposition discovered in 1928 by the German mathematician Emanuel Sperner. It is called Sperner’s lemma.

The connection between Sperner’s lemma and rent division was first published by Dr. Su in a 1999 paper titled “Rental Harmony: Sperner’s Lemma in Fair Division.”


Dr. Su realized that it might be related to another problem he had heard about, in which a group has to divide a theoretical cake when some want frosted flowers or an edge with more frosting.

“The trick is to design a procedure to have everyone act in their own self-interest and have an outcome that’s fair,” he said in an interview.


To promote the use of the new methods being invented, Ariel D. Procaccia, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has been working on a website, Spliddit, to help people use these methods to fairly divide things like the order of names of co-authors on a scientific paper or prized possessions in a divorce.

“There are all these examples of really nice ways to solve the problem,” he said, “but nobody’s using them.”

[ continues … ]