Loomio: open-source tools from young New Zealand techies to make the dream of practical, efficient, sexy cooperatives come true

Bricks for building a working model for cooperatives are being conjured out of the ether – in prototypes by young New Zealand techies - photograph by MIL 22

Bricks for building a working model for cooperatives are being conjured out of the ether – in prototypes by young New Zealand techies
– photograph via MIL 22

Can a group of young New Zealand revolutionaries save the world – by rescuing cooperatives from the taint of failed hippie idealism and accusations of underestimating the selfishness of human beings?

We discovered Loomio, founded in Wellington this year, in thinking about Thomas Piketty’s mountainously substantiated belief, in his world champion bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that unchecked capitalism has signed its own death warrant — by ignoring the tidal wave of anger and outrage about increasingly dire and shocking social inequality.

This blog, post-Gutenberg, is founded on the conviction justified in a paper for the Oxford Internet Institute in 2010 that organisations owned by their contributors are the key to levelling the playing field in the media – that this is essential, if we want the form of government by the people we call ‘democracy’ to work properly. So of course we’re wondering when Piketty will come to the same conclusion – like Pope Francis, as we reported last year in ‘Could a pope getting respect on atheist blogs make co-operatives his weapon for fighting poverty?’.

Googling ‘Piketty’ and ‘cooperatives’ did not only produce Shaila Dewan, also making this connection, in ‘Who Needs a Boss?’ in The New York Times. It led to an excellent discussion on the Hacker News site last month.

We were close to ecstatic to learn on that forum about the birth of Loomio – a group of young software designers with exactly the right skills to support the point made on this blog in February of 2012, that the lightning digital communication we have now means that cooperatives no longer have to be bogged down by endless meetings and chronic bickering and power-mongering. We said, then, in ‘A better Facebook — or why cooperatives run on the web should work better than the old hippie kind’:

Lots of us had our first encounters with cooperatives in the 1970s — as places owned and run by early evangelists for whole-grain and organic foods […] Many such organisations disintegrated because of warring and secretive factions that did not always share what they knew; slow communication between members; the logistical difficulties that meeting in person often entailed, and confusion about aims and aspirations.

For cooperatives using these digital thingies we all have now, many of those problems would never arise. The new tools make it easy for everyone to see the same information, and to spell out goals and policies crisply. […] To run an organisation designed as a cooperative, everyone involved could study complex new information together online, and decide questions at the blinding speed that, … for instance, … The Guardian’s opinion polls work …

Someone especially brilliant behind the founding of Loomio grasped the idea all the way down to the mention in that second paragraph of The Guardian’s opinion polls – whose progress happens to be displayed in pie charts. The Wikipedia summary of Loomio’s mission explains: ‘Loomio is a libre software application for group decision-making and collaboration […] As discussions progress the group receives feedback on a proposal through an up-datable pie chart.’

We urge our readers to visit the Loomio.org site for further – erm – enlightenment (could this be a group who grew up reading about Harry Potter’s ‘Lumos!’ spell?). Its home page announces: ‘Loomio unleashes the internet’s potential to bring people towards consensus rather than polarized debate..’

In the meanwhile, here is a practical idealist at a startup in New York explaining how using Loomio’s toolkit fits the charter and modus operandi of his own organisation – the Colab Cooperative — ‘a worker-owned tech cooperative supporting startup social enterprises through agile development of … products that we hope will change the world for the better’. The upper-case letters are our own annotations — reactions and mental notes — reading his contribution to the Hacker News discussion:

PROGRESS! SOMEONE ARGUING FROM HANDS-ON EXPERIMENTATION …We have found the biggest plus of being a cooperative to be the sense of equality amongst our crew stemming from a democratic-based decision making process and a path to membership (as a co-owner) available to all (assuming performance and cultural standards are met).

THE BRIGHTEST SOCIALLY-AWARE TECHIES WILL IN FUTURE CHOOSE COOPS …Moving forward we are of the opinion that the many of the best and brightest in our industry who seek social and environmental change will choose to work in cooperatives rather than traditional corporations even if it means sacrificing some personal financial benefit to do so (although hopefully this will not be needed as more resources go to supporting cooperatives).

IDEALISM IS NOT THE DRUG OF FOOLS BUT THE WAY SOME THINGS IMPROVE IN THE WORLD, BIT BY BIT …The ‘meaning quotient’ of life generally trumps all for those we work with and those who support cooperatives.

RECOGNISES NEED FOR ‘EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE’ AND STRONGLY SHARED BELIEFS … In terms of keynotes, running a cooperative successfully requires: – emotional intelligence – operational processes that support intra-team communication and collaborative work – a willingness to put your trust in your co-workers – a strong sense of cultural identity – a mission that can be shared with members and partners.

LEARNING TO BALANCE LEADERSHIP FOR SPEED, WHEN THIS IS MISSION-CRITICAL, WITH CONSULTATION-AND-COLLABORATION, THE ORGANISATION’S CORE CULTURE … Given this is HN, I will say that there is some tension b/t the ‘lead by your gut’ – fast and furious – approach of most entrepreneurs and the emphasis in cooperatives on getting consensus from the team on big decisions. As a former ‘traditional’ entrepreneur with some VC / startup experience, I feel like we have found a nice balance b/t empowering our management team to lead with their ‘gut’ business instincts while also engaging in proactive communication with the team around key business decisions.

ADMITS MISTAKES …That said I have also at times stepped on some toes and gently bruised some egos with my former ways. So it is a learning process for sure…

EXPERIMENTING WITH COLLABORATIVE DECISION MAKING SOFTWARE … As part of our communications work, we have begun experimenting with using http://loomio.org as part of our discussion and decision-making process.

Best of luck, Loomio and Colab. It will be a dream come true to see you prove sour, embittered old pessimists — like this Thomas Howard Kunstler commenting on Piketty — utterly mistaken:

[T]he second leading delusion in our culture these days, after the wish for a something-for-nothing magic energy rescue remedy, is the idea that we can politically organize our way out of the epochal predicament of civilization that we face. Piketty just feeds that secondary delusion.