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Co-operation in the Age of Google - a beta version

What is the way forward for the co-operative sector? Commissioned by Co-operatives UK, Robin Murray – a co-operative innovator and key thinker behind Fairtrade, Twin Trading and much more besides – has produced a radical vision of the how the co-operative sector can expand in the 21st Century.

Co-operation in the age of Google shows that we are living at a time of profound transformation. The information and communication revolution, widespread concerns about private sector greed, public sector finances and impending climate chaos present a wide range of possibilities for co-operative expansion.

But Robin says the co-operative sector is not yet in a position to make the most of these opportunities. It needs to be more innovative, more integrated, more internationalist, to get better infrastructure and to find ‘the idea’ that can mobilise support for co-operation.

The review proposes a series of practical initiatives for 2011 and 2012 to strengthen the co-operative sector.

In true co-operative fashion, a ‘beta version’ of this review is now open for comments, alternative suggestions, improvements, counter-arguments, examples and photos.

The beta version can be accessed online at bottom of this page. It can be viewed by everyone and commented by members of Co-operatives UK. Comments are open until 12 February 2011.

  • What do you think of the practical initiatives proposed to develop the sector?
  • Do you agree with the areas where the report suggests co-operative expansion is most likely?
  • What are your suggestions for developing co-operatives and  innovation?
  • What is ‘the co-operative idea’?

If you would like to feed back directly to Robin Murray please do so via You can also watch a video of Robin presenting his ideas at the Co-operative Congress 2011 here, and download a summary of his main findings.


We have work to do!

160 pages? Are you mad?

Is this an academic doctoral thesis?

I shall try and feedback after reading it, but I may be some time...

Thanks Jim, yes, this is a long report, but there's so much in it to discuss. Just look through the synopsis for a concise overview.

There are some very concrete proposals in here, along with some important questions.

Incidentally, the  biggest question for ther sector, I think, is what is the 'idea' that can mobilise popular support for the co-operative model? Is it to do with the way that co-operatives share ownership and profits, the way they are based on clear values, or is it to do with how they address the biggest issues of our time  - climate change and providing welfare?

OK, I've now skim-read the thing. It is way too long and contains much that - while interesting - is in my view barely relevant. The key issues could and should be dealt with in perhaps 30 pages.

In its current form this report does no favours to anyone.

I did start with the summary, but the recommendations set out there seemed so out of kilter with the reality of the day to day of the current cooperative sector, that I felt I had to at least try to read the rest of it. And I have to say that it didn't help too much.

Let's not get sidetracked into debates about what the big idea is. Cooperation is at one and the same time wonderfully simple and complex. It is different things for different people at different times. Turning it into a soundbite won't help.

I can see it might attract some attention, but I really hate that headline. We really shouldn't be promoting the idea that this is the age of any private-sector transnational, should we? Could we replace them with a generic idea like the social network, please?I'll comment on other pages as I work through, but like Jim, I may be some time...

I feel it is far, far too long (perhaps even 10 times too long).

I feel it doesn't adequately fulfil the brief as far as I understand what it was (that is, I don't feel it answers the question).

I feel it is full of unsubstantiated opinion and conjecture, much of which adds nothing new and much of which appears to be plain wrong and/or irrelevant.

I feel it contradicts itself.

I feel it contains unsubstantiated opinions and conjecture as if they were fact and that do not stand up to the most basic of questioning.

For example, the opening paragraph of the synopsis, Google... is one of a number of companies of comparable size - Microsoft, IBM, Apple, Cisco - who are leading an information and communications revolution which is redrawing the economic landscape.

There is an information and communications revolution happening, but how exactly are these companies redrawing the economic landscape? Each of them is a multinational, for profit, share based, private sector business.

A little further on in the synopsis Robin states that, The most celebrated example is the creation of software. Two thirds of the world's software is now produced collaboratively and circulated freely... The informal information economy is open and global. It is driven by interest and enthusiasm rather than money. The bulk of its traffic is free.

I quote this as I feel it is an example of what I feel is the most fundamental of the flaws in Robin's report.

If this is supposed to be a report pointing the way for co-operative development in the UK, how does Robin propose that co-operatives and their members in the UK make any money out of this free software revolution?

This is not a criticism of the open source software movement. It's great. I use Mozilla & Wikipedia all the time myself.

However, co-operatives are businesses. It is not enough to describe something as happening. For there to be a co-operative development opportunity, the report needs to identify the business opportunity and make the business case for co-operatives in that market.

Co-operatives need to make a profit (even charitable ones that choose to give that profit away).

Co-operatives values and principles define how they make that profit (ethically & sustainably) and what they do with it.

I feel this report is an academic report as in, hypothetical or theoretical and not expected to produce an immediate or practical result; an academic discussion; an academic question.

I don't feel the publication of the report as it stands reflects well on Co-ops UK at all.

And Giles; you may well be right. However, does the report even ask that question, let alone answer it?

I'm actually quite depressed by what feels to me like a massively missed opportunity here.

Thanks to Jim for capturing most of what I felt having read through this document. His post has saved me the time of writing it all out again.

Going back to the first page of the document it reads:

The brief for this Review was to assess the current state of co-operative development in Britain in relation to the opportunities for innovation and growth in co-operation and co-operative models of enterprise.

The initial focus was to be on the existing co-operative development infrastructure and how it could be strengthened. But it became apparent that this was only one part of a wider question of how the broader changes in private and public services driven by the revolution in information technology and parallel social changes opened up spaces for co-operative innovation and expansion both in new sectors and within the co-operative economy itself.

The brief also requested that the Review take on board current work in related fields such as social innovation, community development and international development, as well as lessons from successful models of co-operation from other countries of relevance to the UK.

The outcome of the Review was to be the production of an implementable co-operative development plan for discussion within the co-operative movement.

The original brief and initial focus seems to me to be perfectly sensible, and it a great shame that this has been lost in the process. The telling phrase for me is the last sentence:

The outcome of the Review was to be the production of an implementable co-operative development plan for discussion within the co-operative movement.

In my view this is precisely what is required, and what this document should have delivered, and what it has failed to do. Can we start again?

The UK Co-operative Movement has the potential to be a powerful force for positive change. Sadly, with the exception of a small group of passionate people that have struggled against almost overwhelming odds over the last 20-30 years to provide a practical development service to help people like me start cooperatives (I am eternally indebted to Chris Funnell for getting me involved with cooperatives back in the 1980s), the movement has been besotted with looking back to the glory days rather than forward to how it might create the seedcorn for its own long term future prosperity.

Huge kudos must go the Cooperative Group for finally waking up to the huge importance of this task, and creating the Enterprise Hub and providing support for regional cooperative council groupings. Lincolnshire and Midcounties Cooperatives also deserve much praise for their support for cooperative development in their regions. If other examples exist I omit them out of ignorance, for which I apologise.

This small group of development expertise and the modest funding behind it is critical to the future of the movement. They are our crown jewels.

For me the key question this report should be seeking to answer is how can we scale up this resource. We need to grow it exponentially in my view. Instead of 150 development professionals we need 1500. Instead of creating perhaps 200 new cooperatives each year we should be aiming at 10,000. Peter Marks talks of 20 million members of the Cooperative Group by 2020. An ambitious goal certainly, and one which I have no doubt he and his colleagues will vigorously pursue. Focussed ambition is what is needed in this project.

In my small community we have seen four new cooperatives created in the last 2 years, focusing around issues of local food, community resilience and Transition (peak oil/climate change). This cluster has already committed a percentage of its profits towards the support of other similar new ventures locally, a la Davis Food Co-op. How can we replicate this across the country? It's not rocket science, but it is not without its challenges.

I think it is useful in this context to be reminded of the famous quote from Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does”

I think we could do a lot worse than to build a strategy based at least in part on this idea, and I'll be happy to be a part of that working party.

Robin's lengthy thesis presents a largely top-down approach to enhancing the capabilities of the movement to support development and innovation. Ironic, given that he apparently bases much of his theorising on the open, internet empowered and essentially bottom-up nature of the Wikinomics world we inhabit. Which is not to say that some top down infrastructure development is not needed - it is - but it needs to be matched with grass roots work. Some of the suggestions he makes are worthy of further consideration, and I will certainly do that. But he fails to take in to account the reality of the UK movement today, resulting in what I can only characterise as an unworkable vision.

Cooperative development, and innovation, is itself a bottom-up process, and the tools and support infrastructure that enable it need to be highly aware in this respect. With others, under the banner of Cooperative Networks, I have been working over the last 18 months or so to develop the concept of truly cooperative innovation lab, utilising the open tools, techniques, and crowd-culture of the post-Google world, and we are working now to roll this out in the new year if we can pull together the initial funding needed.

Practical tools like this, combined with some innovative/lateral thinking about how new cooperatives are created and what we can do as a movement to encourage that, will in my view be far more use to us right now. As a movement we could easily spend 3, 4, or 5 years developing robin's strategy, while the world passes us by.

I argue that a more pragmatic 'here and now' approach will deliver more and more quickly. Let's get to the point where 1000 new cooperatives are created in a 12 month timeframe, as a proof of concept if you will, and make best use of what is already out there (and there is good stuff out there), and then we can start a more useful discussion about some of the bigger scale ideas in Robin's paper.

On the issue of a co-operative mark, an identification tag that we can all use to quickly and easily identify a cooperative enterprise, we already have one that works well. It is globally applicable, it is verifiable, it is already being actively used by thousands of cooperatives around the world, and it is cheap for cooperatives to adopt. It is the .COOP top level domain name. Every cooperative in the world can have one, and it is available totally free of charge for the first year. Apply for yours at (apologies for the naked pitch at the end there).

Although I can't pretend it’s not a long document; I called it a tomb (meant tome) in my own blog post.

There are lot of ideas and practical ones too; particularly in the organisation and finance section (for those not wanting to read the whole document).

For me though the two most important ideas are:

Firstly, focus on being a social movement with a shared idea.

I understand co-ops mean different things to different people, but finding that common goal or 'idea' is important. 

We need to grow the number of advocates; we also need to be moving in the same direction.  I like the herding cats metaphor which is a good one, but implies a shepherd of some type.  For me the, swarm of bee's or ants is a better metaphor.  We might not all know where we going or how to get there, but if enough of us know, co-ordinate, communicate and the rest are willing to follow, then we will get there.

Secondly, to create the above we need a system and set of projects/initiatives that will positively reinforce what were doing: educating, financing and innovating, so that we can create 10,000 co-operatives and have 100,000 advocates.

Robin give us some ideas for initiatives, but to be honest one person isn’t able to set-out a vision and plan for co-operative development in the UK. I think this paper is a start and gives something for people to respond to (which it certainly has).

But I think what is really important is how we go forward from this, how we bring peoples views together and how we actually do something about it.

I am really sorry - because this obviously was a researched and scholarly attempt to cover a large and broad topic - but this publication does very little for me as a road map of the Co-operative movement's possible progress and opportunities.  As I agree with nearly all that Jim Pettipher say I will not repeat again the points he makes.  I do have one major objection of my own - I do not like the title one little bit!

I fully recognise the breakthrough that Google as a search engine was when I first used it - I was so impressed I made it the company standard where I worked immediately, and it is still my own preference today.  The reason why it took off so well was that the other search engines were so bad at the time!  You had to submit your site often by filling in a form, it got nowhere in the listing order unless you paid for your entry and many other advances.  However calling it the Age of Google is rather like calling the Railway Age (for example) the Age of Great Western Railways.  For some time this has been called the Information Age and I can find little to argue with that.  Perhaps it could be updated to the Age of Information Exchange - that would also include (say) Facebook, YouTube and so forth.  The point I am making is that the basic idea behind Google (mathematical / statistical based listing rankings)  would have come sooner or later without that company ever being founded.  The CONCEPT of information exchange is the key point and if we are living in any age at all it is that one, in my opinion.

I want to respond to Graham's point about 'starting from where we are now'. To me, the report is a shock to the system, because it's asking for an intensity of effort (and investment) beyond anything the UK movement would be expecting to put up, certainly within the next two years. I don't, however, think this is naive; it's a clear (though polite) call to be realistic - demand the impossible. The perspective is that of a 'critical friend' of the official UK movement - radical economist, activist for economic justice, wonk. It's a helicopter view, drawing on insights and research about about contemporary co-operation around the world. We can't criticise it for coming from where the author is, instead of where we are. If we're going to make any sense of the way the world's changing - let alone act strategically - then we've got to get our heads out of our arses. A serious and open minded debate about the report's conclusions might help us do it.

Understanding 'where we are now' is crucial. You may not always like the way the author expresses himself; even suspect that he doesn't fully understand the game. But he's absolutely correct to put the discussion into the context of a historically critical point of the present 'long cycle' of global capital. There is a raging contest over the ownership, use and control of new technologies. The outcome will decide how far they will be used for social and economic emancipation, or whether they will be monopolised to extend arbitrary wealth and power. How the co-operative movement shapes up to this is a marker for the fate of humanity (unless of course, you think there's some other model for a sustainable future.)

Zooming down to the question of 'where we are now' in the UK: there's 'we' meaning the traditional sectors - the part of the movement that owns most of its wealth. There's 'we' meaning the wider movement, which has energy and ideas but little capital. And there's 'we' meaning the 'real' movement - the great number of people in society who want to, or have no choice but to try to, redesign their economic situation - but who have neither power, nor money, nor much confidence.

The report adds weight to the view that the raison d'etre of the established movement is co-operative development itself. This implies that the traditional sectors, which control the wealth built up by the work of generations of previous co-operators and their waged employees, need to mobilise that wealth for the creation of a new movement. Easily enough said, when the consumer societies are investing in trying to take market share from global retailing giants - but it's time to debate the proposition openly. The report provides testimonial evidence and lays out possible lines of enquiry.

Another question is: can we see where the real opportunities lie? In other words, what an incipient new autonomous movement and its members might look like? Will the official movement be so preoccupied with Big Society initiatives over the next two years that we don't  notice private sector workers in occupation, knowledge and service industry workers trying to deal with an epidemic of unpaid and precarious employment, rebellious students and teachers questioning the economy and purposes of education, homeless and workless people squatting redundant council properties, and so on?

Getting involved with setting up 'top down' co-operatives is an obvious trap, but as for the report's recommendations themselves, they are 'top down' of necessity. As an organised and established movement, we have to try to both stimulate and anticipate the possibilities for co-operative renewal in this era of social and economic upheaval, although we need to make sure we enlist and engage Co-operatives UK's members and federal allies in shaping new co-operative development projects. The problem will be if we fail to connect with the fragmented elements of a new autonomous movement for economic equality and justice, because they don't talk co-operation in our language, or don't come through the established channels - which it's highly likely they won't, unless we do some serious capacity building. It's time for people to get out from behind their co-operative desks and turn themselves into narodniks for co-operation (in other words, good, proactive co-operative development people). But an effective narodnik needs both humility and, yes, a big idea - even if it's an old one in different clothes.

As for the report's specific proposals, they're all good, although I agree with Graham that a massive expansion of high quality, grass roots co-operative development capacity is the first thing. With it, a strategic co-operative development bank (caja lavoral), an industrial credit union to make startup microloans, an aggressive co-operative business networking hub, and a Co-operative Open University. Looked at in comparison with what we currently invest in co-operative development, these look like expensive initiatives. On the other hand, if we don't rise to the challenges the report identifies, we'll only have only ourselves to blame if the co-operative flame gutters. The question is whether we choose to continue to behave as a  'three principles' sector, made up of discrete and corporately self-interested businesses, or whether we can mobilise as a 'seven principles' movement.

Sion, thanks for reading my earlier comment. I think we are moving in a positive direction.

I have no problem with a broad strategy that emulates the Mondragon approach. After all there are few problems that can't be tackled with good ideas and joined up thinking, backed up with the required finance, knowledge and expertise.

But this will take some time to put together - even if we assume there is the collective will to make it happen. This is a very real problem. The timescales indicated in Robin's paper are in my view simply unachievable. And if I were one of those people that had sufficient grasp on the levers of power to be able to materially and substantially move this project forward I think I would want some answers before I committed major resources to the project.

What evidence is there that the number of cooperatives in the UK could be increased by an order of magnitude inside, say, five years, even with the current apparent support from government and opposition parties?

If the latent demand is there - which I think will be hard to evidence (in much the same way that hardly anyone could have conceived of Youtube as recently as a decade ago when most of us were still using dial-up to get online) - what evidence is there that in order to enable those cooperatives to be created, we need to have these extensive development resources in place?

I'm sure we can all quickly thiink of other similar questions.

Which is why I am arguing for a two stage process in essence. Let's do the obvious stuff first. This will serve several purposes: it enables us to respond relatively quickly to the here and now opportunity to enable a whole lot of cooperatives to be created at a moment of great change. It will show that additional resources going into building capacity will deliver cost effective results, creating some of the required evidence base. It will enlighten the work of deciding what is actually needed to create a movement that is focused on its own future growth. And it will provide some time to do this work.

Big up the co-operative Massive!

Interesting debate around this draft report.

I hope this post doesn't come across as too 'wishy washy' or dreamy.....

I've recently become involved in a effort to bring a very large set of actors to plan and work together / collaborate on a wide range of actions.

I would like to suggest that a good way to form plans for a large diverse group of actors, in order to gain the most support, is to invite those actors to be involved with the creation of the plans themselves (rather than relying on the knowledge and wisdom of a limited group of actors).  I can appreciate that including many actors can make forming such a plan extremely complex.

I've discovered that in the 'Age of Google' the plan can be laid out using online open source tools such as Etherpad  ( ) or a wiki site where all members can easily have an equal voice and it is much easier (in my opinion) to follow ideas as they develop.  Email lists, web discussion forums, blog posts, social media sites, real life meetings etc. are also all relevant to foster the debate around the plan.  I'm also discovering many other web based tools that make open collaboration much easier (Some very interesting open project management stuff and much more)

I'd also suggest that it may be useful to invite actors outside of the group to have an input in creating a draft plan (while at the same time possibly laying seeds for the expansion of the group) as they may have knowledge or wisdom that would be valuable. 

As cliffmoore says I think the 'Age of Google' is a bit inappropriate (although presently it might appear suitably descriptive).  How about the 'Age of Open Source' as an alternative?

The effort I refer to is The Coalition of the Willing and I'm learning some great stuff there and hopefully sharing appropriate knowledge (the whole point of it) and contributing my part to the group wisdom.

I guess the description there of Open Stewardship is particularly relevant.  I think the new operating philosophy that is described is particularly in-line with the co-operative principles - I guess the co-operative movement could be described as a form of open economics.

I suppose a big issue with working using web based resources is that it excludes those without web access.  However given the spread of such technology I'd suggest it would still be reasonably representative (I appreciate certain sections of society have less access) and offers the potential for a 'swarm' effect of unprecedented production.  Other channels of participation can be offered to those excluded.

Just ot ay that this thread is not dead - it just looks like the conversation has moved over the C-UK group on LinkedIn.

There has been a fair bit of conversation about this over at Linkedin - unfortunately (for thoose who aren't) I think you have to be registered there to view it.

direct link

Also off the back of some of the conversations and ideas there and similar conversations I've been having in other places I started a Etherpad document that I hope would be of interest to people here.  Feel free to edit if you feel so inclined -

Anyone can join the linked-in group (I or someone else will approve people wishing to join.)

 can you a) put my Jan 1-2 comment on it and b) tell me how to access linked-in


Hi Stephen,

I've posted a link to your comment linked-in (it was too long to copy/paste)

Regarding accessinglinked-in cdirectly Darren link above should work. If your not a registered user of linked in, you have to create an account, after that by clicking on that link, of this one below:


You can request to be added to the Co-operativesUK Group.

It is important to be realistic about what has changed and what has not changed in ‘the age of Google’? While in some ways demand for energy has been reduced, in many others it has been greatly increased. The internet has spread the demand for a Western consumer lifestyle into areas that formerly enjoyed a sufficiency approach to provisioning. And while information spreads freely to many countries, the movement of people is still constrained and money is still massively concentrated in those very centres of power that are the source of most internet activity. Thus we would take a sceptical view of what ‘the Age of Google’ has to offer the growing number of world citizens.

Ownership and control still matter, in fact they matter more in an era where ownership is often diffuse and hard to establish and where control at the institutional level is increasingly oppressive. The ambition for the co-operative movement should be to use the opportunities offered by globalisation and the internet, but ensuring that this is achieved in a way that is consistent with a downward trajectory in terms of energy use and a realistic view of the nature of corporate consolidation, including in the provision of internet and computer services.

This is a preliminary to a response to Robin Murray’s paper on behalf of Cardiff Institute for Co-operative Studies. As an educational institution based within a University, our response is focused on Section XVI: Education with a particular focus on higher education, and on Section XVII: Co-operative Intelligence.

Robin asks ‘What is the equivalent to the Co‑operative Bank if labour is the new capital?’

While this question helps to focus the debate it is crucial that we do not in any way equate labour and capital. Capital is a mythical entity, created by the system Marx called ‘capitalism’ to ensure the unequal distribution of wealth and power. ‘Labour’ is really people and, ideally, these people would have the freedom to meet their own needs without selling their labour in a market. It was to resolve the tension between labour and capital that the co-operative movement was established. The fact that it is so little recognised today is a more damning indictment of the failure of co-operative education than the fact that there is no co-operative business school.

The myth of spacelessness that is part of the globalisation panegyric is also frequently applied to education. Between Wikipedia and distance learning, we are told, the quality of education can only benefit from a greater level of connectedness. But excessive information can also be a burden. While the existence of Google undermines the traditional ‘banking model of education’ (Freire, 1993), the role of the educator in creating learning situations and in fostering the sorts of relationships of trust and inspiration that make learning possible are more important today, when many young people have so little experience of authentic human relationship.

In terms of higher education, the discussion should be framed in terms of a world where knowledge is once more ‘a fountain sealed’, since rising rates of student fees and the effective privatisation of universities will mean that the children of the lower-paid and those without a tradition of university education will be increasingly excluded. The corporatisation of the peer-review process, and the difficulty of gaining access to written research produced by academics for free, but sold to them by publishing groups at a profit, is also a source of mounting concern. In addition the education on offer, particularly in the business schools, assumes the competitive, capitalist model as hegemonic and inevitable. In this context, the attempts by earlier generations of co-operators to create their own universities become valid once more.

We very much like this paragraph:

There are of course many types of learning.  There are skills, like driving or cooking or working a computer, skills which in some hands merge into art. There are the many personal skills of how we relate to others and express and manage ourselves. There is formation which is the way the French and Spanish (and the Germans through their idea of ‘Bildung’) describe the process of creating character and identity, a particular way of thinking about and acting in the world. And connected to all of them is imagination, and a capacity to think about how life and society might be otherwise.

Conclusions and recommendations

In conclusion, we welcome this report into the role of the movement in stimulating and funding co-operative education, which we agree is long overdue. We would caution against being too distracted by enthusiasm over the opportunities offered by the virtual world, and would suggest that the best can be gained through focusing on its potential to create collaborative networks, which can then reinforce co-operative values of sharing and mutuality. We would propose that the Co-operative Business School should be organised as a network, maximising the value of academics already committed to co-operative values and principles and of which the Co-operative College would be a vital part. An expanded and well-resourced Society for Co-operative Studies could provide the hub for developing ‘co-operative intelligence’ and a leading example of the positive engagement between creators and users of research which the is the espoused aim of policy-makers.

Change AGEnts welcomes Robin Murray’s timely analysis of the context and critical success factors for a potential gearing up of the UK co-operative sector, and we are pleased to join the developing debate his paper has stimulated. Our response to the paper is that of long-standing ‘small c’ co-operators who are relatively new to the formal co-operative movement, and experts on age and ageing in the context of the wider social, political and economic changes in society.

About Us: Change AGEnts Network UK Ltd

Change AGEnts Network UK Ltd, (Change AGEnts) was established in mid 2009. Change Agents is an Industrial & Provident Society (society for the benefit of the community). The Society operates as a multi-stakeholder co-operative, incorporating:
• A Community of Interest
• A Community Of Practice, which operates as a small Worker Co-operative with Associates
• A small network of member organisations, who share Change AGEnts values and who, while not themselves co-operatives, fully support our co-operative principles.

The community of interest is known as the Older Peoples Advisory Group (OPAG). Members at local level elect office bearers and delegates to our regional and national OPAGs. They in turn elect delegates to the UK wide deliberative body, the UK OPAG Policy Forum.

The members of Change AGEnts board are
 The Chair, Secretary and Treasurer of the UK OPAG Policy Forum
 The Chairs of the four national OPAGs
 Three Co-directors
 Three Network Members

All have equal status as shareholders and decision makers, and decisions are made by consensus.

The co-operative aims to create the space for active citizenship for all older people, including those whose voices are seldom heard. With open membership and as a multi stakeholder co-operative, Change AGEnts seeks to engage both service users and workers in not just shaping and delivering services, but changing how - within and outside the co-operative movement - we think about older people ( Kendall and Harker 2002).

Our Approach To Co-operation in the Age Of Google

We agree that the UK co-operative movement needs to reassess its potential in the light of the coalition’s policy intentions, as articulated in the ‘Big Society’ agenda, and in the context of the ongoing revolution in information technology. We also believe this reassessment needs to recognise that at the moment, there is a tension between the demand for services and the capacity of radical co-operatives to reshape, not just service architecture and its means of delivery, but the very nature of those services.

Taking a broad social and community development approach, Change AGEnts has three areas of expertise we can draw on to contribute to the debate about the future of the co-operative movement.  Firstly, we read the review from the point of view of experienced civil society activists and community development workers. Secondly, we understand the needs and aspirations of what we call the ‘i Change’ generation, more commonly called Baby Boomers – those born between 1945 and 1965. Thirdly, our roots are in public sector service engagement and participation, as both ex local government employees and as older people using and shaping public services. We therefore believe we are well placed to tease out the challenges of public sector workers becoming motivated to form co-operatives (and mutuals) to deliver local services. 

The recently published guide to the coalition’s Decentralisation and Localism Bill sets out a radical vision. Whether we label this Big Society, community politics or neoliberalism, its implementation implies fundamental changes in thinking, in participation, in power, in funding, in tax distribution, in local public policy decision making – and the potential role of radical co-operatives.

We need to understand how to effectively engage with existing and future users or ‘consumers’ of public services; we need to grasp the demographic challenge (something Murray seems to view in a somewhat negative light); and we need to comprehend changing relationships between the locally elected councillors, commissioners and local authority officials who will be key players in local decision making, service realignment - and determining the potential future role of co-operatives and mutuals. In addition, we need to fully understand the systemic interdependencies between civil and civic society (Edwards, 2009) and the inherent differences between generational cohorts (Willetts, 2010; Beckett, 2010; Gronbach, 2008). We need to confront the tensions in the co-operative movement Murray correctly highlights, between the formal federated structures and processes of ‘established’ co-operation and the more fluid character of new social (associated) movements. Unless the co-operative movement does this work, the coalition’s policy intentions will appear to us as nothing more than meaningless political jingoism; we will fail to move beyond the status quo; we will not become a significant agent of social change in the 21st Century.

Change AGEnts believes that the values underpinning the co-operative movement and the values of co-operation underpinning its businesses and service activity can effectively confront the challenges and grasp the opportunities which Murray’s review highlights. Let us hope we will show the leadership, courage and determination necessary to influence the realignment of the existing power bases, whether that be within government bureaucracy or within the formal federated structures and processes of co-operation and economic governance (Murray p146).

We have therefore approached the review from the perspective of government policy towards decentralisation and participative democracy, social networks and the broader connections Murray has made, rather than simply as something driven by technological innovation. The communications revolution is indeed redrawing the economic landscape, and thus impacting on co-operation. Murray focuses on the ‘parallel social changes’ in which Google and the like play an critical part, but we believe it is the wider social determinants that will give co-operative models new relevance. We want to help take the review forward – contribute to making it a tool to help transform people’s everyday experience and give meaning to practical human co-operation. For Change AGEnts the issue is how far and to what extent  the social changes opened up by information technology will impact on the ageing of the population and older peoples’ right to be full participants, as citizens, in this social and communication revolution. Having broadband access is a start - but designing and having access to the networks and services of their choice, and within their control, will be the demands of the upcoming generations of older people.

Some General Observations

1. The Report is well argued and structured as an academic work and offers an interesting and insightful analysis into the historical economic and social roots of the co-operative movement. For a new co-operative such as Change AGEnts it has proved a useful source document and we have learnt a great deal. The three sections offer a comprehensive understanding of past, present and future. Its very comprehensiveness however, it runs the risk of the reader running out of  steam  -  a page turner it clearly isn’t!  Was the intended audience the broader membership of Co-operatives UK, as well as co-operative boards and executives?  Whilst Murray provided a synopsis, a separate accompanying published document might have been useful.  The jargon was at times alienating, and readers without a background in information technology,  sociology and economic theory were perhaps at a disadvantage. A plain English eight page summary, along the lines of the Think Pieces or New Insights, might have helped broaden access and allow  a broader cohort of members to participate.

2. The Review sometimes felt cautious and timid when addressing the tensions within the co-operative movement and one might be suspicious that Murray was trying to avoid treading on too many toes. There was sometimes too, a feeling that the brief, not only constricted the debate, but may have produced a less independent and robust analysis.
3. The Way Forward and summary propositions  reflected those tensions  and had the feel of being a little “uncertain. This may be unfair, but many of the issues Murray raised required perhaps, less the language of the diplomat, and more that of a radical campaigner and revolutionary!  Was the Review meant to fire the soul, reinvigorate the membership, challenge, reshape and bring about a robust social change with the co-operative movement in the vanguard ? 
4. The expertise and scholarship of Murray drew from a variety of fields and sources. It exhibited a mastery of the subject area under review which we appreciate and acknowledge. 
5. The international perspective was interesting but raised an important point as to transferability. The historical roots of co-operation and mutuality in different cultures may mean that what works in one country would not in another.  Here we would draw on the work of Edwards (2010) and the notion of civil society as the “good society”.
6. Co-operation within and between co-operatives and mutuals is clearly a given . The review could perhaps have played more on co-operation between co-operatives and other types of organisation, such as NGOs.  The information and communication revolution ( symbolized by Google) and who or what owns intellectual property rights, joint commissioning, and expansion of co-operatives in the world of health and social care provision and personalization remain uncharted in any meaningful way.
7. The Section on Evolutionary Competition ( page 25-27) was very powerful
8. Where were the voices and hence perspective of radical co-operatives?
9. In terms of public policy  (The Political Turn pp 2-3 ) assumptions are made with regard to ownership and  the individualism/collectivism debate. Whilst agreeing that this is an ideological and political debate, which potentially opens a political space for co-operation, it begs the question ,or rather raises the potential, of collective tyranny. Older people collectively (as with any age cohort or collective association) can, without checks and balances, control and even impose responses to need. The potential to thus act against progressive liberalism or develop services based on what is perceived as being in the public interest, will re-enforce stereotypes leading to poor practice - especially in the fields of social care or criminal justice. The baby boomer generation is an extremely individualised cohort. It was a key player  in advancing the Thatcher revolution of ‘me, me, me’ . It would be interesting to know the present age profile of  co-operative members, and in addition, the willingness of people presently aged 45 to 60 to become stakeholders in an expanded co-operative movement . It will be the Baby Boomers, and possibly the much smaller Generation X (born 1965-1984) who are the potential movers, shakers and leaders in advancing the Big Society. – but they may not want to take up the challenge.  Where will this debate take place within the co-operative movement, and who will lead it ?



‘Co-operatives’ As Associated Life And Agents Of Change

Corkerhill, near Glasgow offers an interesting historical forerunner, as to how an innovation of vast social significance transformed a small village into a 19th Century model of the 21st Century ‘ Big Society’. The Glasgow and South West Railway ( GSWR) built some 132 houses and a railway Institute. The institute fulfilled the functions of church, school, hall, reading room, library, bank, baths, recreation room and village store. Corker Hill, a village of under 700 people, was self-governing and managed by an annually elected committee of 31 members (Lambert 2010).

The GSWR were motivated by capitalism,  Nevertheless it saw the social capital and value of co-operation as a model for good governance - some may argue control.  However, as we reap the benefits of Google (a 20th Century transformative innovation) it is perhaps useful to reflect on how formal associations, like co-operatives, are part of civil society. The notion, assumption or belief that co-operatives are a ‘good thing’ is now being given the political seal of approval. Co-operatives UK, is right intellectually and practically to test the assumptions behind co-operatives and mutuals.  We would encourage this to be undertaken in the context that we are part of civil society and hence social capital. The political response to corporate business abuses would appear to be to promote local, community owned co-operatives.

The notion that people coming together, with a common purpose and underpinned by and through co-operation, is a mid 19th Century romance. The coalition view that such associations are a ‘vehicle for re-inventing whole societies’ and being in the vanguard of the big society has to be understood in the context of civil society (Edwards, 2009). The celebration of voluntary endeavor as a good thing, needs to be tested against the reality of business experience. As Murray points out , co-operatives may not, in certain circumstances, be the best way to provide certain products or services.  As Edwards says, “Associations matter hugely and should be encouraged, but there is equal danger in expecting too much … as if it were a ‘magic bullet’ for resolving the intractable social, economic and political problems” we currently face. He cites Mario Padron who said “don’t ask us to carry more than our capacity and then blame failure on us.”

We are not convinced that the policy rhetoric of localism in commissioning, provision, governance and so called power sharing, articulated in the forthcoming Decentralisation and Localism Bill, which will place civil servants and elected members within communities, will in and off itself overcome the corruption of power, the corruption of care and the endemic predisposition of civic society to blame the providers when things go wrong. If co-operatives are strengthened or created to undertake tasks and duties on behalf of Whitehall and town halls, then the very principles on which co-operatives and mutuals are based means this has to be done via dialogue, deliberation and negotiation rather than via enforced compliance or market incentivisation (Edwards, 2009 p 20).

Online social networks and their use as an effective means of exposé has arguably produced a resurgence of grass roots activism, especially among traditionally excluded communities. The belief  that voluntarism is increasing has to be evidenced in terms of who is actually volunteering and what they are actually doing. Setting up a co-operative, from our experience, becoming an owner, or shareholder and/or worker in that enterprise, is a challenge in itself, let alone being incorporated into some nebulous ‘Big Society’ framework. Change AGEnts is aware that these debates are taking place within the co-operative movement and that the opportunities are being viewed alongside the political and business risks. This will be of significant importance, if and when, co-operatives substantively enter the social care market place. The confidential work of Fisher et al (2010) regarding personalisation  gives us some early warnings.

It is understood that civil society and the state co-exist in a relationship of interdependency and that, regardless of the future of co-operatives in the age of Google, and the big society, co-operative businesses will not become part of government. The issue remains however that the policy intention of decentralisation and localism has the potential to have a significant impact on existing relationships within the co-operative movement.  Murray is quite diplomatic, bordering on evasiveness, about this point. As far as we know, co-operatives do not have a scrutiny or watchdog role on government activity. But should some of them come to be funded by and through local councils or GP commissioning to provide a range of care services ‘on behalf’ of government; or influence local priorities as a provider; or develop a change agent role advocating for local people, with members of those co-operatives agitating and demonstrating about inequality (for example) under a co-operative social brand, and mobilising local service users or communities - then relationships between co-operatives and their members or customers will change significantly. Fair Trade offers informative and useful models and lessons perhaps, in how to address these tensions.  Edwards, again, cautions that associated life ‘forfeits its claims to represent the broader agenda of civil society’ and it will be important, as Murray asserts, to protect the values and principles of being and remaining a co-operative.  For some sections of the public , co-operatives are useful local stores or something to call upon in times of the death of a family member. To have a co-operative provide home care, residential or day care, counseling services, child care, social work or health provision will certainly test the market trust the co-operative movement claims to have secured!  Displaced workers from the public sector, looking to set up an enterprise, will need to be comfortable and feel secure within the broader co-operative movement and its understanding of  their needs and professional values. This is not about Google. This is about being part of a movement which demonstrates and lives co-operation and partnerships. This is about a revolution in social change, and equality, and the gaps between rich and poor, north and south.  Are co-operatives to become agents of change in the 21st Century, and what could that mean?  Wider share ownership is one thing. Ownership through radical social action is another. We feel that these issues need to be kept under continuous review. We are, at the end of the day, supporting civic society and ensuring the trust and fairness inherent in the co-operative brand is not compromised.

Co-operation In The Age Of The Baby Boomers

Baby Boomers (b.1945-65) are generally considered to be ‘the wealthiest, fastest growing consumer group in the world’ and it goes without saying  that the current recession will, and is, impacting on this cohort (Chaston 2009). It is assumed that the Co-operative Group have developed strategic solutions and responses that take into account the moneyed segments of the maturing boomer market.  What is unclear from the Murray Review is how far market research, customer targeting and the broader UK co-operative strategy has taken into account an ageing population of customers and members, their engagement, and the individualised consumer citizen and what this means.  These should be seen as issues of critical gerontology, rather that through the lens of large multi million pound age sector charities needing to sell their products or services through the promotion of age dependency, sickness, debt servicing and funeral plans. 

Understanding baby boomer behaviour, their life course experiences to date, spending priorities and aspirations over their goods and services is one thing.  Understanding their attitudes to health and well being, fear and denial of growing older and measuring ‘care services’ according to their experience of being carers themselves is quite another. Overlay this with the national policy intentions behind the Big Society and the maturing boomers’ insatiable drive for self gratification,  and the co-operative movement can grasp the opportunities being offered by this cohort. In the UK the boomer generation can be further segmented between those born between 1945 and 1955 and the boomer generation born in the early 1960s, who are entirely different. To market to the boomers, to engage with them and respond to them, is to understand those differences. Early boomers may be IT competent ; later boomers even more so, but it is generations X and Y who have fully integrated IT into how they think, how they communicate and how they network.  Murray is in danger of focusing on the ageing of industrial countries, economic drag on generations X/Y and hordes of older people draining health and social care budgets and pension funds. This lens, we would argue, is the wrong one.  Even the term ‘elderly’ as used by politicians and the media (and Murray) reflects outdated and outmoded constructs of age and ageing. The boomer rejects, and rejects with a passion, any notion of being classified as ‘elderly‘.  If the co-operative movement reflect these constructs in terms of goods and services, attitudes to their ageing customer base and preparation for the big society then it will fail to respond on any terms, and fail completely, if it does not address the recommendations made by Murray.

Life-stage segmentation (understanding traits) could be helpful in the context of Murray’s thesis of Co-operative Intelligence (p 107-110 ) and the Scope of Consumer Co-operation ( chapter X1X ) and System Orchestration ( p 137-139). We do not pretend to be experts but can at least offer a perspective which takes into account a number of Boomer characteristics and broader factors. Examples being;
 Companies/Co-operatives considering entry into residential care of older people, home care and social care should recognise this is already an overcrowded market
 Provision of services that fulfill the Boomer life style aspirations might be more useful if a way of effectively engaging with them. Michael Parkinson just will not do.
 Healthy well being in later life which increases the Boomer’s physical and mental activities will be key
 Non medical solutions to so called pro/anti ageing properties will be welcomed
 Services and products that ‘postpone’ the visual impact of ageing
 Eating out, leisure, holidays, learning and adventure experiences
 Age related discount and concessions will not be seen as a key motivator to the Boomer - rather the opposite
 High quality and personalised services will be valued
 Accessing services via the internet is as high with the Boomer as that of younger people ( but see below )

The key message for co-operatives will be that they can relate to and have a sound knowledge of the self image, role assumptions and purchase behaviour of the Boomer. Their needs are heterogeneous and will be influenced by their sense of engagement with suppliers. A point well made in general terms by Murray. Despite the increase of virtual social networks it is important to also acknowledge that Boomers remain users of the conventional terrestrial advertising media channels and they shop, shop, shop! Negative age connotations will be rejected and mocked by Boomers (especially the later cohort ).

With regard to Boomers being interested, willing and able to become significantly involved  as co-operative shareholders, workers or volunteers in service provision ( whether it be a school, shop, post office, home care, or community group) is to make assumptions about this cohort which is, as yet, to be robustly tested.  Their characteristics/traits lean towards their being ‘inhaling’ consumers, non savers, unwise spenders, with questionable situational ethical standards, refusing to grow old and patronised by governments, third sector organisations, officials, shop attendants, call centres … or co-operatives. Boomers may not therefore be that motivated to take the power the coalition is so keen to transfer to them. We need to think about 2030 and beyond and not assume that the so-called demographic ‘time bomb’  is going to explode any time soon. There are three rules underpinning Boomers as consumers according to Grunbach (2001)
1. Make life easy                                  3.  Don’t rip me off
2. Save me some
Boomers are nostalgic, narcissistic, generous ( though this has been recently questioned by Willetts (2010) and Beckett (2010), inhale health care that makes them look and feel younger and spend on their grandchildren. Above all, the Boomers are challenging and changing the way people are ageing and “by and large a 65 year old Boomer will act younger and for the most part be healthier than previous generations” (Gronbach, 2001).

According to government data a third of our lives will be in retirement. Putting to one side the economic-political construct of retirement (Moynagh and Worsley, 2004), the questions facing government, co-operatives and public services are: how will we spend that time? What will we spend? And on whom? Failure to see the Boomer through their own lens, rather than that of the preceding generations, will seriously compromise the sustainability of retail and service businesses (funeral companies not withstanding), associated life and the civil and civic society, equalities and social inclusion and the political drive behind localism and decentralisation. (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009; Peters, 2003; Chaston, 2009; Jones et al, 2008).


Change AGEnts welcomes the opportunity to be part of the debate the Murray Review has generated. We welcome too and support the main thrust of Murray’s findings. Our contribution reflects both our expertise and current inexperience of the co-operative movement, being a new co-operative and exiles from the public sector.  We wanted to locate our contribution from the perspective of age and ageing, being older people (Boomers, no less ) and in the wider civil and civic society context.  Our anxiety is that the debate and deliberation about the future is not based on false assumptions, be that about ageing, political policy intentions, localism, public sector workers and decision makers or communities of interest. We believe that the additional synergies this paper has sought to make will help towards re enforcing past and present values and principles of co-operation and the democratisation of both civic and civil society leading to equality and fairness for all.

KENDALL L and HARKER L (Eds)  From Welfare to Wellbeing, the future of Social care. IPPR 2002
EDWARDS M  Civil Society ( Second edition) Polity 2009
WILLETTS D  The Pinch, How the baby boomers took their children’s future-and why they should give it back. Atlantic Books ( London) 2010
BECKETT F  What the Baby Boomers ever do for us ?  Why the children of the sixties lived the dream and failed the future.  Biteback ( London) 2010
GRONBACH  K.W.  The Age Curve, How to Profit from the Coming Demographic Storm. Amacon ( USA )
LAMBERT A. Lambert’s Railway Miscellany. Ebury Press ( London) 2010
CHASTON I. Boomer Marketing, Selling to a recession resistant market.  Routledge ( London and New York) 2009
MOYNAGH M and WORSLEY R.  The Opportunity of a Lifetime: Reshaping Retirement.
The Tomorrow Project and CIPD ( London) 2004
WILKINSON R and PICKETT K.  The Spirit Level. Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin
Books. Revised ed. (2010)
PETERS T.  Re-Imagine !  Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age .  Dorling Kinersley Ltd (2003)
Consumer Society, From passive to active consumption in Britain.  The Policy Press  ( 2008)

Change Agents       
April 2011
Change Agents Network UK Ltd
Register No. 30733-R
Sheffield Children’s Centre,
Shoreham Street
S1 4SR

Change Agents Network UK Ltd
Register No. 30733-R
Sheffield Children’s Centre,
Shoreham Street
S1 4SR