During the transition from steam and horse to fossil fuel,
the co-op model really began to prove its worth as a tool for helping people
work together. The model also helped rural farmers and businesses compete as local
economies began interacting globally.
The co-op model is a tool for organizing people and sharing
resources in a way that is fair, efficient, and effective. It can also do a
mean job of helping groups of people compete in a regional, national, or global
marketplace. The model does this by increasing a group or individual’s capacity
to participate within markets and economies they otherwise couldn’t.
With the ongoing amalgamations of municipalities, growing
influence of Tribal Councils and increasing sophistication of digital
communication tools, there is increasing opportunity for working together. Co-ops
have a place in
But there is one key piece of modern infrastructure missing
in a lot of rural and remote areas: broadband. To enter new markets, create
capacity and grow new opportunities, both rural and Indigenous communities need
access to high-quality broadband.
Broadband is 21
st Century infrastructure
The internet and the increasing dominance of online
aggregators, like Amazon, Facebook and Google, continue to influence and
develop the global economic landscape. The dominance of these global players
presents a threat to small business and rural communities, much like Walmart in
the early 2000s. But the opportunity that comes with connectivity is also
Like electricity or clean water, broadband is infrastructure
necessary for survival in the current economic environment. If you want your
town or business to succeed, they need access to broadband. To run competitive
businesses, attract employees and their families, and be investment ready,
broadband is a prerequisite.
Cooperatives brought electricity to rural America when no one else would, and they’ve given Main Street a fighting chance against the big boxes. They help millions buy homes. They pioneered the local, organic revival and the means of delivering fairtrade products from across the planet. Next, the internet. We have done this already, and we can do it again, even better than before.” – Nathan Schneider
Despite a lot of heavy wind by various governments on the
importance of rural broadband, little movement has been seen on the ground.
One way to combat this foot-dragging is to do it yourself. In the past, power, water and even an oil refinery was built on a DIY co-op principle. Broadband is today’s electricity. If others won’t do it for you, then you have to do it yourself.
Co-ops are a great option for those thinking of doing it
themselves. By working together to bring broadband the “last mile,” rural communities
and business can compete, innovate, and grow in a global marketplace.
The increasing footprint of transnational corporations and the challenges they place in front of small business has impacted rural communities particularly hard. Over time, an increase in urban factories and suburbs depleted people from rural areas. Better cars created quicker, safer drives for those who remained. The resulting regular trips to the city meant rural business revenues shrank.
To compete, small business needs to innovate and scale. One
way these businesses can scale is by working together and thinking outside the
box. The ubiquitous Co-op stores across western Canada are early, successful
examples of this strategy.
By working together, independent stores were able to capture
more of the supply chain and centralize distribution and administration so that
they could compete with the growing strength of national and transnational corporate
Today, the opportunity to scale remains but the strength of it
is based online and through modern communication tools.
“It needs to be easier for start-ups to see the co-op model as a viable option” – Nathan Schneider
Employees who work remotely,
to a 2-year Stanford University study, can be more productive and
cost-effective. Plus, working remotely, thanks to online tools like Monday and
Trello, has made developing a corporate structure and culture based on remote
support more feasible, perhaps even more viable, for some business models.
Moreover, First Nations, municipalities, and independent
businesses, such as small family farms and retail operations, have the growing
opportunity to create partnerships that transcend traditional physical and
These partnerships can be facilitated and managed online and
through an astute co-operative governance scheme.
Attract remote workers to your rural community
Online communication tools provide an opportunity for rural
communities to attract those interested in rural living, but also benefitting
from high-paying city office jobs, to work remotely.
The wages and families these remote workers bring with them
would support local businesses and increase key population numbers for
investment attraction and improve investment readiness. Forming a regional co-op
that markets itself to urbanites with a desire to move to rural surroundings is
Author Nathan Schneider presented about platform co-ops at the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan. Form platform co-ops
If you’re lucky enough to already have broadband, taking
your existing business online is a great way to increase market reach.
Platform co-ops or co-op businesses based on an online
presence instead of a storefront have been increasing in popularity in recent
years. One early success story is
Stocksy United out of Victoria, BC.
an Industry: The Stocksy United Story
Like a lot of co-ops, Stocksy focuses on elevating the
strengths of independent business owners. Instead of regulating independent photographers
through a prescriptive stock photo pipeline, Stocksy celebrates the talent,
individuality, and quality of an original artist. The result is the
of an industry and an incredibly unique and valuable product
offering. Research and development
In the same way
Federated Co-operatives Limited provides
wholesale, logistical, and administrative support to hundreds of independent
retail co-ops across western Canada, small to medium business in rural areas
could benefit from a research and development co-op that supplies equipment,
talent, and space to test products.
By combining purchasing power and acquiring a mutually
beneficial team of researchers, equipment, and facility, likeminded
entrepreneurs, such as oil seed producers, could benefit from group purchasing
power and aligned efforts.
The same could be done with small to medium manufacturers or
industrial and ag equipment users or leasers. Sharing is easy, cost effective
and efficient if you can get the governance right. The benefit to independent
business and rural communities could be tremendous.
Joining forces to compete
To compete with global corporate forces, small to medium
independent business and rural communities will have to join forces to compete.
It’s not a matter of when but how and in what way. The co-op model is one of
A co-op needs to create value, says Nathan Schneider, “not just with the services [it] offer[s] to members, but with the connections [it] enable[s] among members – and the efficiencies…members discover together. [The co-op model’s] specialty [is] in fostering trust on trustless networks, federating local communities across the globe. And [these future co-ops] will build on the long co-operative legacy with forms of online governance that are more transparent than the competition and co-ops past.”
The Future of Co-ops? A conversation with Nathan Schneider