The world's next prevalent economic and governance system is already sprouting from the current one. This new system is called cooperatism and can be a driving force for healing our biosphere. With Polis we are helping its evolution along by providing methods, tools and funding to enable an ecosystem of distributed, self-governing organizations that prioritize people and planet over profit. These values-based organizations look and feel very different from the prevalent organizations of today.
Our world is dying. The prevalent system for organizing humanity has been too effective in transforming the planet’s precious resources into products people are willing to pay for. These products have been used up, leaving our planet running out of resources while toxic by-products accumulate. Even people have been cast as resources to be used up, and then further reduced to mere consumers. A growing group of especially young people faced with this dire truth are in search for a new way; a way to achieve their ambitious goals in fast growing industries while taking people and the planet into account. As millennials come of age it is in this and the next generation that our opportunity for redemption lies.
We find ourselves at the end of a cycle. Our communities seem to oscillate from a state of high cooperation to a state of highly centralized power. We start out valuing the collective as a means of survival and we find a healthy balance between individual needs and those of our community. Power then slowly centralizes until the collective breaks down into a group of individuals with high levels of inequality. Capitalism and communism—two sides of the same coin—have been templates for a society with a high degree of centralized power. Hierarchies have been the means through which those systems implemented rule by the few, and technology enabled the enormous scale we see today. It has been these structures that eroded the rights of most stakeholders (e.g. workers, customers) as more power centralized in the hands of a few individuals. Neoliberal capitalism is increasingly being challenged and with it the self-destructive illusion that selfishness is a virtue. To believe that humans are best when we are selfish and that an invisible hand will make it right, shows a lack of self respect that can only lead to our downfall—and that is exactly what is happening.
The next generation is waking up to the realization that we are an empathic, cooperative, reciprocal and intuitively moral species. Science supports this and with that knowledge in hand we are now plotting a path toward a new system. A system where we cooperate with all stakeholders to achieve common goals. Where we use technological advances to lower the marginal cost of our activities and to eventually achieve abundance for all. A system that is based on distributed and hard to centralize networks instead of hierarchies. Where we find a balance between the collective and our individual needs. And, where we prioritize having a positive impact on people and our biosphere over making ever more profit. Through this new balance we will be able to consistently form high functioning teams that reach highly competitive levels of efficiency. This new system is cooperatism.
The transition to a networked, distributed economy is well underway. Traditionally centralization of power increased efficiency because it came from centralization of the means of production. That made a lot of sense as business owners used those means to create value in a competitive environment. That changed with the advent of the internet where the people themselves provide the means of production. The internet has enabled giant businesses that no longer produce anything material, and instead simply connect producers with people. These businesses are essentially information brokers, connecting people to websites, to other people, to products, to rides, to guesthouses and even to lovers. Yet the value extracted from those new producers still goes to the owners of such businesses. Those information platforms have shown a tendency for a winner-take-all dynamic that centralizes most of the gains into the hands of a lucky few. When those organizations mature, they hold power over our lives in ways that are reminiscent of government without competition and run essentially as dictatorships.
It is important to realize that the size and power of those organizations is the new normal. As our connected networks expand to all aspects of society (e.g. energy, transportation) we are going to find opportunities for these zero marginal cost businesses across all industries. This will increasingly raise ethical questions around the power concentration that these businesses represent. It is in our best interest as humanity that we make sure that the next generation of these organizations represent a commons that is shared between all stakeholders, rather than a business owned by shareholders. Each stakeholder, whether a customer, a worker, a community member or a shareholder must have a say in the governance of the commons they represent. In fact, we envision an evolution of the cooperative concept that combines (a) stakeholder inclusion with (b) the knowledge and education necessary to achieve high participation and (c) tools and technology to support distributed organizations to achieve this at large scale.
Beyond the moral imperative, there are strong reasons why such organizations will outcompete hierarchical, pure profit-driven corporations. At the core is the radically different relationship that worker-owners have with the organization and each other. When done successfully this leads to a sense of ownership and an ability to impact the organization that is the basis for high performance and high participation. Their influence in decision making and their increased autonomy creates better lives for workers, not in the least due to the transparent and fair distribution of the profits to worker-owners in those organizations.
This way of working has far reaching consequences. High participatory cooperatives are able to deliver better quality products and services because of the responsibility that each worker takes in the production. Instead of destructive internal competition, cooperation or coopetition between workers or producers allow for mutually beneficial information sharing that results in innovation and prevention of common issues. Those factors also benefit production efficiency and cause lower prices and higher margins in the medium to long term. Alignment on core values and the noble cause of those organizations increase worker and customer loyalty which results in lower turnover, better communities and increased product-market-fit. They are also are more resistant to economic downturns and are able to adapt better to changing external conditions. This increases the lifetime value of these organizations, making them interesting investment opportunities.
In the past, centralized organizations drove the industrial revolution and with it raised the standards of living for many people. It was useful to bring us where we are today but it came with the consequence of a climate crisis and social breakdown that threatens whatever good was achieved. Humanity is at a crossroad and to keep doing business as usual would be irresponsible. Public opinion is changing when it comes to people and planet. That is impacting the decisions organizations such as banks and governments make, as well as how consumers spend their money. This will increasingly give cooperatism an edge over pure-profit capitalist organizations.
The time has come to change to a decentralized, fair and cooperative way of organizing so that all producers and consumers can participate and be a part of regenerating our world. Tomorrow is in our hands!
noun: polis; plural noun: poleis
a city state in ancient Greece, especially as considered in its ideal form for philosophical purposes.
We call ourselves Polis because we believe that the best organizations, the ones that prioritize people and planet over profit, are self-governing distributed organizations that include the voice of all stakeholders. These organizations do not have a centralized organizational structure. The idea of a network of self-sovereign city states opposed to a singular nation-state is a metaphor for how we see the organization of the ecosystems that we help incubate.
When we think of ancient Greece, we also think of Athens and how they pioneered democracy, a form of self-governance. No matter how flawed their implementation may have been, it has been the seed from which the idea of democracy sprouted.
Lastly, in the Dutch language (which some of us speak), “polis” means contract (specifically insurance contract). We believe that the social contract—the agreement among individuals to form an organized society through which they benefit through specified duties and rights—needs to be explicit and constitutes a necessary behavioral change. This can be done especially well in the organizations in which we work . Polis can therefore be seen as the tools and methods for us to make explicit the social contract at our workplace.
What role does Polis play?
Based on our experience with cooperative organizations we have learned that there is no silver bullet. There are steep requirements for personal growth for most people that join such an organization. This is especially true because these skills and mindsets are generally not cultivated in our society. We provide methods and tools to address this and help with the necessary personal growth.
We also find that cooperatives need to remain vigilant against certain centralizing tendencies that occur whenever humans exercise power. We address this by providing tools and methods for self governance aimed at sustaining digital cooperatives in the long term. Lastly we provide the necessary funding in order to get these startups off the ground.
Methods for cooperative governance
In order to facilitate the personal growth necessary to successfully participate in cooperatives, Polis’ governance team helps the startups we incubate to implement governance methods that work in their specific context. Through research and on the ground experience we have a wealth of solutions that apply to various situations. We provide coaching to teams to help worker-owners develop self-governing skills in the context of their team. This includes learning how to detect tensions, how to resolve conflicts and manage a team’s budget. We also help develop leadership skills, which take on a very different form in these non-hierarchical organizations. Our coaches help to develop these skills in a safe environment. Check out the polis governance blog articles for more details. We offer templates for setting up and organizing fast growing cooperative startups that aim to raise outside capital, and we help founders and early worker-owners to implement the governance structure necessary to thrive.
Infrastructure for a distributed society
The tools that we develop at Polis aim to provide infrastructure for digital governance of cooperatives and the digital economies related to their operations, and the communities they touch. In order for these organizations to be truly distributed, our tools must be distributed as well, because any form of technical centralization will act as a seed for centralization of power that could grow and fester over time. These tools have two primary roles to play in the success of digital cooperatives. Firstly, they provide the transparency necessary for everyone in the organization to understand the existing agreements, how those decisions came to be, and how to suggest changes to those agreements. These tools also provide transparency on the economic traffic of the organization. Secondly, they offer a way to provide friction against the inherent tendency for centralization as the organization matures.
Our tools will implement a distributed identity, or Proof-of-Humanity as some have called it. This allows for one-person-one-vote, instead of one-share-one-vote, an important requirement for digital cooperatives and cooperatives in general. These identities will be used for digital voting and other methods of participation in the governance of the digital cooperatives. They are based on a web-of-trust, which is a network of identities where the connections indicate a level of trust.
Governance cannot be seen as separate from economics as they are too intertwined. For instance, successful high participatory organizations implement frequent feedback of the economic results to all employees in the form of money and financial information. When we think about these organizations it becomes hard to see them as separate from the communities in which they operate. With this in mind we are researching how to use the web-of-trust to implement universal basic income (UBI). We believe UBI is a necessary component to help communities thrive as we move towards a zero marginal cost society where production beyond the initial fixed cost investment is nearly free across a wide range of products and services including energy, transportation and information.
Our work aims to find technologies that are truly distributed and partitionable. We see the current implementations of blockchains as promising yet insufficient due to their inherent disregard for the planet’s resources (PoW), their lack of scalability, and their tendency to centralize due to miner pools. We do believe there are solutions on the horizon that will adhere to our values. We are also using secure multi-party computation (sMPC). This technology allows for multiple participants to compute something without any of them individually able to read the inputs or to determine the outputs of what is being computed. Both technologies are building blocks for our solutions.
As an incubator we help cooperative startups with financial capital, mentorship and administrative services from idea stage to the first outside investment. The organizations we incubate are always values driven organizations that are working towards a solution that directly benefits people, our planet, or both. We do not invest in purely technical organizations nor organizations that are solving an abstract problem that does not immediately benefit people or our planet. We also invest in startups that directly solve problems that exist in the Polis ecosystem.
Please follow our blog for more details on our projects as they evolve.
If you are interested in working with us to build organizations that have a strongly positive impact on people and our planet then reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.