The prefix “co-” has become a very trendy expression, widely used the fields of technology and innovation and gradually becoming adopted by the world of business and organisations. At present, and more or less appropriately, we talk about co-sharing, co-working, co-creating, co-producing, and so on; an entire series of slogans that make up a tapestry of knowledge, practices and habits that is often referred to as the “Co-World”. Big promises, hopes and myths have sprung up around this concept, which is difficult to encapsulate in a single definition and is interpreted in different ways by the various economic, political and social actors.
Although we humans have always felt the need to cooperate and collaborate, organising ourselves into various associative forms and developing numerous interpretative models and theories on forms of collective action, it has only been in the last decade that the “Co-World” has reached the attention of the media and become a new discursiveness. Whether it is a coincidence or otherwise, it is interesting to note that only in 2009 was the Nobel prize awarded to Elinor Ostrom for the revolutionary research into the commons she had been conducting since the 1970s. In 2005, the first space especially designed for co-working was opened in San Francisco. In 2004, the concept of co-creation was discussed in business literature by Prahalad and Ramaswamy. 2001 saw the founding of the Creative Commons, the first legal instruments to regulate the terms and conditions for the public sharing and use of an author’s creations.
Why has the “Co-World” received such rapid attention?
There is a certain social tendency towards a new feeling that it is necessary to create relationships based on solidarity and communitarianism, along with the development of an “altruistic” generational culture. Additionally, exponential population growth is exerting pressure on natural and economic resources, which also drives the search for and adoption of “co”-type solutions. On top of that, in a time of serious and prolonged economic recession – particularly in Europe – new models of production, management and consumption are economically attractive. They allow for financial savings and the creation of new ideas and added value, and provide access to goods and services that would otherwise be unattainable.
However, there is a third factor that has boosted the “Co-World” spectacularly: the development of computer technology, and in particular the internet, social networks and mobile devices. Information technology cuts distance, aids mobility, dematerialises resources, reduces timescales, stores and manages large amounts of information, and much more.
If we consider the extraordinary impact on the costs of transactions, searches and opportunities, and the far-reaching network effects generated by this kind of technology, it is easy to understand the rapid ascent and spread of the “Co-World”. 2.0 and 3.0 technologies have created a suitable support structure for the flowering of new solutions that enable the co-creation, sharing, leasing and exchange of ideas, products, services and experiences.
The diverse range of initiatives of the “Co-World”, developed in the areas of mobility, culture, tourism and even finance, share certain common elements. First, there is a social capital that has been created through technologically measurable, distance-based relationships. Second, there is a lack of intermediation in these relationships, which could potentially mean a significant reduction in monopolies and inefficiency, in both the economic and political spheres.
Is all that glitters, gold? Unfortunately, no. In my opinion, there are two problematic areas:
1) The risk that the media enthusiasm for the opportunities presented by the “Co-World” will not coalesce into a full adoption of the concept in our personal and professional lives. How many times have the plentiful resources and tools at our disposal for the sharing of information and knowledge gone unused in our work environments? Shared folders and calendars lying empty, project-management tools barely used, corporate social networks standing silent… these are common examples.
2) Even more serious is the risk that the “Co-World” will be co-opted during the scalability stage. Far from being a neutral factor, technology – depending on its design and distribution – can replicate the same dynamics of inequality and injustice that are found in contemporary society and which the “Co-World” seeks in some way to change. In its most radical sense, the “Co-World” is presented as a new model for economic and social relationships founded on trust, with the intention to promote processes of development and empowerment in society. However, in its most twisted form the “Co-World” can be a source of superficiality, as demonstrated by certain cases involving inaccuracies or errors on Wikipedia; it can also support hegemonic ways of thinking, owing to the combination of the lack of digital alphabetisation of users and the viral nature of 2.0 instruments such as Facebook and YouTube; and it can also lead to new forms of political passivity, as has been the case with clicktivism. Moreover, there is a real risk that co-creation might not represent a form of free and open collaboration between peers, and that it is instead a new instrument to control and subordinate citizen-consumers by reinforcing inequalities and privileges. Companies which use business models based on co-creation have the significant responsibility of ensuring the trust on which these models are founded does not run out.
By themselves, technological mediums cannot achieve a cultural change that favours the adoption of collaborative practices at the individual and collective level. That would require a political and educational project to be implemented in homes, organisations, companies and the State as a whole. Who can be the agents for this project of change? Citizens, by adopting new, collaborative routines; developers of free software, by creating and improving the available technology; social enterprise, by designing new business models; citizens’ associations, by organising cooperative processes; and the State itself, in both its local and national manifestations, by defining policies that help citizens to develop the capacities they need in order to participate fully in the “Co-World”. There are a few small examples where these processes of change – driven in positive directions by technological development – are occurring. One of them can be found very close to Barcelona, in Cornellà de Llobregat, where the “Citilab” initiative is mobilising citizens, companies, public bodies and educational centres to take on the challenge of creating and innovating technologies, products, services and business models that respond to genuine needs.
It is clear that technology has a very important role to play in the promotion of a more cooperative and collaborative world. That is why citizens should participate in technological development, across different modalities from conception through to use in everyday life. There are positive examples that we must highlight and replicate on a larger scale. From bottom to top.