Digital Tools for Self-Organized Change

Gemma Copeland is an interdependent digital designer building digital tools that facilitate and empower grassroots movements and organizations. She is part of a London-based nonprofit workers cooperative of software engineers, designers and organizers called Common Knowledge. In this interview, I talked to Gemma about the ins and outs of running a grassroots activism focused co-op, about the nature and best practices for contemporary protest and political organizing, as well as about saving ourselves from a dystopian future.

Hi Gemma! What’s your professional background and what are the key areas you’ve been working on?

Gemma Copeland: I’m a digital designer, originally from Australia, but I’ve spent most of my career working in the Netherlands and the UK. I have mainly been working within the cultural, educational and social innovation sectors. I’m particularly interested in organizations that have social engagement element in their work. I’m also part of the self-organized education and design collective in London, called Evening Class. The idea behind which is providing a space for self-education outside of industry and academy. Over time, it has evolved into a space for solidarity and consciousness-raising, as well as prototyping alternative practices within design. We collaborate on projects together and often work with other activist groups. Being part of that collective got me interested in self-organized and cooperative structures. It’s important to focus on not just the type of work you do, but also to look at how you do the work, how you structure the organization. Through Evening Class, I found Common Knowledge earlier this year, and have recently joined them.

What kind of organization is Common Knowledge?
Common Knowledge is a nonprofit workers cooperative building digital tools for direct politics. It started last October in London. There are seven members, four of whom are active at the moment. We are a mix of software engineers, product designers and researchers. We all move between various skills and specialities, and we all in some way or another come from an activist background as well. We are specifically focused on designing and building tools that enable direct rather than representational politics. We collaborate with grassroots activists — for example, with people having problems in their workplace, facing housing crises or responding to racism — rather than traditional political organizations. This kind of direct activism is about people coming together and collectively responding to those problems within their own communities.

Are you working with individuals or communities and existing organizations?
We are doing a broad range of work. One of the products we are developing is an app called Catalyst, which is focused on connecting people who want to get involved in political activism but aren’t already. The app asks them what they are concerned about and then connects them to different organizations in their area that are addressing these concerns. Our next step is to partner with the organizers of these existing groups themselves, and to co-design tools that improve their processes. The final aim is to give people the tools, confidence and network to start groups themselves.

What are the groups that you’re engaging with?
Some of the groups we’re currently working with are the Left Book Club, a radical book club in the UK founded by Pluto Press; London Renters Union, which demands better housing rights for Londoners; and United Voices of the World, a workplace rights union. The idea is to research and build tools with them in a democratic and bottom-up way, rather than relying on our assumptions and imposing these on them. Eventually we’ll make it into a generic program that we will be able to roll out more broadly. The idea is to document everything as we go and eventually make it open source, so that others can build upon what we make.

What are the organizational practices and the roles and responsibilities within Common Knowledge coop?
We endeavour to enact the cooperative and democratic processes that we recommend to others in everything that we do. We have four active members at the moment, each with different areas of expertise, who take on a range of different roles within the co-op.

In terms of digital tools, we use Notion — it has become our collective brain and we find it much better other than using something like Slack. With Notion you’re building a knowledge base, a wiki, collectively. You can have conversations, but they are made directly in the context of the specific documentation you’re creating. It’s also interesting to watch this gradually build up as people contribute to different areas. You can see what people are working on, without having to communicate it all the time. It’s also great for onboarding new people.

In terms of other practices we apply, one of them is following agile sprints and build-measure-learn cycles. What we really want to do is to harness the power of technology to democractic ends, which includes the organizational practices favoured by start-ups. We believe that the Agile methodology is inherently really democratic — gives people lots of autonomy, is quite non-hierarchical and demands open communication between individuals. Agile teams, if implemented well, are efficient self-organized groups. Another example would be the Sprint book methodology — doing a week of concentrated work, focused on prototyping very quickly, and directly learning from your users.

How do you make decisions within the co-op?
For decision-making, we use a process called sociocracy, which I really like. The idea is that decisions are made through consent rather than consensus. Rather than looking for everyone to be completely onboard with every decision, someone makes a proposal that is directly discussed within the group. People can ask questions about the proposal and state their “critical concerns”. If someone has a critical concern, it means that they believe the proposal diverges from the core vision, aims or ethics of the group. Otherwise, the framework for deciding whether we should go ahead is “is it good enough for now and safe enough to try?” This idea of “good enough for now” is also about experimenting, trying to see if things work, and reflecting, which is also related to the build-measure-learn cycle.

What are the digital tools that enable this way of working?
We use Loomio quite a lot, it’s one of my favourite digital tools. It’s quite simple but it can be super powerful. You can make decisions together and there’s a range of options for how decisions are structured — a poll, ranking options and so on. Everyone can vote and add comments, and in the end you have both the outcome of the decision and a digital record of it. This works very well as a means of practicing sociocracy. Loomio grew out of Occupy Wall Street, when activists and social entrepreneurs realised they needed to solve the same problem: fast, inclusive, effective decision-making without meetings. It’s really interesting to see a tool that itself has these autonomous, self-organized origins.

Can you talk more about the transition from someone learning about the co-op and starting to volunteer to then becoming a member and participating in the decision making and financial planning process?
I can only speak from my own experience, and I think that with any collective, it’s very important to make sure that there’s a good personal match and affinity, even more so than what you can technically bring to the group. It’s so much about whether you can trust a person. When I joined Common Knowledge, we had a bunch of meetings and we were working out how I could fit. They also asked me what I wanted to get out of it, rather as in the traditional hierarchical structure which is all about what value you can bring to the company.

Once I joined, I was able to participate in organizational and financial decisions straight away. The reasoning behind this was that making decisions together is an important part of acting together and working together — it seems strange to have less input just because you’re a new member. It feels like a lot of the systems that we use, like sociocracy, provide necessary safeguards anyways. The outcome is that each person has a lot of autonomy within the collective, which is empowering but also quite interesting as an exercise.

Are you planning to grow the cooperative and include more people in it, including the communities you are serving?
That’s the eventual aim but, in my opinion, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. The co-founder of Loomio, Richard Bartlett, proposed the idea of “microsolidarity” in 2018. He argues that there is so much that can be achieved by small groups of people and that it’s better to build multiple small teams to work together and share knowledge directly, rather than to build huge co-ops. These teams can then connect and work in solidarity with a wider network. They can can also include collaborators in a non-hierarchical way, rather than just acting in traditional roles of client and service-provider.

Can you talk more about your general financial management — do people get paid for their work maintaining the co-op, or is it mainly for direct consultancy work?
One of our principles is that people should be paid fairly for their work, and our eventual intention is for this to cover the labour that goes into running the co-op as well. When doing consultancy tasks, we have a flat financial structure — everyone gets paid the same. We have transparent finances within the co-op at the moment and the goal is to also make these public.

Do you have a written set of rules?
The key part of any self-organized groups is having a shared vision but also a very clear protocol. Everything needs to be well-documented and explicit. It’s also important to note that while it’s explicit, it’s not fixed. Everything is open to change, proposals can be adjusted. It enables a way more fluid collaboration — everything is on the table and nothing is hidden. In general, I think it’s very important to spend time thinking about organizational rules and principles. I really like this way of working — you don’t define the rules before you do the thing, but instead you try it out, then document it and adjust this as you go

Are there any best practices for running a co-op that you could share?
Establishing clear communication and openness around freely questioning and discussing everything. Actively giving members autonomy and ownership from the outset.

That makes sense. Let’s talk about the projects you’re working on in detail.
The main project so far is called Catalyst, which I mentioned before. We’ve been working on it for about a year, in five concentrated sprints. We started with a mix of ethnographic research and rapid prototyping in Hackney, London, where we interviewed a bunch of organizers about their own path towards activism, and the tools they use in organizing. We built an experimental service based on existing software, such as Typeform, WhatsApp, Airtable. The prototype asked people “what issues are you concerned about and what’s your capacity?” and then connected them directly to relevant events and organizers. This was definitely an interesting process, both the interview and prototyping stages. It confirmed a couple of hypotheses throughout the process. Organizers are using existing consumer technology but are limited by it, and frustrated. We learned a lot about what gets people actively engaged in politics. We also found out that, yes, it is possible to use digital tools to get people to go to events. The surprising aspect was that it’s almost easier than expected to get people to go to events, but that you also need a buy-in from the organizers themselves. Based on that, we decided that the next focus of work will be on organizers, and how to improve their capacity.

Can you talk a little bit about Extinction Rebellion, the fastest growing direct action climate change organization?
Extinction Rebellion (XR) is interesting — it has had a global viral growth and has a different demographic to the norm. I think that part of the reason is that climate crisis affects everyone, it’s widespread and we really have to work together to address it. Part of it is also the urgency of the situation. Politics these days is so chaotic, constant crisis is normal and people don’t trust the usual institutions, or even what we were taught is real or true. The outcome is that people are alienated from politics, and they are scared. These are perhaps the reasons why there have been so many global climate strikes. XR has been clever with having clear demands. It’s also great that anyone can use their banner in their own in an independent, non-hierarchical way.

Do you have any other examples of any other contemporary protest movements that stand out in terms of their organizational practices?

The protest movement in Hong Kong is very interesting in the context of self-organization and technology. There are Telegram groups with tens of thousands of people where they use polls to collectively decide where to go next, whether they should assemble somewhere or disperse. They have been using Airdrop to create ad hoc peer-to-peer networks where they can share instructions, which is really cool. These types of communication tools have a huge importance within activist organizations. “Misusing” these technologies in a non-hierarchical and ad hoc way, that’s really clever.

It’s interesting how far we’ve come from the Arab Spring, which marked the onset of social media powered protests.

Yes, right now there seems to be so many more private group chats, rather than broadcasts or public Facebook communities. I have so many apps on my phone for various political organizing. Telegram, Signal, WhatsApp, Mattermost, Slack, Discord, RocketChat… that’s way too many!
Apart from Signal and Mattermost, there are major security and privacy concerns with most of them, as well as fundamental UX problems. If you have a group with thousands of people, so much messaging gets lost, you can’t tell who you are talking to. Even though there’s a use case for appropriating these tools, everything has to be retrofitted for political organizing. It is kind of crazy that an organization like XR is using Basecamp — it seems not fit for purpose and also not secure. Same with all these different groups using Google Drive, which seems so antithetical to their principles… I’ve talked to a number of different organizers and noticed they use Google Drive, but a lot of the time is the same answer — everyone is already there, it’s easy, it’s free. Companies like Google and Facebook have so much unfair advantage when creating tools like this — they have so much money from advertising that they can offer products for free. At the end of the day, it’s not working in your best interest at all to use them, as a political organizer.

Yes, that’s a big challenge. Speaking of which — what are the characteristics of the digital tools and platforms suited for political organizing?

End-to-end encryption is a huge one. Making it open source too, as this is the way we create a commons and build networks, as well as give people the ability to understand what they’re working with. The ability to have control over the tool you are using, that’s a pretty fundamental aspect.

Is there any other protest movement that sparked your attention lately?
The Fck Boris protest in London against the election of Boris Johnson as the UK Prime Minister was very interesting — it was organized by a coalition of different groups in London. They were able to mobilize very quickly and get a huge turnout (about 10,000), especially among young people. It’s a really good example of different grassroots organizations working together and pooling their knowledge, and acting much more efficiently because of this. The protest had a very clear visual language and atmosphere — it was almost like a flash festival. I was very impressed at what they managed to put together in such a short time.

Perhaps, in the end, it’s not only about the tools that people have but also the energy behind it, the levels of anger and frustration..?

One of the things we come back to a lot is that yes, we want to make digital tools, but that’s not really our end goal. What it really comes down to is about people, and connecting people with other people. The tool itself is not really important if you don’t have the social and political will behind it.

It’s interesting to see how the nature of protest evolved in the digital space. There used to be a time where people engaged in “clicktivism” from the comfort of their smartphones, which gave them a feel-good illusion that clicking “like” on a Facebook page or tweeting incendiary messages is equivalent to activism that effects change. It seems that now the time has come to walk out on the streets.

Yes, it seems like there’s a widespread rejection of major digital platforms. People are really wanting to move away from them and to show up physically. I personally first heard about Extinction Rebellion because I saw their stickers around London, it wasn’t through social media.

Let’s talk about another issue area you are focusing on — workers rights in the digital economy and the fate of employees of digital platforms. According to recent data, between 2016 and 2019 the number of people working for digital platforms in the UK doubled to 4.7 million, one in ten of the entire workforce. Millions of people are now in some form of precarious work, their wages fail to keep pace with the rising living cost, they’re facing lower pay and poor working conditions… Is this something that you also address? What are the ways to empower these people?

When I think about the key challenges facing those people… it’s so many! It’s hard to pinpoint one issue to talk about, and it all feels dystopian and depressing. You have the layer of surveillance, which applies to everyone. People are just exhausted and accept this as a given. Then you look at the gig economy and how technology is used to dehumanize these workers… Under surveillance capitalism, we are all forced to be these isolated consumers, operating in a competitive environment, while everything around us is monitored and harvested for data. In a way, technology is confining us and keeping us separate from each other. It makes it difficult to have self-determination or form strong social groups. What we really want to do is to give workers, and people more generally, access to knowledge and tools — in a sense, consciousness-raising. It also comes back to connecting them with others, building networks, connecting them with unions and helping unions to connect with them — getting them to work in collaboration and in solidarity with others in order to collectively change their situation. In Training for Exploitation?, Precarious Workers Brigade frame self-organized groups as a way of not just dealing with capitalism, but also of creating an alternative to capitalism, building places of identity, solidarity and education, in parallel to the structures that already exist.

Where does the accountability lie? We can empower workers, but in this marketplace situation we also need awareness on the side of the consumer and technology companies.

Definitely, there needs to be solidarity between workers and consumers, recognizing that we are all basically in the same situation under capitalism. A company like Uber for example, the way that its enabled by technology — it really lends itself to be a platform co-op. It feels like the “sharing economy” has interesting foundations, but because it was made in Silicon Valley for venture capitalists, it went a certain way. But we need to take these things back and build them in a way that the workers own them instead. A huge problem for platform co-ops is that it’s expensive to start those things — how do you get the initial seed funding if you can’t go to a venture capitalist? One of the things we want to look at and share knowledge about is financial structures, how can we make these things sustainable.

In order to shed light on those issues and effect change, do you want to exert pressure directly on the companies? Are we giving up on policymakers and regulation? What’s the ideal route?

Our focus at Common Knowledge is not about regulation. I recently read The Shock Doctrine of the Left by Graham Jones, which has informed a lot of my thinking about these approaches. It describes different ways of direct political action: Smashing: protest and disobedience; Building: building viable alternatives next to mainstream ones (which I would say is our main focus); Taming, which is about regulation and working within the electoral political system; and Healing, which is about reproductive labour. You can approach problems in all these different ways. For such complex and society-wide problems, there’s no one single answer or approach. The way we have strength is having lots of different people trying lots of different things. Regulation should still be a focus, it’s just not ours.

Can you share some examples of various groups working together towards shared goals, for example from one of your political action communities on Telegram?

From the environmental perspective, I’ve gone to a few meetings run by a group called Divest Islington, focused on divestment campaigns specifically for Islington (a borough of London). They succeed in getting Islington council to divest from fossil fuels, and have now been looking at what a Green New Deal could look like, specifically for Islington. More recently, they organized a meeting with representatives of different local campaigns — other divestment groups, general environmental activism groups and groups focused specifically on air pollution around schools. Each group has a different focus, whether it is lobbying or direct action, but in the end they all recognize that we have the same aims. In the meeting we spoke about how we could support each other and work together. The strength comes from having a really broad range of groups and recognizing the solidarity amongst them.

Final question: Given the general perception of an impending dystopian techno-capitalist doom, are you optimistic about the future?

I think optimism is a very interesting thing to talk about. On one hand I’m very sceptical of techno-optimism and believing that technology will save us. I really don’t believe that and I think it’s what has led us to a lot of trouble in the past. Technology on its own is not going to solve anything, but I do think that technology can be a very powerful tool.

In some ways the situation is very bleak, especially in terms of the environment, and this sometimes can get very overwhelming. I was reading this great article the other day, called Beyond Hope. The general argument is that hope is not actually useful — if you’re hoping for something you think that some external factor is going to solve it for you. Whereas if you realise that you have agency over something, you just do the work. I agree that it’s a much more powerful mentality. We do actually have agency and we all just need to do something. A crucial part of it is moving from individual mindset to a collective mindset — rather than getting overwhelmed and thinking that there’s nothing one can do, and seeing oneself as a very small part of a much greater whole. There’s something more comforting and powerful, to instead think of oneself within a context of a global movement.

Thank you!

This interview was conducted by Ola Kohut in Berlin on 12th September 2019.