Interview with Marcel Schouwenaar: Are housing cooperatives the future?

Recently as part of my Edgeryders fellowship in the Internet of Humans program, I had the opportunity to interview designer and technologist — and long time collaborator — Marcel Schouwenaar (@Marcel, Twitter). Marcel co-founded Rotterdam-based design studio The Incredible Machine, helped kickstart ThingsCon in the Netherlands, co-authored the IoT Design Manifesto and recently has been exploring the cooperative movement, especially housing co-ops.

Below, the transcript of our interview, slightly edited for easier reading. Enjoy, and share your thoughts!

Here goes!

 

Peter:
Marcel, would you maybe first just tell us a little bit about your background and then we can start from there.

Marcel:
So my name is Marcel Schouwenaar. I’m a designer by trade and I’ve been working in the field of emerging technologies for the last 10ish years. Mainly as a consultant working with companies trying to implement new ideas around IoT or blockchain, doing a lot of concept work. A couple of years ago, we got a little bit the itch about what technology is, you know — the impact of technology. Considering what is ethical was not ethical. We ran into some issues there ourselves and from then on, we commit ourselves to creating more ethical technology.

I really work with our clients to implement technology around values of privacy and security.To that end, we published an IoT design manifesto and I collaborated with you and a whole bunch of other people to organize this yearly conference and a bunch of other events called ThingsCon. And I think it was about a year or a year and a half ago that we realized, when you talk about ethics and technology to some part, it’s about the ethics and the the moral compass of those who develop it and those who create it. But I think the main driving factor or most influential factor in what type of technology gets developed and which one doesn’t is the incentive structure around the technology. It’s the business model. It’s how the business is structured. It’s about how you relate to investors. It’s about how you how get your funding. Are you the client or the product? And that led us to investigate how we can leverage technology to empower the cooperative movement. We’re now looking into if we can develop technology to help housing cooperatives get off the ground.

Peter:
That covered a lot of ground. Maybe let’s take it a little bit from the top because I think there’s a lot in there. One thing you mentioned that a lot of the work you do now focuses around is the business model side of things. So there’s a bit of a counter narrative to what’s become the cliche of the Silicon Valley model — which is inherently a pretty hardcore neoliberal model — and how that can work within a more human centric model. That seems to be a theme in your work. And the other is responsible technology and how to build the technologies in a way that they foster better behavior and better outcomes.

We first met when you came to the very first ThingsCon event out of what I can only imagine was a whim and a big gamble on this being worth the trip over to Berlin. And a year who later you were the one one of the key people who brought ThingsCon to the Netherlands, where we have our strongest community anywhere in the world, very much thanks to your commitment and getting that started.

What made you come to the first ThingsCon and to then bring it over? Because at the time, I don’t think you were so explicit about that focus of your area (on responsible tech). You were doing product design and design work, but in a more classical model at that time, right?

Marcel:
Yeah, back then we used to be a more traditional design studio, but in a sense that we’re more focusing on Future content for our clients. So really looking at opportunities in emerging technologies, and IoT came natural to us. The field of IoT came very natural to us because we have a background in hardware. I have a background in software development as well. So it’s very natural to look at the world around us and see: Can we reimagine it if we hook it up to the internet? What could it be? From what I remember at least and this being 2013 to 2014? So this was a whole new category of products. You know, we were still imagining this. There was no, say, Amazon Alexa.

This was all pretty new and it was an exciting category and it felt like hey, you know, if we tap into this technology, we can do things more efficiently, like more energy efficient. There’s so much inefficiency in this world. You know, why is the garbage truck just driving around looking for which bin to pick up, you know, let the bin call for a pickup. It makes so much sense. And it was in that period that I, through Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino recommended for me to go to ThingsCon and explore what’s happening there, and we were really looking for a community. But back then, I have to admit, I only saw upsides. I was looking for that story. I was looking for those exciting ideas to share this inspiration and share this fire. And I think that that was
definitely the energy of the first ThingsCon.

Peter:
Yes! That that space has really changed a little bit. On the one hand, on the positive side, things have professionalized a lot. But also we’ve seen a lot of like the darker underbelly of that particular field.

Marcel:
It’s funny how fast that went. The first year, I really came driving down to Berlin with my car filled to the brim with electronics to hack a bunch. I brought a bunch of electric amps, which were Arduino-like boards that you can easily hook up to the internet. And we did this fun workshop where we hack together like this huge Rube Goldberg machine that tweeted and that responded to things happening on the internet. I loved that energy of that first year ThingsCon. So if there was anything that I wanted to take home from that event was that energy and that inspiration and that exchange.

But then in the meanwhile, we worked as consultants. The conversation around future products kind of shifted from, you know, what are exciting experiences. I think we departed from the experience side. It was more about, what is the business side? What are the efficiencies, how can we put some numbers behind those efficiencies? What’s the architecture? What’s the business model? It was around that time that we’re going to talk about things like vendor lock-in, data ownership, about hooking people up to an ecosystem. Those were things people were playing around with in the business domain. And at first, you know, it was fine. I mean, that’s what doing business can be about and you help like the best player to win, but I think in pursuit of the competitive edge the conversation was eating into human dignity.

For instance, worker exploitation was an important theme that we saw, like a lot of companies were like: Hey, can you help us out with monitoring the workplace, with monitoring the behavior of people in the workplace. It starts off with tracking delivery vans, and then tracking deliveries, like tracking packages. Let’s not lose the package. And the next things will be, can we quantify the behavior of the people handling those packages, and optimize delivery of those packages. And it was slowly creeping into this area where you would feel like “Do we want this? Do we want to quantify everything, know everything and use that knowledge, to whose benefit?" That shaped I think a lot of the discourse that was brought to the subsequent ThingsCon events. And it was hard to imagine and still is, but we need to ask"okay, but then how do we leverage these technologies?”

Maybe you can say “So, are we going to be Luddites? Are we going to push this technology out? Do we say no to it, restrict it? Do we regulate? Do we limit? Or is there something else that’s possible?"

And that’s now opening up a new debate.

Peter:
This is essentially asking not just what can we do, but what is desirable to do. Not just what’s possible, but what is desirable and responsible. There is like a lot wrapped up in this fight. I feel the very same shift. I think we were on the same journey together, where at the same time it places these things in a debate on a foundation of digital or human rights, and also on providing a level playing field between those who build technologies and those who would be living with them. I don’t want to call them just the users, because those living with the technology and impacted by it are not necessarily users, they could just be other people as well.

From there, you then went on to publish the IoT design Manifesto which had… 10 principles?

Marcel:
Of course it has 10 principles, what’s a manifesto that doesn’t have exactly 10 principles. (laughs)

Peter:
What I found interesting is not just that these principles have held up really well. As always with these things, people keep asking, what does it mean, how do you operationalize that, but that’s not the job of a principle? These principles, I think, have held up really, really well. And I believe you actually used them in your daily work, right? You didn’t just publish this as a social signal. The manifesto also helped the right clients to find you, and the wrong clients to avoid you. And you’d use the manifesto in client contexts, didn’t you?

Marcel:
Yeah, we used it as a conversation starter. Because how do you engage in conversation with that client that wants to attract workers or something. It’s hard to be very articulate about if you if you haven’t established the framing of your thinking. We were trying to establish a level playing field, in order to depart from a place of shared shared knowledge. So we had to create that shared knowledge base. You can read the manifesto at iotmanifesto.com.

Peter:
I’ll just read the headlines, not the explainers:

We don’t believe the hype.
We design useful things.
We aim for the win, win win.
We keep everyone and everything secure.
We build and promote a culture of privacy.
We are deliberate about what data we collect.
We make the parties associated with an IoT product explicit.
We empower users to be the masters of their own domain.
We design things for their lifetime.
And in the end, we’re human beings.

Marcel:
It held up pretty well. But if I would do it again, I would even have more particular or more explicit principles in there. It addressed all these issues. It was addressing transparency, it was addressing, are we in this for the right reasons? Are we respecting privacy? Are we investing in security?

Peter:
It’s essentially a map of all the potential areas from privacy to security to data ownership, the whole thing, right?

Marcel:
Yeah. And it really helps you guide through all of these. Even within our team, it happens that we have a certain conversation and someone brings up like, “hey, are we keeping everything and everyone secure? Are we aiming for the win win win or is this…?” You know, it helps to set the stage for a conversation, rather than what to do. And I think that’s also why it was pretty widely adopted. It isn’t really “choosing color,” in a sense, you know, it doesn’t really commit yourself to a certain stance or a certain position. But it helps you mention the things that we find important. And then allow yourself to say how important they are and how committed you can be.

And now we’re creating our own startup. We’re having these trade-offs all the time, you know, we’re all the time looking at the manifesto. We design things to last for a lifetime: So we’re now focusing on these housing cooperatives, these will exist for 30 years, right? Or 50 years or if it works out for 100 years, they will outlast us. Hopefully we don’t exist in 100 years anymore. Hopefully. I don’t think we should exist, and our product potentially should not exist in 100 years anymore. Hopefully, we will move on as a species from certain technologies that we’re using today. But we’re creating something that has to transition or be able to grow along with these organizations. And that means we shouldn’t be, for instance, writing code that kind of locks data in certain structures. Because that data is owned by the people we make it for. And they’ll be using that data and they will be relying on that data long after we cease to exist. So we need to take that into account.

Peter:
That that was probably simpler in pre-digital times. I own an old watch that I inherited, that’s like sixty years old, literally all I had to do when I first wanted to wear it was give it an oil change. I couldn’t personally do that, but it wasn’t hard to find someone. And there’s nothing proprietary in that. That’s going to be like a whole different thing if you work with digital technologies.

So that’s really interesting, because so you did some design work, and you also did a bunch of speculative design that aimed to democratize design and understanding of algorithms. And now you’re building a thing in, vaguely, the space of cooperatives. I’m saying “vaguely” because I understand it’s early stage and I’m not sure how much you can share yet. But can you explain a little bit of what drew you to cooperatives in the first place?

Marcel:
Yeah. So the funny thing was that I already had these ideas about rethinking the structure of business.

So, two, three years ago, we we had this crazy idea of “can we create a bike that manages its own funds?” Can we can we make a kind bike that rents itself out and spends its own money? It was meant as a speculative piece and then technologies came into being that might enable this idea so we poked around a little in this space, and it got us thinking: isn’t the pursuit of making profit a driver for doing business as much as delivering a product or service or a value? I mean, most of the products and services that we that we know, of course they exists to provide value to people or society. But after a while, especially in this stuff, there’s companies that have basic requirements to make a profit. If they deliver a tremendous a lot of value, but very little profit versus a product that does — you know, the other way around. Which one are you going to kill and which one are you going to scale up? Are you going to scale the one that provides a lot of value? Are you going to scale the one that provides a lot of profit? And that got me thinking.

The funny thing is that you are never the first one who had a particular idea. And there are people that have thought about cooperatives really well for over a century and there’s a lot of interesting models in that space where actual products and services are created, from food to housing to the milk that we buy in shops and the flour to make bread. There’s a lot of these organizations that exist to benefit their owner, which is the worker or the client or the customer, or at least a grander, bigger community. And it’s called a cooperative. And we thought: Whoa, this is this is awesome. This is a cooperative. That’s great. That’s exactly that’s the solution to our problem that we had that we were playing around with these ideas.

Peter:
So we’re back at business incentives.

Marcel:
Exactly. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We came across a lot of interesting other models as well. Steward-ownership is a very interesting model. B-Corp, they they have they have an interesting model. The challenges and technology that we’ve been facing thus far are in product creation — how do you align the value that’s created with the interests of whoever benefits from it. The cooperative is exactly that. Those who benefit from the creation of the value and the revenue that it produces are one and the same. It’s the same group. And that makes a lot of sense.

Peter:
So you don’t have any incentive to to extract any financial value and redistribute it outside to a third party. It all stays within the same project.

Marcel:
Yeah, it stays within the same community. I mean, there are examples of cooperatives that are extremely successful also for their owners, you know, people living really well from a corporative But it doesn’t produce billionaires, which is a nice side effect.

Peter:
It doesn’t make for a shady pitch to a venture capitalist but that may be part of the point.

Marcel:
Well, that’s interesting because we’re now part of this program funded through Next Generation Internet, a program called ledger. And what we see is that quite a few — I think of the 16 teams, at least four, or maybe more — are working on digital cooperatives or the tools for cooperatives.

A lot of people are looking into this and we are rookies in the program because we didn’t exist before the program as as our house co-op team. The other teams did, and have been working quite some time in this space. And they’re all facing the same challenge. You need to fund yourself because you cannot guarantee crazy return on investment. And as a startup, or as a venture that’s risk taking and innovating, that’s quite challenging. You cannot be a 10x cooporative — that doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as a 10x cooporative. And I think in that sense, maybe steward ownership or investments through that kind of structure makes more sense. But venture capital doesn’t make sense in this space.

Peter:
I have to ask a very obvious question — I assume you have discussed why you didn’t choose a cooperative model for your own venture?

Marcel:
For this venture now, it’s on the roadmap. It only makes sense. It really makes sense once you’ve found your model, once you’ve found your groove. And we haven’t yet, I’ll be honest. There are still a lot of assumptions around our business model that we haven’t verified. But we intend to be a cooperative.

Peter:
Neat. What I really find really appealing in the whole debate around cooperatives, is that it seems it’s really hitting a sweet spot. At least in our circles, our niche in the tech scene and other people who are fed up with some aspects of it, cooperatives seem like a very contemporary approach. An alternative approach that is due for a bit of rejuvenation. Not least because, like you said, it aligns the business and ownership structures a little bit better with those who will be using stuff — which also seems to increase resilience because you’re not as dependent on things like third parties staying in business and not pivoting away from running your home, or whatever it might be.

Is there a place online yet where people can already learn how to get in touch with you if they want to help or discuss stuff with you, or any other link that that you’d like to drop?

Marcel:
We have a very rudimentary website up on the-equitable-project.org which was kind of like our the big project of which house-coop is part. For now, you can find us at weownthisplace.nl. It’s in Dutch though, because it’s focused on the Dutch market for now. We try to kind of create a movement around the proposition of CO-owned housing, or cooperative housing. I emphasize bit more like the CO-owned aspect. That’s something that we feel aligns well with our intentions. We’re not necessarily about intentional community, that’s not what we’re aiming for.

We try to facilitate some form of ownership because we think it’s good in the uncertain times that we live in now. It’s good that you build up some equity, own something. Again, referring back to your moral compass or ethical decisions. We want to champion a certain model, which is the “limited equity cooperative”, where people build a little stake in the company that owns the real estate. That means you will get a return. What you invest in over time, when you’re paying rent, you’re also investing in this kind of initiative that will be rewarded through a limited return on that money, but will steer away from speculation on real estate.

Peter:
To me that this feels just really fresh. This feels very much of the now. It feels like a very contemporary and pragmatic approach while still allowing people to put roots down in the community without going all in with their private lives. It makes a lot of sense to me.

Marcel:
The thing is, with intentional communities and the likes of those, the members of these groups are often very motivated and very willing to invest time and effort into creating this ideal situation. You don’t need a ton of technology to make this happen because they’re already sharing knowledge. They’re really great and successful making these ideas happen.

But what we try to do is to bring this model to a more mainstream demographic, which are first of all attracted by the idea of being able to live somewhere they can afford. I don’t want to say affordable housing because that’s has other implications, but housing they can afford, and then also living in a community. We live together with people where you still have your own household. We live together, and then you save something for a rainy day, build some equity, and then maybe last is, you’re actually investing into a more ethical form of housing. You’re contributing to a more ethical housing market.

Peter:
It seems much more sustainable than the real estate speculation that we see around the world these days. That I see in Berlin every day, and I’m sure you see in Rotterdam as well.

Marcel:
Yeah, it’s crazy. What we’re seeing here now is that already, like almost 20% of EU households are spending over 40% of their income on housing. And that’s a statistic that includes everyone. You know, if you just focus on the urban centers, the statistics go through the roof. And if you zoom in on young families, people between 20 and 40, in Amsterdam half of the families in that bracket spend half of their household income on housing. And that’s often not going towards owning.

Then we leverage technology towards this model that has been pioneered for like a century. We kind of wrap it and and give it like a contemporary user experience. We make it easier to navigate. We give you easier control and ownership over this organization. It connects better with how people now tend to interact with systems. We’re trying to create a 21st century interface to an idea that’s pretty old and established. And I think that’s the key to it.

Peter:
That sounds really fantastic. I wouldn’t know where to start otherwise, setting up something like this.

Marcel:
We’re still figuring it out, too. We’re doing tons of little prototypes. We’re figuring this out, starting with the Netherlands. So the international audience has has to be patient until we can export something. We’re still in the sandbox.

Peter:
That sounds amazing. And sounds like you have your work cut out for you. This is like certainly a mission worth working on. Is there any way or anything that you are looking for help with? Were there any leads you look for in case someone stumbles over this? Any kind of support or external partnerships or anything you’re looking for?

Marcel:
Actually, I’ve been digging through the Edgeryders forums, and I’ve found a ton of interesting discussions around tools where community, that communities can leverage to organize themselves.There are things like Open Collective and Loomio which are like great examples, and we aspire to be something similar to them in our space. Right now I’d love to have some some good chats about how these tools have worked in other fields or what people are thinking about. Learn more about other domains from which we can we can learn.

So one of the challenges that we have is that we think here’s an idea that’s potentially great. So I know how to transfer code, right? I know how to write a piece of code and put it on GitHub and document it and that’s what I can do. In the past when we did the IoT Design Manifesto, IoT became an idea in itself, that kind of moved by itself. I came across schools that implemented the IoT Design Manifesto is kind of like a table of contents to their ethics work.
But how do we how do we make ideas transferable? How do we tell the story of that we can organize ourselves differently? Enough of preaching to the choir. I mean, that’s what the scene many times with these debates, they tend to turn inwards at some point. But I would love to talk with makers and shakers, have experience in, you know how to get how we get the message out, you know how to get it out how to spread these ideas. That’s a challenge where we’re learning. I would love to pick some brains about this.

I think I’d like to start a forum thread about this. Maybe put together a webinar, a group discussion online or something where we sit in a room. Figure out how to transmit these ideas, how to enrich those ideas, how to how to shape those ideas.

And if there’s blockchain enthusiasts who want to share some ideas…

Peter:
Excellent. Thank you so much for your time. That was fantastic. I learned a lot, I’m really looking forward to next steps and fingers crossed. Lots of lots of luck and success in this. The world needs it.

Marcel:
We will need it. Thank you for hosting me.

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Thanks @pbihr, for providing me this stage go share my experiences. @anyone: If there are any questions, feel free to reach out to me directly!

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Great to see you here Marcel. Fascinating interview. I think the trend toward cooperatives of all kinds is becoming a kind of mega-trend. I see that as not just a good thing but necessary. Our collective survival depends on it. There is just not enough to go around under the status quo.

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I hope to see cooperatives become a mega-trend. This form of organising economic activity ticks all the right boxes to be more considerate to the planet and each other. But it’s not easy to found and operate as a cooperative. Hope to see more great products like OpenCollective and Loomio in the near future!

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At the end of your interview you mention Blockchain. Does this relate to cooperatives in some way?

Blockchains make it easier to hold people accountable and provide transparency in organisations. This can be a lever for cooperatives to coordinate economic activity and governance.
That said, blockchain solutions are far from useable for novice users. And there seems to be little effort in blockchain land to improve user experience. Despite fancy graphics, the majority of innovations are of technical nature in that space. We’ll try to use blockchain in a user friendly way, but it will take several years before we see mainstream applications.

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Hello and welcome @Marcel :slight_smile: there are several ongoing discussions and projects different members of the community are exploring around related topics. Like @BaobabUrbain and @manuelpueyo as well as @alberto and @matthias

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How about the extreme energy requirements I read about? Is that as big of a problem as some describe?

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