Ecologies of Change: Five lessons I’ve learnt from our work with MONDRAGON the world’s largest worker-led industrial cooperative

| No responses | Posted by: Dr Mary Hodgson | Theme: Inequality Dynamics & Changemaking, Research, Social Innovation & Investment

This week, after a year and a half researching on the MONDRAGON Corporation, I attended a day with small co-operatives, academics and city stakeholders in Leeds to discuss the role of civil society organisations in creating inclusive economies. I was particularly inspired to hear from Councillor Matthew Brown about what he and others are doing in Preston, to create a city-based inclusive economic strategy.

I shared how our research explored MONDRAGON as a social innovation ecosystem based on the value of labour sovereignty. This is a classic idea for those interested in democracy and organisations. MONDRAGON has introduced and stayed true to the idea of democratic procedures, for example, 1 person, 1 vote, and vocational education to enable others to participate. Today members define themselves as protagonists, driving the business forward, and socialisation appears to be a key part of the model. This is really important for those who fear that a lack of democratic education is jeopardising the start-up of new co-operatives. As one research participant said to us: “I wasn’t born a co-operator, I became one”.

MONDRAGON is a growth model based on the idea that success will create wider socioeconomic benefits. It provides us with one of the only cases of true scale in co-operatives, so for those interested in inclusive economies in the UK and beyond the question is, should we try and replicate it? And would it work?

In our discussion in Leeds, we explored what we might learn from our MONDRAGON research and where we could get to in twenty years with the evidence we have. For me, the key takeaway from that discussion is not to think purely in terms of replication, but to consider the ecology: cooperatives, third sector and other organisations working together to change the value chain. Fair economies need fair practices. In relation to this here are my top five thoughts from the day:

  1. Just replicating existing ventures isn’t the answer. The focus of transformative models should be what the community needs and how it will change as a result. Many co-ops, charities and social innovations feel they have successful impact because they respond directly to the local values and environment and work with what the community have. Their design is locality focussed. Therefore models need to able to feel confident being less venture-focused than community and change focused.
  2. Scalability should not be seen as the most important goal, commitment to changing a place, however big or small, is just as important. Lack of scalability is often a critique of social innovations but we discussed in our session how the pressure to be scale-able might feel scary or simply unwelcome to those at the frontline of trying to make change happen. In fact, many co-operatives and charities are clearly social innovations because of their commitment to place and location, not because they want to grow beyond that place. They want to see and enjoy their benefits in communities.
  3. Let’s stop talking about growth and scalability alone and focus more on inter co-operation leading to change. Ecology is a useful term here. What if we started avoiding talk of scalability and growth and started talking about the vital importance of establishing connections, support and inter-cooperation between cooperatives or social innovations?
  4. Value chains are integral to creating ecologies that are just and fair. Value chain questions are significant, especially if we want to create an ecology of just and fair economies. There were some questions from the audience about whether MONDRAGON has got this right or not. Fairer economies need to be based in fairer and supportive practices along the value chain. As Matthew Brown shared with us about the Preston strategy, procurement and anchor institutions are fundamental, as well as community banks or community-led investment operating with their own priorities. This means quadruple helix organisations do need to work together and identify shared values to make these strategies work.
  5. Inclusive change needs to involve everyone, not just expert change makers, organisations and government institutions. People want to be less orthodox and more transformative, and the question is how? At the Young Foundation we would say that this will take not just one person, but all of us. MONDRAGON shows us that participation and trust in others has great success. And to me, the lesson we should learn from MONDRAGON is that capital comes in many forms, not just economic. We need to facilitate the participation of everyone, not just expert change-makers or organisations. We call this the social permission to change and we’ll be publishing our work on this very soon.


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