In our first article in this series, we stepped through the basics of blockchain and how it might influence the way we transact with one another. Blockchain is rapidly finding its way into all sorts of enterprises, presenting exciting opportunities for businesses to optimise their business operations. It might be surprising to consider that there are few pairings that are more natural-and perhaps less expected-than blockchain and co-operatives.
Co-operatives and blockchain share a theme of mutual benefit: they exist to serve their members. At their core, the members are a group of people working together towards achieving shared social, cultural or economic goals. Importantly, this form of organisation is distinct from many typical corporate structures where the ultimate purpose for directors is always to serve their shareholders.
In simple terms, a co-operative is a legal entity owned and democratically controlled by its members, who typically have a close association with the business of the co-operative. Common and historically successful co-operatives are those in the agricultural sector, including those in the dairy, grain, and meat export industries. The co-operative model shares risk and reward amongst its members. They are also “decentralised” in that there is no one member in a position of power or control above the others. This element of democratic control is a core element of the co-operative structure. Coincidentally, this decentralised notion of power and democratic control is also a core element of blockchain.
Blockchain is the technology that allows, for example, crypto-currency such as Bitcoin to exist without a central bank. It provides a secure, decentralised and un-editable record of all transactions.
So, think of a co-operative as the corporate structure and blockchain as the technological vehicle.
Blockchain may be of particular use to co-operatives in relation to their governance. For example, it can enable co-operatives to operate on a system in which by-laws, amendments, terms of membership and voting rosters are all written into a blockchain, providing an irrefutable history of all legal and administrative procedures.
Blockchain can provide a trusted mechanism for operational activities such as decision-making, finance and record-keeping without the need for physical proximity. That is, with blockchain, a co-operative can be governed remotely, without the need for members to physically meet or even align schedules (possibly in different time zones) for teleconferences. It can be coded to action and deal with common business matters like voting functions, for example, which could be “built-in” to the chain to record (and action) acceptance or rejection of by-laws, amendments, membership and other matters requiring a vote.
Beyond these legal and administrative functions, co-operative entities around the world are utilising blockchain technology in various ways to support their activities. For example, one of the world’s largest consumer co-operatives, Co-Operative Group Ltd (UK), is working with an organisation called Provenance to use blockchain to trace the journey of fresh produce from ‘paddock to plate’ in real-time. By referring to this immutable and time-stamped record of a product’s processing, final purchasers can be assured of the origin and quality of the product, as well as environmental and social impacts of the business.
Blockchain undoubtedly has the ability to enhance trust and efficiency to the operational activities of a co-operative. We look forward to seeing the benefits of this technology become a reality in Australia.