Authors Greta Franke & Jonas Pentzien
research article

How to Grow Alternative Platforms (fast)

Shopping on Amazon or instant messaging through Twitter – digital platforms are significantly impacting our daily lives. Platform companies use technology in the form of protocols, websites, or apps to act as an intermediary between diverse user groups. In doing so, they establish and expand digital marketplaces, lowering transaction costs and disrupting established markets (Srnicek, 2017). From a socio-ecological viewpoint, the global growth of the platform model is dual-edged: platforms can promote lifestyles focused on sufficiency, particularly within the context of the ‹sharing economy›, but they also benefit from exploiting user data, profit from market concentration, and legitimise insecure gig-based employment structures (Gossen et al., 2019). For some, the platform model must therefore be understood as the driving force behind a new, even more exploitative phase of capitalism (Staab, 2019).

The rise of cooperative platforms

Marketisation dynamics, however, are often accompanied by counter-movements that aim at re-embedding economic activity (Polanyi et al., 2010). The platform economy is no exception. Over the past decade, the platform cooperativism movement in particular – consisting of over 500 actors in more than 40 countries, including cooperative streaming services, e-commerce marketplaces, and delivery platforms – has brought attention to alternative, democratically governed platform models. The movement’s objective is simple: to enhance collective ownership and democratic governance in the platform economy, thereby redirecting platforms towards the public good rather than towards private gain (Schneider and Scholz, 2017).

The main challenge of such platform alternatives, however, lies in maintaining democratic governance at scale. In recent years, scholars have explored this difficulty, with one key insight being that, to grow, alternative platforms need to be part of networks that support resource sharing (Mello Rose, 2021; Pentzien, 2021; Vercher-Chaptal et al., 2021). The catch: Building such larger cooperative networks demands additional resources, something that small organisations often lack. How then can this dilemma be resolved? Based on the example of the CoopCycle federation and one of its member organisations, Mensakas, this article highlights a particularly promising strategy: building cooperative ‹federations›.

Mensakas: from union activism to cooperative entrepreneurship

In 2017, tensions surrounding working conditions in the gig economy in Europe reached a peak. After years of growing discontent, workers across the continent began organising and advocating for better rights.1


The findings presented here are based on qualitative interviews conducted in 2022 as part of the ‹Teilgabe› research project, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Spain became a centre for this activism, in part due to the formation of a union branch called ‹RidersXDerechos› (Riders4Rights) by a group of Deliveroo riders. Unhappy with these developments, Deliveroo responded by firing the union activists. Instead of retreating, however, the riders took a different approach and created their own platform. Shortly after, Mensakas was born. It did not take long for the former riders to become aware of the challenges associated with cooperative entrepreneurship in the platform economy. First among them, the problem of acquiring a viable software.


Platform co-ops

need to join forces

with actors that share

similar values and goals

and build on

existing structures.


Here, Mensakas opted for arguably the most difficult approach: coding from scratch. In fact, trying to simultaneously write code and build a business proved to be too much of a challenge, and the co-op struggled to acquire clients. The result: two years later, in 2020, the co-op re-evaluated its course and decided to join the CoopCycle network, which provides a platform infrastructure to local food delivery collectives. The move was a success. Not only was the co-op suddenly able to invest its limited resources into building up its own business (rather than the software infrastructure), but it also more than doubled in size. Today, Mensakas offers last-mile and food delivery services by bike in the Barcelona area, and all orders are managed through the CoopCycle app. Unlike its proprietary counterparts, however, riders at Mensakas are both workers and owners, giving them access to social security and the ability to make collective decisions on platform development. What does Mensakas teach us about alternative models in the platform economy? Most importantly, we learn that, rather than carving out solitary paths, platform co-ops need to join forces with actors that share similar values and goals and build on existing structures. Moreover, wherever possible, we see that tasks need to be externalised to other nodes of the networks. The greater the network, the easier it is to mediate the various demands on the platform business. But what could such networks look like? And how could they themselves be managed democratically? Insights can be gained by taking a closer look at the CoopCycle federation.

Coopcycle: scaling alternatives region by region

«We socialize bike delivery» – this is how CoopCycle greets visitors on its website. Established in Paris in 2017 in light of the Nuit Debout protests, CoopCycle and Mensakas share a similar objective: empowering platform workers in the bike delivery industry. However, instead of establishing a local delivery platform, CoopCycle focuses on developing software and disseminating this software through its network. There are two key aspects to understanding CoopCycle’s approach:

  • First, the code developed by the organisation is licensed under a special reciprocal ‹Coopyleft License›. The commercial use of the code is subject to two main requirements: the organisation must be employee-led, so couriers cannot be self-employed, and member organisations must meet the EU’s criteria for the social economy, ensuring a shared value system between CoopCycle and its member organisations.
  • Second, CoopCycle is organised as a collective, with all member organisations contributing both money and expertise. By pooling resources, the federation aims to promote mutual empowerment and self-determination. These aims have multiple benefits, such as allowing new member organisations to join without financial contributions during the start-up phase, promoting cross-organisational learning, and allowing members to participate in decision-making processes concerning the federation’s future and software development and thus ensuring that the platform is tailored to local needs.

In recent years, the CoopCycle model has been relatively successful, as reflected by its growing membership. In 2022, the federation consisted of more than 70 member organisations spanning Europe, South America, Canada, and Australia, with members providing services as varied as last-mile logistics, food delivery, and e-commerce for local retailers, all by bike.

Federating towards ‹platform socialism›?

Can federated structures such as CoopCycle offer viable alternatives to big tech companies? Might they even lead to ‹platform socialism› as Muldoon (2022) suggests? We argue that these could be the wrong questions to ask. Answering the first question appears too simple: due to the lack of resources in the field, it is unlikely that small co-ops will ever be able to compete with venture-capital-backed unicorns. The initial struggle of Mensakas in developing a viable platform by itself is indicative of this. Answering the second question and convincingly characterising organisations such as CoopCycle as harbingers of platform socialism would require demonstrating that such federative structures could also be replicated in other, more capital-intensive sectors. This replication has yet to be achieved. However, the impact of federative structures should not be ignored. Rather, we believe that these structures demonstrate something else. In fact, CoopCycle shows that the platform model can be used for socio-ecological purposes, promoting transparency, democratic decision-making, and sustainability (e.g., by reducing car traffic through the use of bikes in the logistics sector). Additionally, the federative approach shows that there is more than one way of conceptualising growth in the platform economy. In fact, instead of focusing on scale, CoopCycle aims to achieve growth through ‹replication›. Rather than trying to provide standardised services across the globe, the CoopCycle app is ‹brought to life› by local rider co-ops that are able to respond to context-specific demands. This emerging federation and its focus on replication, in turn, have political implications.


There is potential

to bring heterogeneous

stakeholders together.


All across Europe, policy-makers are currently looking for ways to build ‹digital sovereignty›. Moreover, municipalities increasingly struggle with proprietary platforms assuming the role of digital infrastructures. Against this backdrop, cooperative platform federations such as CoopCycle provide something that these actors need: a vision for how democratic accountability could be conceived of in the digital realm. While alternative platforms might therefore ultimately be unable to solve the problem of ‹platform capitalism›, they nevertheless have the potential to bring heterogeneous stakeholders – such as policy-makers, entrepreneurs, and union activists – together under the shared aim of wanting to move towards a more democratic, sustainability-oriented platform economy. And if the creation of such an economy is the goal, then federative structures are the most promising way to get there (fast).

About the authors

  • Greta Franke is a researcher at the Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IÖW). In her work, she focuses on alternative economic organisations within the platform economy.
  • Jonas Pentzien is deputy head of the research field Business, Value Chains and Consumption at the Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IÖW). His research focuses on pathways towards a more sustainable digital economy.


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