Last week I had the pleasure of attending Co-operatives Europe’s annual general assembly, held this year in Helsingor, Denmark. For those that don’t know, Co-operatives Europe represents 141 million members across 176,000 co-ops in 33 countries. I was attending as a guest of Kooperativi Malta.
The 2017 general assembly was held in Malta, and that is where the idea for VME Coop was born, so Co-operatives Europe’s annual assembly is very close to my heart, for obvious reasons!
After Turkish Airlines changed our flights at the last minute, Marylee from Kooperativi Malta went all ‘Maltese’ on them and suddenly we were transferred to a better Lufthansa flight. Mental note made: never ever upset Marylee!
However this meant an early flight, so at 3.30am the alarm went, a quick shower and the taxi picked my wife Lorraine and I up at 4.30. 15 minutes later we were at the airport, where we met Marylee and her boyfriend Jonathan.
A tight connection at Frankfurt guaranteed our flight would be delayed taking off, and sure enough…40 minutes late. We made up some time at Frankfurt, but by the time we’d parked at a remote stand and got on the bus to the terminal, rushed through to our gate we were 5 minutes too late :(
Next flight to Copenhagen was in 3 hours, so we ate a bit, tried our best to keep Lorraine and Marylee away from the duty free (failed on that) and burned time until our flight was ready for boarding.
I’ve never played Rugby, but this was as close as I can imagine to a scrum. Somehow we managed to get to the front of the queue (these Maltese woman are nothing short of incredible) and made our way to the bus, taking us to our plane. All good, until we arrived at a plane clearly far too small for the number of passengers. A few phone calls by the driver on speakerphone, despite not knowing German we could guess by the loud laughter at the other end that the driver was completely lost.
After a few minutes we were off again, and after about 10 minutes of driving we arrived at the right airplane - behind the other bus that had left 5 minutes after us. Business class passengers in our bus were not amused, but the rest of us laughed it off.
Soon we were on our way to Denmark, a short 1 hour flight away. Landing in Copenhagen was very picturesque.
We made our way to the taxi rank, and jumped in a cab. Unfortunately that was a mistake! Over 1 hour and 200 euro lighter, we arrived at the hotel.
After checking in we settled down to a drink (of water, it was free, I am Scottish remember!) and sat outside enjoying the beautiful weather.
I promise you I didn't photoshop Jonathan's muscles (Marylee's boyfriend). Mine are similar, but just out of the photo ;)
The conference started with a drinks reception, where our hosts had laid out a buffet style dinner which we enjoyed.
Suzanne from Kooperation Denmark then spoke and explained a little about the venue, and Jean Louis, President of Coops Europe also made us feel very welcome.
I met the usual suspects, like Ed Mayo, but a pleasant surprise to see Don Morris from Radstock Co-op - I hadn’t seen him since I visited his society around this time last year.
After the dinner, Team Malta decided to try our hands at darts, mostly unsuccessfully I might add, but it was great fun.
There were also billiard tables that were a bit strange as they had 4 wood piles on them. If anyone knows how to play, please let me know!!
Soon we headed to bed - it had been a long day and we wanted to be fresh for the busy day tomorrow.
Up early and we headed for breakfast, which was very, very good.
Ed Mayo joined us at the table, where I was able to explain my plans for Coop Exchange, a new web and app based platform coop from Malta, which enables tech startups to start from day 1 as co-ops, instead of going for venture capital, whilst still raising enough capital to build their solutions.
Ed laughed when I explained I want to ”create millionaires, not billionaires”. What I meant is I don’t want to stop founders benefiting from bringing new ideas and technology to the world - otherwise they will go to VC money every time. I want to create more Googles, but formed from day 1 as co-ops instead of VC funded companies. That way the 99% earn the wealth generated, instead of the 1% as it is now.
We headed into the conference and most people seemed to be sitting near the back, so Marylee and I sat down at the front.
Jean-Louis Bancel, President of Coops Europe opened, and thanked us for attending. He encouraged us to attend the ICA congress in Buenos Aries later that year, to represent Europe.
The first talk of the day was by Mogens Lykketoft, who was President of the UN when the SDGs were adopted. Mogens was clearly instrumental in ensuring the SDGs were adopted.
Mogens Lykketoft presenting the opening talk of the day.
Mogens is clearly an experienced politician, which comes across in the way he presents. I found him engaging and thoroughly enjoyed his talk, particularly as it was about a subject close to my heart.
He went to great lengths to explain the different goals, and why each of them are important.
After a short coffee break, I headed upstairs to the Collaborative Economy workshop.
After waiting for 5 minutes to sign in (constructive criticism, putting a barcode on the ID cards issued would make that process much quicker) I went into the room and the workshop soon started.
Ivana Pais from the University of Milan, Ed Mayo from Cooperatives UK, Anne Katrine Buch Vedstesen the co founder of Student & Innovation House, and Arnaud Breuil from Up Group were on the panel at the front of the room.
My friend Louis Cousin from Coops Europe was chairing the session.
The Collaborative Economy workshop panel.
All the presentations were enjoyable (I even got a mention from Ed!) and it points to some exciting things are going to happen in the Collaborative economy over the next few years.
One key point highlighted was a lack of capital does make it substantially more difficult to compete with capitalist competitors.
Sébastien explained how SMart works, assisting freelance workers. It was a fascinating presentation about a large coop, with some very big numbers which was really encouraging to see.
Sébastien Paule presenting SMartBE.
A young chap called Dmitry from the audience, sat behind me, asked why most open source projects are foundations, not coops. It was an excellent point and the conclusion seemed to be more education about coops is required.
Anne Katrine Buch Vedstesen talked about studying business for 5 years, and she's still not come across coops. Its clear the education system needs major reform to make the world aware of coops, and the benefits they bring.
After the collaborative economy session ended, we headed outside for the group photo.
Group photo of all the attendees.
Now I'm not suggesting Todor loves posing, but the camera never lies!
Todor, being Todor.
Todor, who runs Eurocoop, was standing right behind Matt Lane, Board member at Midcounties Coop, and myself.
I only noticed his pose whilst writing this blog post!
Unfortunately, the group photo ran on a bit, so we ended up with only 10 minutes to eat our lunch before we had to rush to change our clothes and jump on the bus to Copenhagen. The lunch we had was excellent though - cannot fault the venue for excellent food and service.
When registering for the conference, we had to choose one of various organised bus trips to attend in the afternoon.
Bus trip to Coop Denmark.
We had chosen to visit Coop Denmark - a consumer coop with turnover of 50 billion DKK (just under 7 billion euros), 36,000 employees and 1.6 million members.
After we arrived and got our badges sorted, we met Ariel Guarco, President of the ICA, and Bruno Roelants, Director General, who had just arrived (Ariel was speaking the next day).
We were quickly taken to a meeting room and started by being given a short presentation by Signe Frese, the CSR Director at Coop Denmark.
She gave a great presentation with some fantastic facts about Coop Denmark, including the key one; 36% market share for coops. That's what we need to aim towards in the UK consumer coop movement, I think.
Signe Frese about to start her presentation.
Soeren was the UX Lead in Coop Denmark's 'Digital product innovation' team, and gave an excellent presentation on how to build 'things' in a coop.
Soeren explaining how to build digital products.
He used their recent mobile app as a good example, and proceeded to walk us all through the app, and how they built it.
Out of the *whole* trip, this is probably the thing that hit home the most for me. 2 months prior, I had been presenting at the UK Consumer Coop's Retail Conference about how the coop movement needs to come together to save duplicating effort, in order to cut costs and gain a competitive advantage over our capitalist competitors. Then, I was talking about the mobile app 'proof of concept' that VME had created to allow members to shop in any coop, and pay on their phone, and compared it to the same app that Co-operative Group in Manchester had created.
Now here was a third app, doing exactly the same thing - and no doubt across the movement, even just in Europe, there are many more.
The waste of money and effort here is staggering, and is putting the cooperative movement at a big disadvantage. We are all having to reinvent the wheel, and the smaller coops lose it because they can't afford to.
This was the main reason behind VME Coop, so watching Soeren's presentation just made me even more determined to see my dream of coops co-operating, realised.
After the excellent visit to Co-op Denmark, we jumped on the bus again (this time with Ariel and Bruno in tow) and we were taken to visit the Little Mermaid statue.
Stephen and Lorraine in front of The Little Mermaid statue.
There are only so many photos you can take of a metal statue without getting eaten alive by all the tourists, so Arnauld Breuil, from Up Group, and I stepped back and had a good chat in the sunshine.
My wife Lorraine and I were last on the bus, and as everyone was playing musical chairs (oddly without the music) there was no 2 seats together. So Lorraine sat down in one of the spare seats, and I walked down the bus to sit next to Bruno.
Bruno and I had a good chat about my plans with Co-op Exchange, and soon enough we arrived at the Bank in the centre of Copenhagen, our venue for dinner.
Once off the bus Lorraine told me about her chat with the lovely gentleman from Argentina. After about 20 minutes into the journey she asked him what his role in the co-op was. “Well, I’m the President of the ICA actually!”. Ariel was a very nice guy and found it amusing she didn’t know who he was, whereas most other people were rushing to get selfies with him :)
After a controlled evacuation from the bus that any airline would have been proud of (because we were parked illegally), we walked round to the bank entrance, and jumped in the lifts to the top floor.
The view was fantastic!
The view from the top floor of Arbejdernes Landsbank.
We had a good chance to meet people and socialise in a very pleasant location.
Team Malta soaking up the sun.
I had a good chat with Clive Booker from Midcounties Co-op (who I've met many times before), and also a fight over the last cocktail sausage with a member of the local Co-op Youth Network, Arnaud Delcasse. Arnaud is a great guy who I had a good chat with about the future of coops.
Our repeated questions to the bank staff about “are you sure you can’t show us inside the safes” must have worn thin on them, because soon enough we were asked to leave and made our way across to Tivoli Gardens.
We were still quite hungry, but managed to have a great pizza in the gardens. It's a very pleasant place to be, including an old wooden roller coaster dating back to 2014! Nope, we didn't.
Kooperationen had laid on buses at 11pm to take everyone back, but they had made it clear if you arrive at 11.01 the bus leaves without you, so clearly there wasn't going to be a head count :)
We decided to just get the train and head home early. A game of Charades on the train (via an app on our phones that you put on your forehead) had the 4 of us howling in laughter, with the rest of the train looking on in bewilderment.
When we arrived at Helsingør (the small town the conference was held in) we realised how beautiful the station is. It's definitely a lovely part of the world.
I popped over to say hello to Ariel before the Friday morning session started, and as soon as I mentioned my wife 'on the bus' he immediately remembered. "A story to tell my children when I get home!" he said, so it certainly left an impression!
I like Ariel. He comes across as a very humble man, who cares deeply about the co-operative movement. I hope he manages to achieve everything he wants to while he serves as President of the ICA.
Ariel presenting his Welcome address.
He explained he has spent 3 months in Europe, away from his home in Argentina, to meet all areas of the European co-operative movement. This was his last event, and after this, he gets to go home to his family.
His welcome address seemed to be well received by the audience and was spoken from the heart.
Our President @ArielGuarco has opened the 2nd day of #CoopsEU18 sharing with European #coops the results of @icacoop members' survey calling to strengthen #intercooperation inside the #coops movement and the partnerships with other organisations ? pic.twitter.com/UvEN1cpMWa— International Cooperative Alliance (@icacoop) May 18, 2018
Next up were the #MyCoopStory awards. 2 inspiring stories about how their coops were created.
Susanne Westhausen, Ana Teskera, Tania Castro and Jean Louis Bancel.
In first place was Ana Teskera, from Brlog Cooperative Brewery in Croatia. To quote; BRLOG cooperative is the first female coop brewery in Croatia producing socially engaged beer breaking down gender stereotypes. Starting with a pot, a ladle and a laptop, they have grown with support gained through crowdfunding, and are now about to release their second beer called "Disobedient".
In second place was Tania Castro from Women with Energy Coop in Spain. To quote; Women with Energy Coop or Mujeres con Energia Cooperativa is a group of women implicated in several projects related to energy transition in Spain. The group promotes the inclusion in a very masculinized energy sector and includes ecofeminism philosophy in all projects of the cooperative.
Kirsten Brosbøl is a Danish politician, representing the Social Democrats.
She is currently in opposition, and made her feelings clear that the current Danish government (who signed up to the SDGs) haven't got an aggressive enough action plan.
I felt she made some very good points regarding the SDGs, and she obviously is passionate about them. In my opinion though, her talk was probably a little bit too long, which wasn't helped by the endless bullet points on her slides. I suspect she might have been better without them.
Patrick Develtere is the Principal Adviser for European Social Policy at the European Political Strategy Centre (EPSC), the in-house think tank of the European Commission.
Patrick Develtere giving his presentation without any slides.
His presentation was excellent, which considering the fact he had no slides is incredible in my eyes. It takes a real talent to hold the audience's attention for that length of time, and only a few people have it - Patrick was one.
His points around Africa and the SDGs really hit home to me, as it aligned with my vision for VME Coop to help communities in Africa open their open grocery coop by providing technology and everything needed to use it to start selling products.
After the presentation, it started me thinking further about those in poverty, and how they don't have access to be able to invest.
Patrick has been involved in coops for years - and it showed he knew what he was talking about.
Patrick Develtere (Europe policy strategy Centre of EU Commission) suggests to cooperators to invest in Africa because the destiny of Europe and Africa will be even more joined. In this way #cooperation can be the key to manage a new suistanable economy #coopsEU18 @coopseurope pic.twitter.com/goSYnNGaiZ— Francesca Martinelli (@Fo_Elettrica) May 18, 2018
The morning session ended with a wrap up session, summarising the workshops from the previous day.
It was particularly memorable as 2 birds flew in threw the open door, and around the room, but when they flew out one went straight into the window above the door!
Thankfully it was OK, and soon enough, with a little assistance, it was 'escorted' outside and let free.
Presenting the workshop summaries.
Louis Cousin setup a lunch with some members of the Youth Coop network, so we could discuss my idea for Coop Exchange.
At this point it was to be based on crypto (that has changed subsequently to FIAT currencies - GBP, EUR, USD etc), so a lot of the discussion was around that.
We had a good chat about the future of co-ops, and in particular the open source world. We discussed about coop law being different in different countries, and even crowdfunding laws. For example in Greece, only the central bank is allowed to run a crowd fund platform. I found that fascinating as I would have thought Greece, being part of the EU, wouldn't be allowed to limit the market in this way.
The view was great from the outside tables used for our meeting!
Friday afternoon was reserved for 2 hours of statutory business. As I was a guest of Kooperativi Malta, I wasn't voting but spectating.
This was my first attendance at this event, and I found it very interesting. Agnès Mathis did a great job of explaining what the team at Coops Europe have been up to since last year.
The main conference room at the venue.
After the conference had ended, Marylee and I sat outside and spend a few hours going over Coop Exchange's statute. At that time we were planning it to be incorporated under Maltese co-operative law, subsequently to that we discovered that impossible and had to incorporate under company law with cooperative Articles of Association, but thats a story for another day - you'll soon be able to read more about it on the Coop Exchange blog.
A lot of attendees had already left, but our flight was the next day so we walked into Helsingor.
We had a great steak meal at a restaurant called 'Rib House'.
Being lazy, we decided to try and find a taxi back to the venue. Unfortunately, at that time of night it was easier said than done, and it would have been quicker for us to walk!
This time, instead of shelling out another 200 euros, we took the train which conveniently went all the way to the airport.
Walking out of the train at the airport I met Matt Lane from Midcounties Coop, and we spoke for 5 minutes before heading to separate terminals. I enjoyed talking with Matt over the weekend, and hope to see him at a future event soon. Matt runs his own craft beer subscription service company called Beerbods, alongside sitting on Midcounties Coop board.
Our flight back was with Turkish Airlines this time, so on a larger plane.
Lorraine, Stephen, Marylee and Jonathan on the plane to Istanbul
I was stuck in the middle, and tried to do some work on my laptop until the screen was almost broken when the lady in front violently put her seat back unexpectedly!
Once we landed in Istanbul, we had to hang around for a few hours before our short flight back to Malta.
I really enjoyed this year's conference. We met lots of people, old friends and made new friends.
The content was particularly interesting to me, being based on the SDGs, as this conference gave me the light bulb moment as to how Coop Exchange could help to eradicate poverty. It is definitely one of those 'milestone' moments that I'll look back on in years to come.
Looking forward to the next conference in 2019, which I believe is going to be in Geneva.
Marylee showing Stephen how to use an ipad
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