990 words, approx 5 mins to read.
On Tuesday evening this week we re-opened Federation House in Manchester as our new community of digital businesses and innovators for the North West. But this isn’t just a refurbished office full of digital people writing code and building websites. There’s something much more going on.
The Federation is home to some of our own Co-op Digital team, working on the Digital future of our Co-op. But it’s also a space for small digital start-ups who share our co-op values. We’re providing low cost city-centre office and meeting space (sometimes just a single desk) so we can bring together a community of digital pioneers, where knowledge, ideas and experience can be shared for the good of all.
It’s got me thinking about the Co-op and the role we’ve played in responding to technical innovation over the last 170 years.
A history of The Federation
The Federation has a long Co-op history. It was built in 1915 on the corner of Federation Street and Balloon Street by the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) as a new drapery warehouse. Over the decades it was used as a showrooms, offices and training facilities. That sounds rather ordinary until you know a little more about the streets surrounding Federation and what took place there.
A few hundred yards from our new digital community was the site of Richard Arkwright’s first steam powered cotton mill which began operating in 1783. That was the start of the first industrial revolution.
The mills that sprang up all across “Cottonopolis”, created a class of workers who suffered the most appalling conditions. On the site of Federation and where the Shude Hill tram stop now is, you would have found the worst slum on the planet. Tens of thousands of impoverished families were crammed into terrible living conditions.
They were desperately poor; they were sick; they died young – all as a direct result of technological innovation.
It was what Frederick Engels saw here in 1844, walking and note-taking in the streets where Federation House now stands, that inspired his collaboration with Karl Marx and the writing of the Communist Manifesto. It was a radical and revolutionary critique of capitalism as it had developed by the mid-19th century. But there were other responses too.
The modern consumer Co-op movement was a different response to the exploitation suffered by those at the sharp end of that first industrial revolution. Up the road in Rochdale, also in 1844, ordinary people came together to take control of the food they ate, how it was sold and how businesses could be owned and run.
As that first industrial revolution took hold and transformed society, the Co-op was there bringing an ethical response to the cruelty created by unchecked innovation.
The second industrial revolution
If that first technical revolution was about harnessing power; then the second industrial revolution, at the end of the 19th century, was about the mass production of consumer goods. That took place in factories built in and around Federation Street and owned and run by CWS.
We’d opened our first factory in Crumpsall in Manchester in 1873. It was the first biscuit factory in the country where the employees worked an eight hour day. The factory also had football and cricket pitches and other social activities for workers plus a subsidised dining room and a library.
This was the Co-op acting years ahead of national legislation to protect the quality of life for its industrial workforce.
The 3rd and 4th technological revolutions
And now we have the ‘third revolution’ (high-tech rather than engine driven) as we harness the power of data and how we share information.
The ‘fourth revolution’ is not far behind, as the use of data and the internet integrates with the real world through artificial intelligence and robotic technology.
The opening of Federation House is evidence that social and economic revolutions, continue to be driven forward from Manchester and continue to have a strong Co-op influence.
And that ‘influence’ is important because, as history has shown us, industrial revolutions and technological innovations have both good and bad sides.
The latest ‘revolutions’ are already raising big questions about how we organise society. What value should we give to the data freely given by individuals?
Are we protecting that data we collect well enough? How can workers’ rights be protected? Is technical innovation good for ordinary people or is it destructive?
Digital is not in itself ‘morally virtuous’ or ‘inherently corrupt’ any more than steam engines were or factory conveyor belts.
What matters is the intention and the purpose. And being mindful of unintended consequences. Digital innovation can mean creating business platforms that make life easier and better for consumers, like Google and Facebook. We all use and love these platforms.
But innovation can also erode the rights of workers employed to deliver that service – rights that took more than a century of struggle to secure.
Exploiting data can help people find the things they need. But it can also prey on the most vulnerable by selling them loans they don’t need and can’t afford.
Being good at managing data and connecting people through the internet can create global movements for social change. But it can also undermine democracy, flood us with fake news, and propel into power the most unlikely of political candidates.
So innovation always needs checks and balances. And it needs something more too. It needs a culture and a mind-set that can guide its use so that we enhance life and not diminish it. In short, it needs an ethical approach and a guiding social conscience.
The community of digital pioneers that are making their home in Federation House, have come together because they share the Co-op’s ethical values:
- social responsibility
- caring for others
170 years after the Co-op first responded to the downside of technology, we are once again bringing responsibility and ethics to the forefront of innovation.
Co-op Group CEO