Learn, baby, learn! The DisCO Inferno has come to town (meaning Distributed Cooperative Organisations). You'll never work the same way again


We are very happy - indeed, we’re dancing! - to bring you this latest leap of method from Stacco Troncoso, Ann Marie Utratel and friends, who are attempting to popularise the community-building powers of open-source, blockchain and peer-to-peer technology.

They set up primers and create new games (“Commonsopoly”) to help do so - and now they’ve come up with another cute name for a powerful but hopefully accessible set of tools. They’re calling them DisCOs - which stands for a “Distributed Cooperative Organisation”.

This marks itself out as different from a “Decentralised Autonomous Organisation” [definition here], a phenomenon of the blockchain - which is a company that enforces its contracts and enacts its plans algorithmically and automatically, with humans well out of the loop (once it is set up).

Stacco, Ann and colleagues want to bring the sociable, living-breathing-feeling human back into this powerful software, but use its undoubted organisational and productive powers to human and cooperative ends.

We’ve lots of questions ourselves - and we’ve tried to edit for as much clarity as possible - but overall, we love the groove and attitude of what they’ve tried to establish here. Any further clarifications or questions, please post below (and we’ll encourage Stacco and Ann Marie to respond).

Last Night A Distributed Cooperative Organization Saved My Life: A brief introduction to DisCOs

By Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel

Adapted and edited from the original on Hacker Noon

Have you ever gone out dancing with a bunch of friends? If so, chances are you went to a disco, at least once or twice. How does a group of friends dance at a disco?

Everyone knows, or learns by observation, some basic rules of social cooperation — avoid stepping on anyone’s feet, watch out that you don’t slam into people sharing the space around you, and please don’t micromanage the dj.

But everyone can decide when and how they want to dance, whether solo, in pairs or in larger groupings. The aim is to have a good time together, and to care about each other’s well-being, too.

Doing things like going dancing with friends or colleagues can be fun and spontaneous, with nothing more than some informal or unspoken rules.

Of course, if you want to achieve a more defined collective goal, that takes time, patience and more explicit guidelines — and if you really want to be cooperative about it all, it’s even better if you debate and create those guidelines together.

When we were writing up our organisational model for cooperative groups, we thought about how to name it. Acronyms or initials are popular for models with multi-word titles, and can sometimes also hint at some characteristic of the ideas behind the name.

So, what do we mean by a DisCO?

It stands for Distributed Cooperative Organizations, and it’s a set of organisational tools and practices for groups of people who want to work together in a cooperative, commons-oriented, and feminist economic form.

DisCO is also an alternative to another form called the Decentralized Autonomous Organizations, or DAO. If you're not familiar with DAOs, they are blockchain-based entities that can execute payments, levy penalties, and enforce terms and contracts without human interaction.

Think of a virtual robot - automating governance processes and executing investments and payments for an organization - and you're on the right track. [1]

While there are many exciting aspects to this technology, DAO projects have focussed on speculative assets, tokenization and grandiose promises of disruption. They also reproduce many of the power dynamics of the normative systems they aim to disrupt and decentralise.

There is also a distinct lack of political and historical awareness of other movements that have tried to practice decentralisation. But could they, in turn, benefit from the advantages offered by DAOs? [2]

By design, DAOs can earn their own money, and contract and pay for services. They can actually create and wield their own economic power, according to the interests of their programmers [this is the “coin” part of Bitcoin or Holocoin - Ed.].

That’s a crucial point to recognize. Technology doesn’t develop itself. It’s built by people and companies with specific worldviews and intentions. These underlie the aims of the code.

There are blockchain investments, in billions of USD, being made by mega-corporations like IBM, HSBC, Facebook, Goldman Sachs and others. So there’s a very real danger that the future of these decentralised autonomous organizations (DAOs) will just reproduce, maybe even amplify, existing inequalities and imbalances.

Imagine robotic DAOs that could automate and hyper-boost things like mass surveillance, economic tyranny and the suppression of dissent. Does that sound dystopian? Take a look at the list of investors above. And engage in some speculative thinking about their means, motives and objectives.

After analysing the situation, it’s clear that we need alternatives, rooted in a different culture, that can leverage these software robots to leverage their positive aspects. We need to point them towards radically different economic and social ends.

Our proposal is the DisCO framework.

What’s in the DNA of DisCOs? Feminist economics, commons-oriented, cooperative, value-sovereign

DisCOs are a cultural and structural framework, combining influences from other forms and movements, into a practical toolkit - one that benefits from the potential of Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLTs) 

Distributed Ledger Technologies are, basically, synchronized databases shared among several nodes, and without central administrators. Think of these as a broader understanding of a blockchain, although not every DLT is a blockchain. [3]

DLTs boast that they are decentralised and challenge existing power structures. But many of these aspects are curiously absent from most blockchain projects. [4]

We make sure we have these elements in our DisCO’s DNA:


In short: we’re trying to harness the potential of the blockchain while addressing its deficits.

[Our DiSCOs are prototypes and customisations of our Distributed Cooperative Organization (DisCO) Governance Model. We originally developed this for Guerrilla Translation, a radical translation collective/cooperative and the first pilot project for DisCOs.]

These initial DisCO experiences can be greatly amplified, in order to make DAO technologies accessible to common people, cooperators and the economically disadvantaged. We want to break the monopoly of a white/male tech elite's involvement and benefit in these technologies

The Seven DisCO principles

DisCOs are distributed cooperatives based on the original seven cooperative principles [familiar to those in the cooperative movement.]

But… cooperatives have their shortcomings. So the seven DisCO principles build on the existing cooperative tradition, as well as Platform and Open Cooperativism [for more about Open Coops on this blog, see here].

We have hopefully arrived at a series of guidelines that can produce highly efficient, socially and environmentally-oriented organizations:

  1. Geared toward positive outcomes in key areas: In DisCOs, production is guided not by profit but by social and environmental priorities. Individual organizations embed these values in their cultural, productive and organizational processes, and in their technical/legal statutes.

  2. Multi-constituent: DisCOs extend decision making and ownership to all contributors, whether they are present in all our value chains or affected by the co-op’s actions. Beyond the workers, this may include neighbouring communities, suppliers, clients, reproductive and affective labour [care and emotional work], financial backers, etc. Thus, there is a multitude of constituents.

  3. Active creators of commons: Unlike the typical behavior of market enterprises, which exploit shared resources, DisCOs steward existing common wealth and generate new forms of shared resources. These new commons are created through market and value-tracked pro bono work. These commons may be digital (code, design, documentation, legal protocols and best practices, etc.). Or they may be physical (productive infrastructure, deliberation spaces, machinery, etc.)

  4. Transnational: While physical production is kept local and needs-based, following the “Design Global, Manufacture Local” logic, knowledge, resources and value flows are shared at the global level with like-minded enterprises. This arrangement can create a political and cultural counterpower to the prevailing corporate/capitalist economy.

  5. Centered on care work: We distinguish between two types of care work. One type is performed for the health of the collective (where the collective is seen as a living entity that needs commitment, material inputs and fidelity to its social mission). A second type is care work performed for the individual persons within the DisCO (these are mutual support structures, made from trust and intimacy).

  6. Reimagining the origin and flows of value: Three types of value — productive market value, pro-bono/commons-generating value, and care work value — are tracked through metrics that complement and fit each kind of value. Value tracking is applied to all DisCO members. This influences decision making, payments, work priorities, and more.

  7. Primed for federation: While networks may or may not share common goals, federations are held together by shared commitments. This is not about “scaling”. Scaling extends a worldview from a centre, forcing everything in its path to conform to its animating logic. By contrast, DisCOs, as structures that are distributed and differentiated, replicate themselves through a standard federation protocol (based on check-ins and trust values). These soft rules allow the federation to achieve critical mass without regimenting all its parts. This dynamic resembles the internet protocol of TCP/IP [more here]. TCP/IP allows a network of networks, the Internet, to function. Each node can be based on small group trust, intimacy and mutual support while still achieving a larger impact through federation.

Prototyping DisCOs in the field: The DisCO Project

Blockchain and DAO projects rest on a whitepaper culture (these grand proposal that over promise on technical specifications before there is any solid, lived experiences to a projectl).

In contrast, DisCOs are based on the practices of the four movements mentioned earlier (Commons/P2P; Open Cooperativism; Feminist Economics; Open Value Accounting), as well as the concrete experience of Guerrilla Translation and its fully developed DisCO governance model.

The DisCO project has been created to cooperatively develop, prototype and popularize DisCOs, and provide integrated resources for those wanting to take part in their development. Here we intend to mature, codify and open-source our cultural practices for other collectives, practising “contributive accounting” [defined here by Micheal Bauwens as accounting which “allows economic actors to manage their production, while recognising positive and negative social and ecological externalities”].

We are also co-developing a modular legal/technical infrastructure for other commons-oriented collectives and businesses to adapt.

This culture/structure distinction is expressed through two complementary components to the project: The DisCO Framework and the DisCO Stack.

  • The DisCO Framework (Culture) is predicated on care work, and prototypes real world practices. It includes resources such as an educational portal; handbooks; audiovisual materials; infographics; DiSCO-thons and workshops to engage communities in developing and prototyping the model in practice. The purpose is to make DLTs, Contributory Accounting, Feminist Economics and other components accessible to the “precariat’ [all those in unstable, open, insecure, freelanced work]. 

  • The DisCO Stack (Structure) will offer plug-and-play systems for the value tracking and online collaboratory dynamics inherent to DisCOs. We will use a combination of non-blockchain Distributed Ledger Technologies with public blockchains. This Stack will provide user-friendly, lightweight and energy efficient, small node, trustworthy value tracking and economic networking systems.

Together, DisCO culture and structure can allow us to transcend the norms that currently dominate blockchain. It will bring a slew of fresh influences to the decentralised space [on this, more here], while making it more accessible to a more diverse and engaged set of users.


[1] This is a gross simplification. For a more in-depth look at Decentralised Autonomous Organizations we recommend this critical overview by Primavera de Filippi.
[2] These can include lowered transactional costs for social interactions within commons-oriented organizations and the potential for value sovereignty. I.e., when done right DAOs can make countercultural, post-capitalist processes cheaper and more efficient.
[3] Distributed Ledger Technologies are, basically, synchronized databases shared among several nodes and without central administrators. Think of these as a broader understanding of a blockchain, although not every DLT is a blockchain.
[4] For a quick overview, here are infographics for P2P and the Commons, Open Cooperativism, Open Value Accounting (1 and 2) and Feminist Economics.
[5] These include adopting capitalist practices to ensure competitiveness as defined by market logics, a disconnected managerial class unfamiliar with cooperative practices and ethics, and, worst case, the demutualization of coops. See more here.

This article has been adapted from If I Only had a Heart: a DisCO manifesto [an early PDF is available on request from A/UK], a forthcoming booklet analysing:

  • the role of supposedly disruptive technologies in social change,

  • the potentials and pitfalls of DAO cultures

  • and how DisCOs can provide a coherent, more socially grounded alternative.

The DisCO team plans more to produce more accessible, inclusive reading materials for potential partners and peers.

Small postscript: this happened at one of the London XR protests this week. We are sure the DisCO Manifestoists would approve of this “civil disco-bedience”…