A good number of abstracts from the cooperative movement were submitted for the ICA Cooperative Research Conference with the theme – Deepening Our Cooperative Identity – why do you think there’s a strong interest in this topic?

It is increasingly clear that the cooperative identity and the structure of cooperative enterprises are relevant, unique, and identifiable.  A cooperative can be different things to different people, but the ICA’s Statement of Cooperative Identity unifies a diverse group of cooperative enterprises within a very diverse movement and helps distinguish cooperative enterprises from other enterprises.

There used to be a clear distinction between the cooperative enterprise and the investor driven enterprise, but in today’s social economy space the global corporate world is moving from shareholder capitalism towards stakeholder capitalism, and social enterprises and benefit corporations are in the mix. In all these spaces, it’s important to distinguish the features of the cooperative model that make them unique.

What are the latest trends in the research on cooperative identity?

Looking at the submissions for the CCR research conference before the Congress, what’s increasingly present as a topic is DEI: diversity, equity inclusion – towards indigenous people, and towards marginalised communities. Gender is also included in this. Women have been included in gender studies for a long time, but now other gender issues are also being addressed.

Another popular topic is member participation in governance. While there are other member-owned and driven organisations, for cooperatives member involvement, engagement and participation is critically important. There is also an interest in education as part of the cooperative identity and what that means.

We’re in the middle of a perfect storm of global crises, and submissions are addressing these too, from climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic often under the umbrella of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are another topic of interest.

How is the cooperative movement still engaged with the idea of cooperative identity?

As an educator whose students come from different cooperatives, it seems to me that this engagement is deep and increasingly relevant. Cooperatives bridge the gap between the statement of the cooperative identity and putting it into practice in communities. 

People are talking about what’s missing in the Statement on Cooperative Identity. They also question whether we need to revise the principles to fit today’s society. Cooperative leaders are looking for these kinds of guidelines to help them navigate social and economic spheres much more so than they were a couple decades ago.

What do you hope will result from the CCR Research Conference and the World Cooperative Congress?

The Conference and the Congress are opportunities to network and talk to each other. This will be a hybrid event which is an opportunity to reach more people. We will be able to learn from each other, talk to each other and hear something new that we hadn’t thought about, and contribute to those conversations. Practitioner knowledge is critical to how we shape our research and where we take it. Hopefully we will see more practitioners attend these sessions where they will contribute their knowledge.

We have two pre-Congress events – the CCR research conference and the International Forum on Cooperative Law. We will then have a joint session on the day before the Congress launches. I’m hoping that we get some momentum that’s building from the research on the cooperative identity, and how that relates to law. Cooperative Law is under pressure to harmonize. I’m hopeful that with the research, we will move into a Congress that is going to consist of dialogues between participants with diverse experiences from different regions. 

Who should attend the CCR Research Conference?

I think practitioners and academics will find something of interest to them. We have very sharp and knowledgeable researchers in the cooperative movement who keep up with research trends. I’m hoping that more young researchers are going to attend, whether they’re presenting or not.

How has COVID-19 affected the courses on cooperatives and cooperative research at St. Mary’s University?

There has been increasing interest to start cooperatives and using the cooperative model in new spaces. People want to understand this economic model and then actually use it to make a difference. 

In 2003, we started to offer an online Master’s degree to reach students scattered around the world. So offering online programmes isn’t new to us, but today everybody is online and we’ve had to adjust how we do things.

What is new today is a huge demand increase for executive education short courses on the cooperative model, delivered over two or three days. This is because of the virtual environment we find ourselves in. We would normally run these courses in-person, and there is a richness of experience that you cannot replicate online. But we are now reaching many more people. What used to be a face-to-face group of 15 or 20 people, is now a group of 100 or 150 people. So, there is definitely an interest in understanding the cooperative model and the difference it can make.