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This Software Is Helping Groups Make Collaborative Decisions, Occupy Wall Street-Style

Loomio has expanded well beyond activist groups, and now governments are even using it.

This Software Is Helping Groups Make Collaborative Decisions, Occupy Wall Street-Style

Illustration: VectoRay via Shutterstock

The Internet is great for bringing like-minded people together, but it hasn't always been good for making actual decisions. Getting disparate people to agree on a single course of action is difficult to achieve via email, or even using a modern chatting platform like Slack. Inevitably people go off on tangents, raise petty disagreements, or feel their voice isn't being heard.

Loomio, a collaborative platform that originally grew out of the Occupy movement, aims to cut through the noise and allow people to reach a solid consensus. And it seems to be doing a pretty good job of it. Created in New Zealand, the software is now used by 20,000 groups in 95 countries, and it's beginning to reach well beyond its base among activist groups like the 15-M movement in Spain. For example, the Taiwanese government now uses it for participative democracy—which is somewhat ironic. Not long ago, Sunflower student groups were using Loomio to organize protests around Taiwan's parliament buildings.

Loomio itself is an interesting example of collaboration. It's owned by its worker-developers and has a share structure that ensures it sticks to its social mission. When it raised $450,000 recently (mostly from a social impact fund in South Korea), it created "redeemable preference shares"—which are shares that must be returned to the social enterprise if they're ever sold. The structure stops investors from selling on ownership to people who don't share Loomio's values, and ensures that most of the value created remains in the organization. The agreement gives investors an annual 8% return—an amount well above inflation, but nothing like the extravagant returns a high-risk VC might expect.

"We're driven to build a self-sustaining, revenue-funded company," says co-founder Ben Knight.

Knight describes Loomio as a "pie graph, four buttons and a space to talk to one another." It lets anyone start a thread and propose a course of action, then calls on participants to "agree," "abstain," "disagree," or "raise a serious concern" within an agreed timeline. "Rather than majority rules and a polarizing vote, it's more about having a way of succinctly stating your position and being flexible to change it," he says. "There's a discussion thread so you can see how everyone feels, and then there's the ability to develop thinking together as new information comes to light."

Licenses cost $19 per month per organization, but Loomio has a gift policy for groups with no budget. The software itself is open source, allowing people to make their own tweaks and additions. So far it's been translated into 35 languages (Spanish is the most popular after English).

Knight hopes the new cash injection will allow Loomio to reach further audiences and for the co-operative to keep growing. "It's been a long journey to get to this point. But we feel like we're in a good place to grow," he says.

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