Can Ecosystem Thinking Help Us to Accomodate the Complexity of the World?

The advent of the digital age and collaborative practices have changed the way companies interact with their stakeholders. In this respect, the ecosystem approach is extremely powerful because, with a few concessions, it gives the keys to an open innovation process that is particularly adapted to this new context.

When the British biologist Arthur Tansley, just over 80 years ago, coined the word “ecosystem” to refer to a ” homogenous set of living things interacting with each other with mutual dependencies, ” he could not imagine that his expression would one day be diverted into the socio-economic context of a world in upheaval. It is the American James Moore who introduced this expression in the world of the economy with his famous article “Predators and preys” published in 1993 in the Harvard Business Review. Since then, this formula has been popularized and everyone has seized it. And this is good because it seems to me that ecosystem thinking is, in the context of uncertainty, complexity and acute volatility in which organizations have been evolving for a few years, a key to making the world meaningful.

An ecosystem is a kind of culture broth composed of actors in which two loops are combined. The first loop is the trust loop. It works on the reputation: it is because I know such actor of reputation that I have a sufficient degree of confidence to start interactions with him. It is not the ecosystem thinking that invented or allowed this: at all times and still today in our personal lives, we experience the fact of having more inclination to work with one and that than another, simply on the basis of reputation. If such a person has a bad reputation, I will be suspicious. So it’s going to be more complex to interact because I’m going to set up behavioral checkpoints to protect myself. What is striking, however, is the way digital has multiplied, fluidized, amplified and made extremely easy to access, markers of reputation (of individuals, brands, companies, …). So, based on a (good) reputation (experiential or not), the degree of trust will increase. It will be easier to interact because I will be more open and cooperative. The relationship and the interactions will consume fewer resources (time or means) and so I will be able to do more things with my means that remain finite and limited. It is said that transaction costs are reduced (1) and with the numerical one observes that these transaction costs tend towards zero (2) : in other words, it hardly costs anything, allowing actors to interact in confidence, within an ecosystem.

The more interactions there are, the more the actors will get to know each other, the more confident they will be and the more the interactions will be facilitated. This will inevitably attract new actors, seduced by the positive emulation that reigns in the ecosystem. They will enrich it with their contributions and the new interactions they will create. The spiral of trust has a direct effect on the volume and quality of interactions. This is where the second loop starts : the learning loop . Because by multiplying the interactions, the actors are able to experiment “at high frequency”: the quantity and the quality of the interactions and experiments will increase fanned by a very powerful shared learning process. This spiral has a direct effect on the volume and quality of innovations. We know where we are from but we do not know where we will end up: it is open innovation that makes it possible to bring out solutions and new value propositions, as the fruit of a collective intelligence .

” Coopetition” is the ability to cooperate and compete at the same time.

This is where the cooperative or collaborative part of an ecosystem ends, because once solutions have emerged, it is the one that will be the fastest to capture a preponderant share of the value created. It is the same actors who cooperated a moment of reason earlier that will become competitors hardly an identified innovation. But the paradox is that they will continue to maintain these ecosystems loops and therefore to cooperate: they can not do without them because they always need this engine of innovation, whose benefits, they have regulars. We speak of ” coopetition”, that is to say of the ability to cooperate and to compete at the same time . An economic ecosystem is therefore the result of antagonistic forces that interact, create momentum and value through open innovation.

To work in an ecosystem and to mobilize one to achieve a raison d’être or a mission (even lucrative), it is “just enough” to create the conditions so that these chain reactions can unfold in an optimal way, a little in the way which a biologist is a favorable environment (heat, humidity, nutrients, …) to the development of bacteria in a petri dish.

Before starting the mobilization of an ecosystem, here are some principles to keep in mind:

  • an ecosystem is all the richer because it is heterogeneous . If everyone is too similar, the interactions will invariably be less rich even if the transactions will probably be facilitated initially.
  • an ecosystem pre-exists its mobilization . If we take, for example, the ecosystem made up of the people concerned by being fit and who could be composed of men and women, but also sports coaches, dietetic doctors, room bosses sport, etc … we understand that all these actors pre-exist to the awareness of the ecosystem and that it is enough “to put at their disposal a platform to interact, so that the ecosystem can have a place of expression and emerge . So, we can say that we do not create an ecosystem: we can only mobilize it
  • many speak about ecosystems in the first person “I go this in my ecosystem” or “in my ecosystem, something happens”: it does not make sense because an ecosystem has no center. It is said that we must not confuse the ecosystem with the ecosystem. This decentering effort (3) is one of the most difficult steps to take: actors are differentiated by their ability to influence the dynamics of the ecosystem, but there is no centralizing hierarchy

Representatives of the predatory economy of performance have not been mistaken and have invested heavily on these platforms.

Ecosystem is a real invitation to humility and letting go. It is a question of looking at the world differently, ie not seeing it as a two- or three-dimensional universe that can be partly controlled, but a multidimensional space that must therefore be abandoned because that its complexity exceeds our cognitive abilities.

Successful examples are numerous: Amazon in the retail sector, AirBnB in services but also Haier in home appliances. This last example is emblematic because it is a manufacturing company that was threatened by bureaucracy related to its size. It has created a coopetition platform where partner-suppliers co-develop solutions and products, while remaining fiercely competitive when it comes to questioning the solutions in the marketplace. The society is prosperous and surprisingly decentralized. At its level, AirBnB mobilizes with a disconcerting ease the actors of its ecosystem and now allows “guests” to benefit from recommendations of “hosts” for restaurants for example. After a few months of launching this new feature, the establishments had more opinions on AirBnB than they had had on TripAdvisor in several years.

Ecosystem thinking is a sesame in the global and ultrarapid world we have built. In a coopetition framework, it allows to set up incredible open innovation processes. This requires decentering, a form of letting go and a paradigm shift for anyone who wants to practice it. Representatives of the predatory economy of performance were not mistaken and have invested heavily in these platforms that disrupted entire sectors of the global economy. This of course raises the question of capturing the value created. Not in moral terms but simply because it perpetuates, in a modernized form, practices that lead to social and ecological tensions that we know and that we know will be fatal to us. Because for “making ecosystem” makes sense, it must lead the players to precisely also share the value and power within the ecosystem: it is at this price that they will be fully resilient .

(1) see the work of the Nobel Prize for Economics: Coase R., The Company, the Market and the Law, ed. of Organization, 2005, p. 23

(2) see works by Simone Cicero

(3) see the interview conducted by Timothée Brès


A version of  this post was previously published on OuiShare and is republished here with a permission from the author.

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