Why Ecosystems? Why Now?

For at least seven years, the concept of ecosystems has been discussed and defined in various ways, while sometimes applied in a context that dilutes its eventual impact. At the highest level, an ecosystem is a network of connected stakeholders interacting in ways that create and capture value for all participants. Why has this ecosystem phenomenon emerged now and why do people expect it to drive structural change? Once again, history may provide an answer.


It was the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries that marked the emergence of modern science and transformed the views of society about nature. It also drove the ultimate destruction of the structures and institutions of that era. However, it was an intellectual period that did nothing to advance human development. It wasn’t until the 1870’s at the start of the second industrial revolution that science converged with technology. Most major technological advances since then have been built on the scientific knowledge base of humanity. Knowledge and invention have always been the drivers of human development, and the period that followed is still considered the greatest period of human development the world has ever known. As I do with history in general, I see many similarities between that historical period and our emerging era.


Fast-forward 150 years and history may be repeating itself. The rapid pace of invention – driven by synergies between the sciences, another more aggressive convergence with technology, and an explosion of knowledge – is likely to usher in the next period of human development, and we are just scratching the surface. Look no further than DeepMind’s recent success predicting the structure of nearly all proteins known to science; the recent progress in finding cures for cancer; the use of CRISPR to cure high cholesterol; or recent progress in identifying early warning signs of Alzheimer’s. Given the projected increase in human longevity, cases of Alzheimer’s and dementia are expected to rise, making these latest findings very important. These are truly examples of a world moving towards solving our biggest challenges.


Whereas the second industrial revolution was an industry story, the story ultimately told about this emerging era will be one of ecosystems. Whereas industries are vertically oriented, ecosystems are horizontal in nature and have no regard for industry boundaries. Leveraging rapid scientific and technological advancements in purpose-oriented ways requires the coming together of industries in this horizontal fashion. As more breakthroughs emerge, the means to enhance our well-being emerge with it. If we view our well-being through the lens of life experiences, we can begin to understand the connection between that historical period described above, and similar structural implications of this emerging era. A short story brings this into focus.

As our ability to move around our planet is enhanced through innovation, a mobility ecosystem emerges. That ecosystem includes stakeholders that now reside in various industries. Structure begins to change. Now envision the role that mobility likely plays in how we experience our homes. Your vehicle knows you are on the way home and ensures that the temperature is set where you like, your favorite music is playing, and the lights are on. The ecosystem now intersects with the smart home – more structural change. Due to a societal focus on climate change, autonomous mobility now moves underground, effectively intersecting with the smart city. More structural change. While you are driving to an important meeting, your car senses that you are in physical distress and autonomously reroutes you to the hospital. It notifies the emergency room that you are on your way and sends your vital signs in advance. Mobility has now intersected with wellness. More structural change.

Where the scientific revolution and ensuing period of enlightenment undermined the role of religion and monarchies in governing society, this emerging era likely impacts industry structures and several institutions that have been around for over 150 years. At the highest level, advances in science and technology alongside an explosion of knowledge provide the means to advance human development, which in turn drives a focus on purpose. The outcomes we strive for through that purpose lens manifest themselves through ecosystems. The result is an ecosystem phenomenon that requires new forms of excellence.


I focus on five areas of excellence required for success in this emerging world of ecosystems. First is purpose driven. If the means to solve our biggest challenges are emerging, then it is incumbent upon society to pursue those means. The second is foresight. The future is emergent and so is human need. Seeing into this future is critically important. The third is new forms of value. What lies ahead requires non-traditional thinking, a willingness to step outside our comfort zone, and a constant rehearsing of the future. Identifying new forms of value requires accelerated learning – and ecosystems are an enabler of acceleration. The fourth is collaboration. Ecosystems are all about relationships, and in this world, silos undermine our efforts. The last is platforms. The technological foundation lies at the heart of emerging ecosystems.

Why ecosystems and why now? As described above, the building blocks of science, technology, knowledge, and purpose are converging in ways that change the structure and mechanisms of value creation and capture. The result? A likely profound period of human development – but only if managed constructively. Traditional behaviors like hoarding value will challenge the path towards ecosystems. For example, data plays a critical role in delivering an ecosystems value proposition. But many stakeholders are reluctant to share data. There is also a tendency to replicate the value that is better provided by a different ecosystem participant. These behaviors are obstacles that could slow the path, but they will not change the destination. Redundant ecosystems are already forming – it’s just a matter of time before they consolidate.

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