business ecosystems. In fact, the ecosystem perspective is particularly useful
when applied to digitally mediated ecosystems, but subtle differences persist.
Consider the ecosystems built by platform leaders such as Apple or Google.
They provide a technology platform for
the purpose of creating a community of
supporting producers, notably application software developers. While such an
ecosystem may be sustainable over time,
complementary producers’ hands are
quite tied as they share resources and
standards on terms set by the platform
leader. In this sense, this sort of ecosystem is thin on the meta-characteristics
of self-governance and evolution, as its
ability to adapt to changing environments is limited by the dominance of a
single platform leader.
Other types of ecosystems are more
complete in their meta-characteristics.
For example, startup ecosystems, be
an ecosystem from a cluster. Here, I
establish what they are and thus the es-
sence of what is going on in an ecosys-
tem (see the accompanying table).
The first characteristic is
sustainability. A biological ecosystem is defined as a system that includes all
living organisms (biotic factors) in
an area and its physical environment
(abiotic factors) functioning together
as a unit. Just as we identify living
things like animals and plants as well
as non-living things such as rocks and
soil in a biological ecosystem, a business ecosystem consists of humans
(for example, entrepreneurs) and environmental structures (such as incubators). Just as there are food chains
in which resources are used and recycled in a biological ecosystem, there is
a hierarchy of human actors who use
and reuse resources in a sustainable
manner in a business ecosystem.
Sustainability implies that the ecosystem can thrive without outside influence or assistance. That is, the ecosystem can meet the needs of the present
without compromising the ability to
satisfy the needs for the future. Sustainability is of course an important
theme for public policymakers in cities
and regions, and for major businesses
for their own survival today.
The second characteristic is
self-governance. This implies the ecosystem is not dependent on an outside
force, nor is it controlled by a single
dominant actor within the ecosystem. There is therefore no unilateral
top-down hierarchical control. It
also implies that although some activities are governed by a shared set
of formal rules and informal norms,
the ecosystem allows for the emergence of competing rules or standards that challenge established
ones. The self-governing structure
is attractive to many who work inside
the business ecosystem. On the basis
of this definition, it is erroneous to
talk about the Wal-Mart ecosystem or
the Toyota ecosystem.
The third essential characteristic of
business ecosystems is evolution, that
is, their ability to evolve over time
through competition and experimen-
tation. A biological analogy is the
survival of the fittest, which involves
combining competition and collabo-
ration between species. Experimenta-
tion may be via R&D leading to inven-
tion, but also over business models
leading to business model innovation.
In the process of evolution, some spe-
cies adapt and survive, while others
cannot adapt and therefore become ex-
tinct. Over a long period of time, some
ecosystems thrive, while other ecosys-
tems stagnate or die. These dynamics
apply just as much to business ecosys-
tems as to biological ecosystems.
In short, a business ecosystem is a
collection of business and other actors
with resources operating as an interdependent system. Business ecosystems
differ from clusters in sustainability,
self-governance, and capacity to evolve
Combining the Digital World
with the Physical World
Digital technologies and infrastructure
create significant opportunities for