The concept of an “ecosystem” is increasingly used in management and business to describe collectives of heterogeneous, yet complementary organizations who jointly create some kind of system-level output, analogous to an “ecosystem service” delivered by natural ecosystems, which extends beyond the outputs and activities of any individual participant of the ecosystem. Due to its attractiveness and elasticity, the ecosystem concept has been applied to a wide range of phenomena by a variety of scholarly perspectives and under varying monikers such as “innovation ecosystems,” “business ecosystems,” “technology ecosystems,” “platform ecosystems,” “entrepreneurial ecosystems,” and “knowledge ecosystems.” This conceptual and application heterogeneity has contributed to conceptual and terminological confusion, which threatens to undermine the utility of the concept in supporting cumulative insight. In this article, we seek to reintroduce some order into this conceptual heterogeneity by reviewing how the ecosystem concept has been applied to variably overlapping phenomena and by highlighting key terminological and conceptual inconsistencies and their sources. We find that conceptual inconsistency in the ecosystem terminology relates to two key dimensions: the “unit” of analysis and the type of “ecosystem service”—that is the ecosystem output collectively generated. We then argue that although there is considerable heterogeneity in application, the concept nevertheless offers promise in its potential to support insights that are distinctive relative to other concepts describing collectives of organizations, such as those of “industry,” “supply chain,” “cluster,” and “network.” We also find that despite such proliferation, the concept nevertheless describes collectives that are distinctive in that they uniquely combine participant heterogeneity, coherence of ecosystem outputs, participant interdependence, and nonhierarchical governance. Based on our identified dimensions of conceptual heterogeneity, we offer a typology of the different ecosystem concepts, thereby helping reorganize this proliferating domain. The typology is based upon three distinct ecosystem outputs—ecosystem-level value offering for a defined audience, the collective generation of business model innovation, and the collective generation of research-based knowledge—and three research emphases that resonate with alternative “units” of analysis—community dynamics, output cogeneration, and interdependence management. Together, these allow us to clearly differentiate between the concepts of innovation ecosystems, business ecosystems, platform ecosystems, technology ecosystems, entrepreneurial ecosystems, and knowledge ecosystems. Based on the three distinct types of ecosystem outputs, our typology identifies three major types of ecosystems: innovation ecosystems, entrepreneurial ecosystems, and knowledge ecosystems. Under the rubric of “innovation ecosystems,” we further distinguish between business ecosystems, modular ecosystems, and platform ecosystems. We conclude by considering innovation ecosystem dynamics, highlighting the important role of digitalization, and reviewing the implications of our model for ecosystem emergence, competition, coevolution, and resilience.
Llewellyn D. W. Thomas and Erkko Autio
Erik E. Lehmann and Julian Schenkenhofer
The pursuit of economic growth stands out as one of the main imperatives within modern economies. Nevertheless, economies differ considerably in their competitiveness. Theories on the endogeneity of growth agree on the value of knowledge creation and innovativeness to determine a country’s capability to achieve a sustained performance and to adapt to the dynamics of changing environments and faster information flows. To this effect, national institutional regimes shape nation-specific contexts and embed individuals and firms. The resulting incentive structures shape the attitudes and behavior of individuals and firms alike, whose interactions contribute to the accumulation and flow of knowledge among the nodes of their networks. National systems of innovation (NSIs) therefore embody a concept that aims to analyze the national innovation performance of economies. It rests its rationale in the variation of national institutions that shape the diffusion of technologies through the process of shared knowledge creation and the development of learning routines. Both public and private institutions are thought to interact in a given nation-specific institutional context that essentially affects incentive schemes and resource allocation of the involved economic agents in creating, sharing, distributing, absorbing, and commercializing knowledge. To this effect, public policy plays a key role in the NSI through building bridges between these actors, reducing information asymmetries, and providing them with resources from others within the system. The different actors contributing to the creation and diffusion of knowledge within the system are needed to exchange information and provide the engine for sustained economic growth. Universities, research institutes, companies and the individual entrepreneur are in charge of shaping their economic system in a way that resource and skill complementarities are exploited to the mutual benefit.
Open Innovation, published in 2003, was a ground-breaking work by Henry Chesbrough that placed technology and innovation at the center of attention for managers of large firms. The term open innovation refers to the ways in which firms can generate and commercialize innovation by engaging outside entities. The ideas have attracted the notice of scholars, spawning annual world conferences and a large literature in technology and innovation management (including numerous journal special issues) that documents diverse examples of innovations and the often novel business models needed to make the most of those innovations. The role of business models in open innovation is the focus of Open Business Models, Chesbrough’s 2006 follow-up to Open Innovation. Managers have likewise flocked to Chesbrough’s approach, as the hundreds of thousands of hits from an online search using the term open innovation can attest. Surveys show that the majority of large firms were engaging in open innovation practices in 2017, compared to only 20% in 2003 when Open Innovation was published.
Kathleen R. Allen
For decades researchers have studied various aspects of the technology transfer and commercialization process in universities in hopes of discovering effective methods for enabling more research to leave the university as technologies that benefit society. However, this effort has fallen short, as only a very small percentage of applied research finds its way to the marketplace through licenses to large companies or to new ventures. Furthermore, the reasons for this failure have yet to be completely explained. In some respects, this appears to be an ontological problem. In their effort to understand the phenomenon of university commercialization, researchers tend to reduce the process into its component parts and study each part in isolation. The result is conclusions that ignore a host of variables that interact with the part being studied and frameworks that describe a linear process from invention to market rather than a complex system. To understand how individuals in the technology commercialization system make strategic choices around outcomes, studies have been successful in identifying some units of analysis (the tech transfer office, the laboratory, the investment community, the entrepreneurship community); but they have been less effective at integrating the commercialization process, contexts, behaviors, and potential outcomes to explain the forces and reciprocal interactions that might alter those outcomes. The technology commercialization process that leads to new technology products and entrepreneurial ventures needs to be viewed as a complex adaptive system that operates under conditions of risk and uncertainty with nonlinear inputs and outputs such that the system is in a constant state of change and reorganization. There is no overall project manager managing tasks and relationships; therefore, the individuals in the system act independently and codependently. No single individual is aware of what is going on in any other part of the system at any point in time, and each individual has a different agenda with different metrics on which their performance is judged. What this means is that a small number of decision makers in the university commercialization system can have a disproportionate impact on the effectiveness and success of the entire system and its research outcomes. Critics of reductionist research propose that understanding complex adaptive systems, such as university technology commercialization, requires a different mode of thinking—systems thinking—which looks at the interrelationships and dependencies among all the parts of the system. Combined with real options reasoning, which enables resilience in the system to mitigate uncertainty and improve decision-making, it may hold the key to better understanding the complexity of the university technology commercialization process and why it has not been as effective as it could be.