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Llewellyn D. W. Thomas and Erkko Autio

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.