It seems to me that anywhere you go these days, there’s bound to be someone dropping that term like it’s going out of fashion. You’ll hear them talk about this ecosystem, or that ecosystem, usually in reference to any number of things from consumer products, business models, IT systems or even personal social networks (I kid you not). So just what is an ecosystem, really?
For one thing, it is an over-used / overloaded term which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, refers to a biological system comprising all organisms that live in, and interact with, a particular physical environment. This definition is consistent with others from a variety of both lexical and semantic sources, and as a result, one can only conclude that ecosystem is used, by most non-scientific types, as a metaphor to describe similar complex systems.
As buzzwords go, the term “ecosystem” has been around for a while, yet for some reason its use (and abuse) appears to have gained traction with a much wider variety of people, professions and circumstances. For example, it is no longer unusual to hear it from the lips of:economists, technologists, consultants, media folk and even start-ups and their VCs. In a recent panel session, at a music/tech seminar, it seemed that each panelist used “ecosystem”, in different contexts & meanings, to answer to a single question! Surely it must be time to stop and call amnesty on such indiscriminate use of this term.
To be fair, there is a certain attraction to using such a rich metaphor to describe certain things, and this perhaps reflects a rather complex, information-rich and often confusing electronic age. The ecosystem concept communicates this complexity rather eloquently, comprising as it does, such intricate components as: environments, niches, food chains, roles, relationships (e.g. specialists, generalists, predators, prey, symbiosis or parasitism), and an idea of balance and equilibrium. As a result, one can easily see a similarity and applicability to modern businesses, (e.g. high-tech or financial systems), which themselves also have a complex set of interacting entities and components including: value chains, webs & networks; IT systems; information flows & controls; as well as various business and revenue models (complete with predators, prey, and mutants with emergent skills e.g. in Internet, social network, or Cloud technologies).
However, there are limitations to the ecosystem metaphor, and perhaps not everything can or should be described in terms of an ecosystem. For example, it is extremely difficult to find anything like true balance or equilibrium in areas such as high-technology, business, politics or global economics and finance (don’t even get me started). Furthermore, new and emerging patterns of complex digital interaction, usage and convergence are not yet fully understood, and this is particularly true for: content, context, rights and entitlements (e.g. individual privacy). To my mind, this is a clear indication that even complex metaphors like ecosystems may not be rich enough to properly describe the evolutionary fusion of human beings, digital technology and our physical environment, e.g. the emergence of Augumented Reality applications are a case in point.
In conclusion, ecosystem is an over-loaded term that is increasingly used by people in business, technology and other fields, to describe complexity. It works well to a large extent, but indiscriminate and uninformed use can only add further confusion and FUD to an already complex situation. It may well be that as people, technology and environment continue to evolve / converge we’re going to need even richer metaphors to describe it all. So next time someone says ecosystem, you might do well to ask: “…my ecosystem or yours?”