Ecosystems, you keep using that word

you-keep-using-that-wordIt happens once and again in the world of business and technology. An idea begins to gain traction, and somewhere, someone comes up with a catchphrase that soon becomes a buzzword everybody repeat and repeat ad nauseam. Pundits use it in their workshop and conferences, analysts depict it together with their fancy charts, journalists repeat it in their insubstantial articles, and finally managers and politician adopt it in their pompous speeches.

Nobody is without sin, not even myself. I am sure to have contributed to this way of devaluing words and concepts. Sometimes unconsciously, because I liked them, sometimes because I had to.

One of those catchphrases is “innovation ecosystem”. Innovation and ecosystem are two of those beloved words and concepts which I wish they could be saved from the fate of ill-conceived ideas, but now four researchers put a finger where it hurts. In “Innovation ecosystems: A critical examination” they say(1):

The phrase has captured the imagination of policy makers and has motivated public initiatives of substantial magnitude.

and then asks:

What is gained from adding ‘eco-’ to our treatment of national and regional innovation systems?

Their answer is clear:

“Very little, and the risks outweigh the benefits.” Innovation ecosystem is not yet a clearly defined concept, much less a theory. Moreover, the idea carries pitfalls, notably its over-emphasis on market forces, and its flawed analogy to natural ecosystems.

The paper is a critical review of the ‘innovation ecosystem’ idea, as it is found in the literature, and its comparison to the more traditional notion of innovation system. Though the literature does not yield a firm typology of innovation ecosystems, the term is mentioned in several contexts:

  • Corporate (open) innovation ecosystems
  • Regional and national innovation ecosystems
  • Digital innovation ecosystems
  • City based innovation ecosystems and innovation districts
  • High tech SME’s centred ecosystems
  • Incubators and accelerators
  • University based ecosystems

The authors find that the distinguishing features of recent publications using “ecosystem” seem to be:

  • Systemic view of the Innovation as a social system
  • Digitalization
  • Open innovation
  • Appeal to news media
  • Emphasis of niche players
  • Greater importance of market forces.

However, they also conclude that ‘Innovation ecosystem’ should be used mainly as a metaphor, and not a rigorous construct. The innovation ecosystem notion, taken as a whole, lacks scholarly rigour and weight. Their discussion is debatable but worth reading. They also point to some of the limitations as an analogy to natural ecosystems. Their final recommendation is funny:

Clarity will be served if innovation researchers use the term “ecosystem” only with a leading modifier – for example, university startup ecosystem, IT ecosystem, incubation ecosystem – or better yet, not at all.

Which reminded me of that memorable scene of the Princess Bride where Iñigo Montoya tells Sicilian boss Vizzini, who is repeating “inconceivable!” once and again: “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.” Another phrase turned meme, by the way.

If you think about it, it is true that our imagination to name things is often very limited. And given than, most of the time, buzzwords are just a way of creating confusion instead of clarity, why should we keep repeating the same word? “Eco-system” is a simple compound that could be easily generalised to, for example, inno-systems, venture-systems, and the like. And if we dare to be bold, why not true portmanteaus like, for example, #spainnosystem?


(1) Oh, Deog-Seong, Fred Phillips, Sehee Park, and Eunghyun Lee. 2016. ‘Innovation Ecosystems: A Critical Examination’. Technovation 54: 1–6.

Featured Image: Iñigo Montoya and Vizzini, “The Princess Bride”


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