A Practical Look at Innovation Ecosystems Definitions

Innovation ecosystems do not need to be complicated — there are practical ways to think of them using a new definition.

Do you ever find yourself reading an article on innovation and finding it both makes sense and is totally useless? I do all the time. I’ve even written some of these 😕.

Innovation ecoystems are ideas that are not all that complicated, but too often practically problematic. One reason is that innovation ecosystems are often explained in convoluted terms with long, rambling, and technological definitions. A new research paper seeks to provide some clarity on this concept. Let’s look at this new definition a little further.

What can we learn from the concept of ecosystems and how they can apply this?

Defining Innovation

A big problem with the ecosystem approach is that it defines innovation at a particular scale and type. For example, Technology is often framed as a key factor in shaping innovation. This perspective neglects the many social and operational innovations we make in our organizations. The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated this as organizations shift how they staff, supply, and service their clients or customers. None of these are necessarily technological.

What if we defined innovation differently? I define innovation as learning transformed into value by design. Technology can help, but isn’t necessary as much of what we consider innovative can be psychosocial, structural, political, or technological.

Ecosystems are the environments that support this learning.

Defining Innovation Ecosystems

An innovation ecosystem is a concept that has gained much attention in the literature. It’s one of the hot ideas. But what does it mean?

Ove Grandstrand from Cambridge University and his colleague Marcus Holgersson from Stockholm looked at the ways in which this concept of innovation ecoystem was used in the literature. What they found were dozens of examples and many different components that they synthesized into a new, more complete definition below:

An innovation ecosystem is the evolving set of actors, activities, and artifacts, and the institutions and relations, including complementary and substitute relations, that are important for the innovative performance of an actor or a population of actors.

Apart from being rather long, this new definition is at least a little more understandable than many of the ones they reviewed. What they did not do in the article was explain how this was to be used.

Practically speaking, this definition leads us to consider the following:

  1. An ecoystem is not stable — it’s always changing. This evolutionary emphasis reminds us that creating environments that support innovation is always a work in progress.
  2. It is a set of things defined by who is involved, what is done, and what is produced.
  3. It is a network of relationships and relations. The interconnections matter.
  4. These are all influencing the outcomes.

The article and review doesn’t focus on the idea of innovation itself, rather the context in which an innovation ecosystem is established.

Practical Innovation

What does this mean in practice? Building an ecosystem is much like marketing: it’s something you always do. As Seth Godin describes it:

Marketing is the generous act of helping someone solve a problem. Their problemMarketing helps others become who they seek to become”.

Ecosystems are spaces that allow innovation to thrive and, like marketing, help people to solve a problem with a new idea. Like marketing, innovation is about practical strategies to apply what we learn and transform it into value by design.

In practice, this means attending to where we work. What is your proximity to others who can help you to generate ideas (and focus) or share resources? These might mean your allies, but it can also be your competitors. There are many reasons why environments that share many competitors within them can produce productive innovations; they create proximal connections between people, ideas, and outcomes.

This means connecting to your competitors, too. It’s not something done independently, but interdependently with your market — cooperators, competitors, and customers/clients.

Another practical strategy is to recognize that innovation is ‘always on’. It’s not something done solely in sprints, but as part of the fabric of your organization.

Lastly, pay attention to who you work with (and need), what you do (and how often — use developmental evaluation to guide you), and the design and outcomes of what you produce.

Together, the concept of an ecosystem is something that can be produced within a small business or a large enterprise.

Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash and Emma Gossett on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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