In times of increasing digital transformation and networking (DT&N), more and more people are talking about the emergence of new ecosystems. What do they mean by that? Are these digital or business ecosystems, or a bit of both? And to what extent does a concept revolving around the ecology help us explain technological and business developments?
Looking at DT&N not so much in terms of technological advancement, but as a change in the overall process of value creation, the use of internet technology to connect objects not only leads to new kinds of so-called Product Service Systems, it is also an opportunity for companies to raise the share of value they add by participating in multidisciplinary collaborative agreements beyond the boundaries of specific industries. When a number of companies work together on DT&N initiatives, this results in value-oriented, internet-based ecosystems (Weber/Lasi 2017). The role of technical platforms in this is to facilitate communication between companies and their customers. But setting up alliances is not just about technical solutions. It also has to be about companies sharing a common understanding regarding partnership-based development, based on a pragmatic approach toward different ways to add value together. DT&N thus facilitates the development of digital and business ecosystems at the same time. Seeing this development process as an ecosystem provides an analytical perspective that can help to explain the heterogeneity of structures, although it can also explain the sustainability of a collaboration.
In Ancient Greek, oikos meant house and systema described things that were “put together” or “connected.” The ecologist Kurt Jax (2008) described ecosystems as “an assemblage of organisms of different types [species or life forms], together with their abiotic environment in space and time.”
In business science, an ecosystem is defined as the community of all industry players (economic ecosystems or business ecosystems). One major area of research also involves “entrepreneurship ecosystems” as the social and commercial environment of local and regional entrepreneurship. Within the context of entrepreneurship, an ecosystem represents the factors that surround an entrepreneur (people, organizations, and institutions), so as a result these can influence entrepreneurs but they can also prevent them from engaging in entrepreneurial activity.
The definition of a digital ecosystem is perhaps less clear. Until now there has been little agreement regarding the exact demarcations of digital ecosystems and where they come into use. According to Dieter Masak (2008: 103), the overall goal of a digital ecosystem is to overcome complex, dynamic challenges in ways that are scalable and efficient. A digital ecosystem emulates the behavior of biologically complex systems in order to put in place a dynamically adaptable overall system (Masak 2008: 103). Apple is often pointed to as an example of a digital ecosystem. Unlike the biological definition of ecosystems, with Apple there is one important element that is missing, however: openness.
One special characteristic of ecosystems in the context of DT&N, as witnessed with the way so-called testbeds develop (see the articles on page 18 and page 32), relates to the economic and technological interpretations of ecosystem concepts. There is also a connection here to the biology of systemic openness. Analyzing value-oriented and web-based ecosystems is thus also a new challenge for science. On the one hand, it will be necessary to find a meaningful link between the existing approaches adopted in the economy and with technology. This would unveil the factors needed to conduct a comparative analysis of newly evolved ecosystems. Literature on the entrepreneurial ecosystem provides some useful pointers on different ways to identify the relevant attributes. Viewing things from a biological or ecological perspective can also help when analyzing the distinctions between cause and effect, as well as the dynamics of interaction within an entrepreneurial ecosystem (Borissenko/ Boschma 2017: 7). Since DT&N ecosystems bring together a host of heterogeneous players from different industries and disciplines, it makes sense to take network dimensions into account. Methods used in network theory make it possible to analyze the stability and sustainability of such systems. They also help to identify different types of ecosystems (Borissenko/ Boschma 2017: 13). The next step should be to define the ecosystem pertinent to DT&N from a holistic and interdisciplinary perspective.