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Why organizations and governments need to transform into open, agile ecosystems

In an increasingly complex and connected world, new ways of doing things are in great demand. The societal challenges, which Mariana Mazzucato has argued we should address with concrete missions, have no boundaries. We need incentives for finding ways of solving such challenges, and help organizations and agencies deal with such demanding issues.

Petra N. Andersen for Forskningspolitikk

Missions and a Green Deal

The European Commission recently launched the moonshot mission the Green Deal challenge, a new growth strategy for Europe with the mission of making Europe climateneutral by 2050.

In order to deliver on this mission, it’s obvious that all resources and actors need to be mobilized, all over Europe, and beyond.

For delivering on mission-oriented work an ecosystem approach must be applied. But, what are the features of ecosystems, and what are their roles as drivers in the context of missions?

Increasingly, politicians and governments often use the word «ecosystem» to show the big picture or give an overview of their organization and partners. The concept and power of ecosystems is however often not fully understood, nor how it can be used as a tool for collaboration and innovation. The lack of understanding can lead to bad public management, and in a worst case scenario, to faulty national investments.

The main purpose of mission transformation in the public sector is to enhance people’s lives by creating value for the citizens. One of the most common and popular methods of doing this is through systems thinking, where people look at the interaction between various actors and institutions, how they learn from each other and how they react to various framework conditions.

There are two sides to the innovation systems approach. You may look at how industrial clusters and collaborative networks grow and develop by themselves. But you may also develop strategies, policies and instruments aimed at strengthening existing systems for learning and collaboration.

The system-based approach from the 1990’s is, however, not fully fit to solve the wicked problems we face today, as the approach is often somewhat static, in the sense that the idea is to identify and fix the failures of existing systems, and not to develop systems explicitly addressing the challenges of the future.

Moreover, no organically grown innovation system, no matter how robust, can deliver good value automatically, on its own. It is part of a greater social, cultural and economic context. The systems approach, as it has often been practiced, does not take all stakeholders into account. In the public sector it has also proven hard to ensure the necessary collaboration and coordination between governmental units, and between them and relevant external members of the relevant innovation system.


As I see it, the ecosystem approach provides a better architecture for handling fast paced innovation and the new open dynamic disruptive technologies.

An ecosystem is an interconnected system made up of interrelated, interdependent actors.

The features of ecosystems vary. There are innovation ecosystems, digital business ecosystems, financial ecosystems or entrepreneurship ecosystems, just to mention a few. As the term indicates, ecosystems can have a natural, almost biological, growth process.

However, these days an increasing number of ecosystems are designed. Such ecosystems can more easily lead to new behavior, since the partners are well defined and useful partnerships have been established from the very start.

For companies using the ecosystem approach requires them to take a new look at both their strategy and their organizational architecture, and at how an ecosystem design might affect their existing business. In this context, governments can get inspiration from businesses like Facebook or Google, companies that are acting as orchestrators, developing global brand ecosystems connecting them to other companies and institutions by developing new standards, almost like using Lego bricks.

Companies like the Chinese technology glomerates Tencent and Alibaba also know how to play the game of open platform ecosystems. Their products and services are not standing on their own but are connected to the growing ecosystem fuelled by Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI).

They are building exponential platforms for enabling ecosystem participation, brid ging the gap between inhouse activities and external actors, such as startups or venture firms. These companies continuously reorganize themselves in order to develop relevant ecosystems as they go along.

However, many companies fail to use the power of ecosystems. Recently, IMB’s Watson, a commercialized AI technology in health care, learnt the lesson why they should not only focus on the vertical needs of the health care sector, but instead establish a horizontal platform for partnerships and co-creation – an ecosystem approach with cloud computing and open APIs* to explore new business opportunities.Building blocks

A dynamic mode of cooperation

Value creation is at the core of ecosystems, and the relevant activities are often orchestrated. When using the ecosystem as a tool for change and value creation, different key actors in the system are identified and included in a development process. The ecosystem approach is an agile and dynamic mode of cooperation, and ecosystems are good at connecting different actors.

IKEA was an early champion of the ecosystems approach, and still represents a great case of co-creation in an ecosystem where the customers themselves are creating value by building bookshelves and tables.

Ecosystems are connecting different actors, and therefore have another governance approach than traditional systems. In fact, ecosystem is a metaphor for agile and dynamic cooperation.

William A. Fischer, Professor of Innovation Management, at IMD Business School, emphasizes that non-directed systems are more powerful and open for creativity and change, than systems that are directed and based on past experiences. That’s why an ecosystem is constantly evolving and requres new collaboration with external actors.

We must therefore work together with citizens, and both the public, the private and the plural sectors, ** and cross institutional boundaries and systems, aiming at scaled long-term solutions. The implicit uncertainty or risks require the ecosystem developments to be more anticipatory and dynamic.

So, when you plan and design an ecosystem, reversed engineering is needed. You need to have a clear vision of what the future may bring and what you want to achieve. Moreover, you need to consider the various feedback loops in the system and discuss both possible positive and negative results of what you plan to do.

Used in the public sector

Governments can use an ecosystem- approach as they tackle an increasing number of wicked problems, such as the climate crisis and demographic changes. This requires public institutions to share power, team up across hierarchies and disciplines, and build platforms, so that they can find radical solutions to the grand challenges.

A more cross-sectoral and holistic government approach is needed for the prioritization of joint investments in both research and innovation. Ecosystems are therefore important tools for the development of missions, as they identify different stakeholders, facilitate transdisciplinary co-creation and drive transformative change.

*) API: Application programming interface, here: a standardisation or formatting of data that makes it possible for other parties to make use of a database.
**) cp civil, nonprofit or third sector.

Photo: Radachynskyi