Today the biological ecosystem of our planet cannot be separated from human society, technology and business; that is, human ecosystems.  And there are no social, technological and business ecosystems independent of biology.

The challenge today is to develop ecosystems comprehensively, from the standpoint of biology, society, technology and business.  This is causing traditional ecologists and geophysicists to rethink their work and make these human dimensions as central as the biological and physical.  In parallel, the “triple bottom line” of business, social and ecological value creation is now understood to be the central way to understand the effects of human purposes and actions.

Bucky Fuller called this, in his maddeningly germanic but oddly poetic 1950s space age way, “comprehensive anticipatory design science.”   In the first fifteen years of our new century, the notion of “design thinking” has become a general organizing principle for attacking large problems.   More and more, what are designed are “ecosystems,” that is, broad co-evolving communities of talent, technology, ideas and passionate people.  E.g. “the Apple app ecosystem.”

We can improve the performance of ecosystems at many different scales.  Some ecosystems are small and personal–“myownecosystems”–and some are vast, such as the worldwide carbon cycle–to name one that is generally considered as mostly biophysical but in fact is deeply shaped by fossil fuel burning by people.  Some others such as the smartphone ecosystem are generally thought of as technological and economic, though they have profound social effects.  As the smartphone ecosystem extends our ability to monitor our planet’s biology–through sensors and “Internet of things” devices, we see that this one may have profound biological effects.

Some ecosystems are exclusive, “closed” to new organizations, ideas, people.  Some ecosystems are welcoming, inclusive, “open” to new agents and resources.  Open systems, open source, open culture, open networks, open economies and open societies.

Sometimes open ecosystems are  are conceived as starting from individual customer ecosystems, aggregating these ecosystems into broader movements, and serving them with digital platforms and communities of people that value sharing.

The productivity of ecosystems reflects the combined productivity of members.  “Making” and do-it-yourself initiative has come to the fore as the digital platforms and knowledge commons of best practices lower barriers to entry to engagement with tools and to applications of science and technology.  Companies supplying customers in these new ecosystems are designing products to advance each customer’s return on investment from his or her creativity and initiative, within his or her personal and community ecosystems.  Companies build their business models on being paid a fraction of the return-on-investment that customers realize.

These customer-focused. customer-pull-led business ecosystems tend not to be associated with brands and particular companies, but rather with a broader set of challenges and goals.  For example, an “innovation ecosystem” or “economic and social development ecosystem” or “public health ecosystem.”

In public health the idea of nested ecosystems, starting with people in a particular area and aggregating them, is reflected in the ecosystems addressing AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.  Childhood mortality worldwide has dropped–that is childhood survival has greatly improved, so concerted, nested, local-to-regonal-to-global public health ecosystems.  In every case the the fundamental insight is the same:  we accomplish more by working together than alone.

We develop systems–ecosystems–of mutual benefit through shared commitment to each other and to the chosen ecosystem.

The ways in which we can establish ecosystems, and the speed at which we can progress, evolve and coevolve, adapt and create is stunning when we can take advantage of our new global resources of global digital connectivity, Internet-of-things and the ability to monitor billions of locations in real time, our exponential expansion of scientific and engineering knowledge, and rapidly spreading education and active citizenship and standards of living.

I’ve been able to be a fly-on-the-wall in the smartphone ecosystems of ecosystems.  So this essay starts with what I know.

When seen from the bottom up, this smartphone-associated ecosystem is an aggregate of billions of individual personal ecosystems, millions of apps, thousands of which qualify as digital platforms.  The total annual revenues stand today at the global equivalent of about $2.2 trillion US dollars–and the productivity yield of that annual investment is even more enormous.  Our planet’s population of people totals about seven billion souls.  In 2015 the smartphone business will make and sell two billion new smartphones.  As well as equip thousands of cloud services centers.  As well as manufacture tens of billions of small “things” ranging from medical sensors to components for smart cars.

Over the course of the past few years this loosely-organized community of more than a thousand smart-phone-associated companies has overturned the tech industry. Their work is visible in smartphones, wearable sports and health monitors, thermostats that get to know our lives and cars that can prevent crashes.

These companies are unified by a number of shared values, and are accomplishing a broad shared purpose. In short, this purpose is to use the science and engineering of microelectronics to bring highly flexible, varied contributions to all facets of life on our planet.  At the same time, their shared purpose is that each business can thrive within a diverse, open community of interconnected partners.

Like a thousand Davids against a few Goliaths, these companies have also quietly but permanently changed competition in the tech industry. Many of the large, monopolistic companies we have come to believe we need: the too-big-to-fail companies of technology, have now become all but irrelevant in shaping the future.

Thanks for visiting this essay. My name is Jim Moore, I am a student of leadership and strategy in large-scale businesses and social networks. I was given open access to the community, and did my best to chronicle the story through the voices of a number of its members.  In the “thanks” section I’ve named individuals who provided vital help to this project.  Their guidance and insights were the only way I could have effectively understood, much less told, this story. Thanks again!

Parts of this essay have been published in various versions as Shared Purpose, a monograph.  Scroll down and you can read chapters from the monograph, as well as download a complete PDF of the May 2013 first edition. The monograph was launched with the generous help of the chip design company ARM Holdings and the Churchill Club of Silicon Valley–see video below).

However, this is a project that has expanded wildly in the past two years since the monograph was first published.  The world it speaks of, and in particular the tech world, has co-evolved more and more visibly, and more rapidly.  So I have a number of cases to add, a number of people to highlight, best practices that are new.  In addition, I’m in touch with a wider and wider network of scholars, writers and activist leaders whose work should be brought to wider attention.  So my goal, more or less just begun, is to use this “essay” (perhaps really a blog) to continue to pull these contributions together, make them as visible as I can, and send them some blog love.