The characteristics of a sustainable innovation ecosystem

Kevin Kelly, in What Technology Wants, writes on the characteristics of living organisms that make biology useful to us humans and the reasons why life can sustain its own evolution indefinitely.

According to Kelly, “living organisms and ecosystems are characterised by a high degree of indirect collaboration, transparency of function, decentralisation, flexibility and adaptability, redundancy of roles, and natural efficiency".

I think there are some interesting parallels here from Kelly’s case for what makes a useful technology that can be carried over to the consideration of the characteristics of a successful and self-sustaining innovation ecosystem:


The ecosystem actively promotes collaboration between stakeholders (individuals, businesses, not-for-profits, academics, and government), and breaks down silos.


The workings of the ecosystem are clear and intelligible to non-experts and external observers. There is no asymmetrical advantage of knowledge to some of its members / stakeholders.


The ownership, development, and control of the ecosystem are distributed, without any one stakeholder holding a monopoly position. The challenge with this particular point is to find the right balance between governmental support and oversight of the ecosystem, and the contributions to made from the other stakeholders in the innovation ‘quad’ - ie, business, not-for-profit, and academia. Government agencies provide the necessary infrastructure investment and oversight that can make-or-break the ecosystem, but business provides the ecosystem with its economic engine. Because businesses will likely close down if they fail to innovate successfully, they take the many risks that innovation entails.


It is easy for stakeholders to modify, adapt, or improve the ecosystem, as needs and circumstances dictate. Members/stakeholders may freely choose to be a part of the ecosystem or give it up.  This elasticity is essential in order for the ecosystem to have any longevity in the face of the ever accelerating pace of global economic and technology changes.


It should not be the only solution, not a monopoly, but one of several options. See again my comment on elasticity above!


The ecosystem should have a high efficiency for funds and effort invested, particularly where public taxpayer and private shareholder investment dollars are concerned. Processes need to be easy to reuse, and performance results need to be easily measurable in useful timeframes for all stakeholders.

Jonah Merchant is cofounder of BizDojo (see Idealog feature here) and blogs at

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