The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

human ecosystem
James Moore, Ke Rong, and Ruimin Zhang believe ecosystems if applied rigorously, are the only way out of the human crisis that we are experiencing.

We face a crisis of planet and people. For their part, business leaders are faced with a profound intellectual and practical challenge: How do businesses simultaneously make progress on renewing, restoring and respecting nature and our planet, while pursuing industrial development to serve the needs of the population? How do we promote what is deepest and most precious in people, while also continuing to establish large organisations including not only enterprises, but cities, regions, and nations? Industrial development has soared, but the planet is increasingly damaged, and human development beyond the most privileged is at best a sidenote to corporate strategies.

We can summarise these conflicting priorities in a diagram:

conflicting priorities

Yet we believe that there are organisations today that are transcending these dilemmas. For example, people in “circular economy” enterprises demonstrate that it is possible to simultaneously advance nature, human potential, business and technological development.

towards a circular economy

With better philosophies and designs for business, not only can these previously conflicting priorities be achieved together, but each helps the others in a virtuous cycle as illustrated above. People recognise their extraordinary potential as individual human beings and their profoundly dependent and privileged place on the planet. With this knowledge they invent and establish new forms of business.

We believe that business can and must take a leading role in addressing our global crises. We also believe that our businesses are limited by the expectations we have for them, particularly in relation to people and human potential, and thus the business community is lagging far behind where we could be in leadership, organisation, and human development.

We note that in science and technology the business community has come to expect advances at an ever-increasing rate. Exponential change is the watchword. On the other hand, when it comes to expecting advances in human potential writ broadly—for example, expectations for the human potential of the eight billion or so people on the planet, we seem to wallow in hopelessness and lethargy, or resign ourselves to cynicism and elitism.

This is not a long-term strategy that can work well. We have only to look at the personal and social crises of the day to see this. It does not have to be this way. The scientific recognition of the expansive and evolving nature of individual human potential grows every day. But to put this knowledge to practice is not simply to add the task to our current agendas. Just as business leaders and scholars have refocused on technology during these past few decades, so we now need at least an equivalent reorientation toward human potential.

1970World society has a problem, and it is a human problem. We are moving toward a worldwide population of about nine billion people. We are doing it without adequate technology to care for everyone, and the Earth’s planetary environment cannot sustain us. The answer, it seems to us, is not just more technology—though this is obviously essential, rather we need to engage these nine billion people as co-creators of a better future for themselves, with all of us not as burdens to be shouldered or as customers to be served.

A few thousand technology professionals can’t lead the transformation of life and lifestyles for nine billion people. At the centre of today’s platform companies there is limited intelligence and sensitivity to the human realities of people and how to help people make creative use of their lives, even with IoT everywhere. There is little understanding in any one group for the 9 billion individual and local lives, situations, opportunities, and problems.

What we need is something else. Something catalytic, something that enables every person to create value and to develop their potential. Haier Group, featured in this insert, is an enterprise that has been working on promoting human potential for three decades and has turned its company into a resource for human development today. Its example inspires us to seek out more approaches to reach the same kinds of achievements.

The most successful business ecosystems promote creative diversity that spreads virally to millions and sometimes billions of people. In our experience business ecosystems are powered by creative people collaborating on shared purposes, visions, and goals.

The economist Edmund Phelps studies grassroots innovation, and, more broadly, what he calls “mass flourishing” of people in society. He believes widespread innovation by people from all walks of life is what has led to the creation of most of the advances in living standards since the middle of the 19th Century. Personal creative freedom, with vitality and imagination has been historically unmeasured, officially largely ignored, and yet he demonstrates with ample data that it is of massive magnitude and of the most fundamental import to society and to human wellbeing. In his understanding, grassroots innovation and the associated human values are like field and soil. In his view the necessary values, the metaphorical soil for human flourishing and grassroots innovation are massively depleted in many modern societies. Witness the decline in average life expectancy in the United States, and the decline in aggregate productivity since 1970. He argues that this is because some societies lack ways of life that nurture everyday creativity among their people.

In our careers to date, we have studied many business ecosystems. The most successful business ecosystems promote creative diversity that spreads virally to millions and sometimes billions of people. In our experience business ecosystems are powered by creative people collaborating on shared purposes, visions, and goals.

However, society continues to lag in our understanding of how to promote human development and individual potential. For our own small part, we suggest that business ecosystems are human ecosystems. If we frame business ecosystems this way perhaps, we can learn more about the relationships of platforms and ecosystems to people, and people to platforms and ecosystems. Indeed, we can conceive business ecosystems as platforms for human potential and human development, and as making opportunities for connecting people and co-creating value. In this way we can learn how to do both, developing people and creating value. Which seems an important approach for engaging and empowering nine billion people.

The Human Ecosystem

In the late 1980s, a number of companies began to perfect strategies that were suited to the profound industry structure upheavals of the time. They learned how to design and create new cross-industry structures that were especially hospitable to them and that supported their ambitions for the future. The companies who made up these new structures banded together to co-evolve their capabilities, advancing faster and more surely than those less aligned. These structures and capabilities became characterised as Business Innovation Ecosystems, and eventually by many different versions of ecosystems.

Three decades later, the ecosystem form of organisation is widespread in business and well-understood by scholars, and the ecosystem unit of analysis is well established in management science.

But the world keeps changing. The business ecosystems of the 1990s were superseded by the platforms and platform ecosystems of the 2010s. Platforms enabled ecosystems to enroll billions of individual people. Platform participation in turn helped ecosystem members be more productive and creative.

Today we believe leaders are inventing another new vanguard form of organisation. We call this the “Human Ecosystem.” The purpose of a Human Ecosystem is to foster creative, self-directed, and collaborative people. The Human Ecosystem is a platform business ecosystem designed to promote the creativity and human development of all its participants: customers, producers and extended communities alike. Human Ecosystems are working to become leaders in developing the most under-utilised resource on Earth, human potential.

The most important distinguishing feature of Human Ecosystems is that their designs are philosophically-informed. It is in philosophy, defined broadly, that organisation and business designers can find inspiration, insight, and wisdom for understanding people. It is in philosophy that they find help in learning to foster human potential. Indeed, philosophy is proving to be a great next frontier for business thinking, because it provides range and variation in business design, which in turn broadens the possible solution spaces that designers can explore for fostering human development.

Human Ecosystem strategists are inspired by philosophies of human nature and experiment with the design of Human Ecosystems to reflect desirable human values. Thus, here is our definition of a Human Ecosystem:

Human ecosystem: A business and innovation ecosystem characterised by human values encouraged by its philosophies, actions, and ethos. Participants in the ecosystem will vary in their awareness and acceptance of these values. Human values include perspectives on the nature of the person and of human potential, the nature of personal and community virtues and how to develop them, and the image of the “good life” for individuals and communities. Human values also include perspectives on nature, on the place of humans in nature, and on knowledge and how to advance it.

We intend the study of the human ecosystem to complement previous scholarship on business and innovation and other ecosystems, and not replace any of them. Thus, we incorporate these other ecosystem concepts into our definition of Human Ecosystems.

Our working definition of the human ecosystem is intended to be simple, inclusive, and open. We talk about the nature of the person, virtues, and “the good life” because for more than two thousand years these topics have been central concerns of philosophers both East and West. We hope to raise these topics and welcome all. Therefore, we use classical language to express the overall subject, and not language from contemporary business or science.

In contrast, we expect that specific studies of human ecosystems will also utilise concepts and terms that are more precise, specialised, and perhaps algebraic–and will include concrete data and examples.

We hope to have many conversations on these topics. We are introducing questions, not providing answers. We hope you will join us in this search.

This article was also published as Moore, J.F., Rong, K., Zhang, R., The human ecosystem, Journal of Digital Economy (2022), doi: https://doi. org/10.1016/j.jdec.2022.08.002

See other articles from RenDanHeYi: Pioneering the Quantum Organisation.

Human ecosystems for our human crisis

James Moore is a management scientist and the founder of business ecosystem theory, and the author of The Death of Competition: Leadership and Strategy in the Age of Business Ecosystems.

Ke Rong is Professor and Deputy Director of the Institute of Economics, School of Social Sciences, Tsinghua University, and the author of Business Ecosystems: Constructs, Configuration and Nurturing Process.

Ruimin Zhang is Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Board of Directors of Haier Group

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