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Ecosystems vs Networks vs Communities

Is Ecosystem just a buzz word? Learn about the difference between ecosystems, networks, communities, and more

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Think "Ecosystem" is simply jargon for a community or network? Think again.

There are few things we are more passionate about over here at EcoMap than the concept that Ecosystems are real. Few people argue with that, but here's where it get controversial: ecosystems are real, they are different than "communities" or "networks", and understanding these differences are fundamental to effective ecosystem building. Don't buy it? Read on.

Part 1: Ecosystems vs Communities

A big misconception about ecosystems is that they are no different than communities, and you can approach building them the same way as you approach community building. This approach leads inevitably to frustration, because while ecosystems and communities often go together, they are not the same.

Let's start with the fundamental difference: ecosystems are networks of a variety of assets - including organizations, resources, opportunities, activities, and people - whereas communities are networks of people. The definition of a community is similar to the definition of an ecosystem in that the networked assets share a certain characteristic (per Webster: "a Community is a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common") - but in communities, People are the only asset.

This makes sense - you don't hear people say "a community of organizations", or a "community of events" - we naturally know that communities exist between people. Ecosystems, on the other hand, come from the intersection of many types of assets, including - but not limited to - people. Why does this distinction matter?

The existence of an ecosystem does not guarantee the existence of a community

Ecosystems exist naturally, and communities do not. By definition, when there is a network of organizations, people, resources, and other assets that share some common characteristic (whether that is a geography, industry, or shared partner), an ecosystem exists. While the existence of an ecosystem says nothing about the health, robustness, or effectiveness of that ecosystem, it is indeed there whether anyone intentionally builds it or not.

Communities, on the other hand, do not exist naturally - they have to be formed through the interaction of people. There could theoretically be an ecosystem that has no community within it, although this would be a rare and likely a temporary state. The important result is that there could be a very large, robust ecosystem that has a very weak or small community.

Take an industry, for example. Industries are large ecosystems with many assets within them, namely the companies and other organizations that operate in that space. But despite having many organizations in an ecosystem, it is possible that people from those organizations are not connected - that there is no community within that industry. In this case, you have robust ecosystem, but a weak community.

This is the case in many entrepreneurial ecosystems - there is a relatively robust ecosystem with different founders, advisors, entrepreneur support organizations, programs for startups, etc, but the people in that ecosystem aren't well connected. You could continue to add new organizations, resources, or people to the ecosystem, but if the people within the ecosystem do not form a strong community, it will be really hard for that ecosystem to be effective. Why?

As discussed in the article on Relationships, the "strongest" ecosystems have high degrees of interconnectivity: there are many relationships between assets relative to the number of assets. The most influential relationships in ecosystems tend to be the informal relationships between people - not contracts between organizations or other formal relationships. Therefore, ecosystem builders need to intentionally build the community within the ecosystem, as well as building the ecosystem itself (more on this next week!) 

Hopefully the difference between ecosystems and communities is clear - we'll dive into why this distinction matters so much in future topics. But what about networks?

Part 2: Ecosystems vs Networks
Ecosystems and Communities are united by an important, shared characteristic: they are networks

Ecosystems are networks of organizations, people, resources, opportunities, activity, and other assets that share a common characteristic, and communities are networks of people. The definition of a network is simply, "a group or system of interconnected people or things, which tracks with our definitions. Networks are made up nodes (assets, in ecosystem theory lingo) connected by edges (relationships). In Ecosystem Theory, a "network" describes the underlying structure of an ecosystem, whereas the "ecosystem" is the actual instance of the network in the real world. Baltimore's Tech Ecosystem has an underlying network structure, but the ecosystem refers to the real-world collection of organizations, resources, etc, and not the core, underlying network structure itself.

Unlike the difference between communities and ecosystems, the difference between ecosystems and networks is nuanced, up for debate, and honestly, not very important - at this point, you're talking mostly about linguistic preference, and not important differences between the two. In fact, many of the foundations of understanding ecosystems was done by Dr. Brint Milward in his study of networks; in his work, "network" could be swapped with "ecosystem" and the insights are preserved.

Many of the characteristics and challenges of ecosystems are caused by, or related to, their network structure, so understanding networks are fundamental to understanding ecosystems. Here are just a few characteristics of ecosystems that can be directly related to their networked structure: 

  1. It's incredibly hard to track how ecosystems are changing because of the sheer number of nodes and edges between them
  2. It's hard to *change* ecosystems themselves, because the networked structure "holds" the system in place
  3. Information flows through ecosystems mostly through relationships, so interconnectedness holds major influence on how efficient an ecosystem is at distributing information

We can - and will - go on and on about these topics in future articles.

Part 3: Ecosystems vs Ecosystems

A while ago, someone picked a fight on our Linkedin over our use of the word "Ecosystem", saying that the business world had commandeered the word from ecology. He is, of course, correct. The word "Ecosystem" was first introduced in 1935 by British ecologist Arthur Tansley. It's a combination of the Greek words "oikos" and "systema", or "house" and "system", used to describe the complex, interconnected system of living organisms in their shared physical environment. Tansley saw ecosystems both as self-regulating and self-sustaining systems, where each part played a critical role in maintaining the balance of the system.

Sound familiar? Our modern use of ecosystem is absolutely co-opted from the ecological use, but for good reason - the definitions and implications remain largely similar.

Just as green ecosystems are complex, interconnected, and interdependent systems of living organisms, modern ecosystems are complex, interconnected, and interdependent systems of assets

Both types of ecosystems change constantly, and changes in one part of the system influence other parts, even if they don't seem related. Just like green ecosystems, modern ecosystems can subsist with subpar resources for a long time, but they won't be able to thrive without the necessary inputs. Just like green ecosystem, healthy modern ecosystems can adapt when an asset is toxic, or if it dies out completely. And just like green ecosystems, modern ecosystems that are neglected, fragmented, and unhealthy won't bear abundant fruit. We could draw comparisons forever.

Before the phrase "Ecosystem Building" came into popular use, there was a concept called "Economic Gardening" introduced by Chris Gibbons in the 1980s. Gibbons was working as an economic development consultant in Littleton, Colorado, when he became frustrated with the traditional economic development approach of attracting large corporations. Instead, he thought it was important to focus on growing small and medium businesses within the community, using a process similar to gardening - that is, creating a strong environment that provide the resources and attention that these small businesses needed to grow.

For everyone who hates the jargon of "ecosystems", we hear you. The phrase has been overused in many ways, and many people misuse it as they refer to communities, networks, movements, organizations, and (the worst) - Web3 protocols. But despite this, the word "Ecosystem" is fundamental to our understanding of modern economic and community development, because it forces us to acknowledge that we can't build robust communities without taking into account the broader system, the whole environment.

If we want to build robust communities, we need robust ecosystems. To build robust ecosystems, we have to understand the interconnected nature of the systems that we live and work in. In the most honest way, we must learn how to be good gardeners.

Gibbons had the right idea.

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