Building the Ecosystem: an alternative to building products and services

There has been a hugely exciting, ambitious and thoughtful movement growing within and beyond the social sector for some time, which seeks to carve out a much bigger role for systems changers and field catalysts. This movement has been pushed forward by pioneering work from organisations like Lankelly Chase, Bridgespan Group, Guy’s & St Thomas’ Charity, Lloyds Bank Foundation and Nesta and described, energised and convened by people like Cassie Robinson, Indy Johar and Immy Kaur.

At Shift, we have been trying to learn from and contribute to this movement as best we can. And for us, a central and consistent question is starting to define more and more of our work:

How can we help build thriving, connected ecosystems which are defined by loads of collective awareness, assets and action?

As a bit of context, we’ve also been acknowledging that, despite the value and role of product design, it had limitations and flaws as our only focus. We have, of course, learnt very fast from the successes and failures of that work. We learnt about how to make things actually work in the world (or not), how to get people to pay for and commission them (or not), how to measure and prove impact in chaotic environments (from a lot to none), how to build teams (eek) and, most of all, how to work with and for the people that we hope to use, play with, eat or contribute to what we’re making. But, looking back at our work on products and services like Historypin, Internet Buttons, Box Chicken and Champions of the Shengha, we had to reach three important conclusions:

  1. Even if these single solutions thrive, they still only make up one modest influence within a complex system so can achieve little overall impact on their own (obvious, right?)
  2. By working in a narrow space on a specific solution, there’s a high risk that we fail to identify the most effective role that we could play within the existing landscape
  3. Most of these solutions suffer from challenges that affect the whole system, such as dysfunctional markets or missing collective assets, which can’t be addressed by one actor

The 3rd one is the big one really. If you’re trying, on your own, to fight against powerful market forces or overcome massive systemic challenges, you’re probably not doing something right. But this is, sadly and strangely, how many mission driven organisations set about their work, how they win funding and commissioning and how their leaders get good TEDx gigs (links to my TEDx talks available upon request).

So, what has emerged from joining the movement of systems changers and field catalysts and from this self-reflection? What does this concept of building the ecosystem mean for us and how is it being applied? Here are 4 examples:

1. People-centred ecosystems

An ecosystem emphasises community and connections and they can only really have people, their lives and their relationships at their centre. That’s one of the reasons why we like the concept and language so much.

For example, this forces us and our partners to avoid over-emphasising specific outcomes and, in turn, avoid taking a narrow, external view of the people and communities affected most by those outcomes.

At the moment, we are funded or commissioned to work a lot on specific outcomes that particularly affect lower income, low bandwidth families with children, such as childhood obesity, poor infant attachment and youth mental illness. That people care about and want to improve these outcomes is, of course, very valid — they all have enormous human and financial costs, they can be measured and reduced, they have major implications for things like education and healthcare systems and they all need attention.

But, from where a family affected by childhood obesity stands, these single, specific outcomes don’t have any meaning or role beyond potential, occasional interactions with, for example, a formal healthcare system. A people-centred ecosystem looks like a complex, interdependent, messy web of influences and outcomes, where issues like lack of high quality child care, the chaos of universal credit changes, threats of eviction and so much else combine into a scenario where a family diet that risks childhood obesity represents a logical response.

This is now well established systems change thinking, with great principles, methods, tools and evidence pouring out of the wider movement. But, it is still surprisingly rare. Questions like “what is the ecosystem of influences, relationships, services, products etc that surrounds and affects the people we are working with and for?” helps us push and prioritise this approach.

2. Bringing in a mix of diverse actors to play different roles

The concept of an ecosystem also helps emphasise diversity as a requirement. If you set out to build a sector, for example, you could just look at the role of social, community and government actors. Fairly clearly, they only ever make up a small part of all of the influences, interactions and relationships that surround the people at the centre of an ecosystem. Low income families living in an urban deprived area, for example, navigate an ecosystem consisting of global brands, digital commercial services and local independent shops; online social networks and local community networks; local council and national government services; local cultural institutions and digital entertainment subscriptions and many, many more.

Attracting, convening and building roles and relationships amongst these actors and influences is exciting but challenging. In the world that surrounds soon-to-be or new parents, for example, Google, Boots, NCT classes and Sure Start centres (where these incredibly important local services still exist) all share something resembling a common goal — to understand and meet the needs of parents with high quality services. But, they all have very different motivations, priorities and perspectives. They all play different roles that may have some modest overlaps (you might Google your local NCT class and buy a product at Boots that you hear about at a Sure Start centre) but aren’t really interdependent and very rarely explicitly connected. So, a question that we’re asking a lot is:

How could these diverse actors be motivated and supported to play slightly different roles in a more connected ecosystem that provides better overall support and services for the parents that need it most?

We’ve always been able to get significant support and buy-in from big actors outside of the social sector, but it has tended to be to help create, market, enable (tech, data etc) or invest in a specific product, service or programme. These are normally too specific and short-term to represent important changes to the ecosystem.We’re now pushing much harder on efforts to contribute to collective assets, establish new connections and interdependencies, experiment with playing different roles. And there are loads of great examples of this, from hugely effective conveners and facilitators like Hubbub around food waste and plastics, or the Sustainable Restaurant Association and a hugely diverse mix of now connected business, institutions and social entrepreneurs.

3. Finding your best role within the ecosystem

We have developed the potentially annoying habit of responding to opportunities to build stuff with offers to not build stuff.

This comes from our own experience of gravitating too quickly towards chances to build new products and services. That doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly important — new things have a huge role to play. But it’s not a very good a default ambition. Creating new products, services and programmes represents just one role within a thriving, connected ecosystem. It doesn’t suit the expertise, capabilities or culture of many organisations (this brilliant Harvard Business Review piece lays this out unequivocally). Even more importantly, unless all those mutually reinforcing roles are played and all the enabling conditions are in place, new things won’t succeed anyway.

So, when we work with partners in any capacity, we always try and help them with questions like..

  • What ecosystem are we part of? How can we make sure that is a people-centred view, rather than a sector or outcomes view?
  • What roles do we play within this ecosystem? Where are these adding the greatest and least value? Where do these existing roles leverage and add to our unique or differentiated strengths, capabilities, assets, etc?
  • How can the people and communities we work with and for help us understand this? How can our existing or potential partners (previously called “competitors”) help us understand this?
  • What are the opportunities for us to play the best and most impactful role within this ecosystem?
  • How could we add more value?
  • How could we adapt, change or narrow our role?
  • What role could we play as Problem Solver, Enabler, Motivator, Convener, and/or Integrator (categorised within a fantastic Deloitte piece on ecosystem innovation)?
  • How can identify and explore these opportunities with the people we work with and for?
  • How can we work through this process with existing or potential partners so that we emerge better aligned, more connected, more interdependent?

These questions are just as interesting and relevant for work with funders and impact investors. The most exciting place, we feel, for a funding or investment strategy to end up is with an answer to the question: what role can we play, with x amount and y type of money, over z period of time, in order to add the greatest value alongside and with the other funders, commissioners and investors working in the same ecosystem and towards the same goals?

4. Collective asset building

Of all the things that we have learnt from designing products and services, I’m most compelled by the third: Most specific solutions suffer from challenges that affect the whole system, such as dysfunctional markets or missing collective assets, which can’t be addressed by one actor.

In turn, I’m hugely inspired by the power of collective asset building and believe strongly that this is a much more appropriate and exciting area of innovation than the building of new things that so many of us have been a bit obsessed with. It should be one of the most important areas of growth and progress over the next few years. The spirit and principles that sit behind this are summed up so well by Cassie Robinson’s Collective Obsession blogs and the concept can, of course, cover a vast amount of ground, from specific assets used by a certain set of actors with common needs and goals, like the Justice Data Lab or Smart Cities platforms, to assets that billions of people benefit from and contribute like, well, the Internet.

This is too broad to be helpful and we are trying to bring together some of the principles, practices and examples of collective asset building that makes it as well defined as user centred product design, but distinctly different: it sees many actors, with shared needs, act in concert to create something that many benefit from and many contribute to, which meets both individual needs and forms a connective tissue within the ecosystem.

Perhaps one of the most exciting areas of collective asset building is in data. Organisations like the Open Knowledge, 360 Giving, New Philanthropy Capital, Open Data Institute and Dartington Service Design Labs have been paving the way and proving the model on shared data assets.

This approach is so relevant, because the lack of a shared, evolving view of things like need, provision or funding and investment represents such a common and damaging problem, which can only be addressed collectively: no single actor has the resources or interactions (i.e. ways of generating data) to build and, crucially, maintain a picture of these things on their own.

We’re working on several projects, particularly within the ecosystem of services and support for new parents, that aim to establish shared segmentation assets. These aim to provide rich, detailed information on the practical and emotional needs of the people we want to work with and for, on their perceptions, behaviours, consumer preferences and interactions with services; which learn and evolve, through things like machine learning and joint research activities; which allow better targeting and more personalised services; which enable better measurement and more comparison; which help identify gaps, duplication and opportunities for alignment and connection.

Again, what projects like 360 Giving and the Justice Data Lab have demonstrated is that a shared view almost inevitably fosters greater collective awareness and action. Without this view, you can happily hammer away at identifying specific user needs and building and delivering your own products, services and programmes or running your own funding programmes. But when that view is available, when individual actors see their role — or lack of a role — within the wider ecosystem, it can’t be unseen. A head down, plough on regardless approach feels faintly ridiculous.

And this is the big prize here. As individual, mostly under-resourced social organisations, grappling with each other for space and profile, we’re weak in the face of the growing poverty and inequality of modern Britain. But as connected, interdependent, thriving ecosystems where we all relentlessly seek to find and play our best role and add the greatest value, to contribute to immense collective assets, where our impact is in the aggregate…well that’s an extraordinary thing when we get a glimpse of it.