A couple of weeks ago we taught a masterclass on ecosystem innovation at the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at the Delft University of Technology. A diverse, enthusiastic, and hard-working group was taken into the world of ecosystems. Ecosystem innovation is interesting and applicable to all kinds of sectors. During the masterclass, designers joined from the automotive industry, retail industry, government like municipalities, consultancy, and more.
Also for us, this was a great opportunity to learn. In the past year, we have done several projects involving complex stakeholder networks. We’re discovering that in these projects it’s less about delivering a final solution, and more about designing the conditions for those solutions to emerge. Or as it is said in system thinking, it’s less about being right and more about ‘becoming less and less and less wrong.’
We see an important role for us as Service Designers to step in and start moving. Over the years we’ve built up a lot of experience as process facilitators and co-creation enablers. But we feel the time has come for us to adopt more of a design leadership role, forging relationships, building networks, guiding stakeholders into new opportunity spaces, and imagining new value networks.
Until today, we’ve approached complex challenges more intuitively with our Service Design mindset and tools placing special attention on stakeholder interactions and value creation. But we observe systemic approaches becoming more important as the challenges we face are becoming more complex (networked, open, and dynamic, Dorst 2015). We need to zoom out, but how? How can we connect this to our service design mindset and approaches? Where can we leverage what we already know and do, and where do we have to reimagine our practice and paradigms?
This masterclass was an opportunity to put our own intuitive approach under the loop, and give a more clearly defined shape to what we’ve actually been doing.
Now, after the masterclass, we are reflecting on our learnings to reshape and develop our approach to ecosystem innovation. We would like to share our reflections.
The human-centred mindset is one of the core qualities of a (Service) design approach. However, within ecosystem innovation, it is not enough to be human-centred. As framed in an earlier article of our founder, Ben Reason, human-centred has to go beyond just that. We have to zoom out beyond humans and look at how we’re intricately connected with the world around us and are part of the systems we and others (flora, fauna) live in.
This shift in focus appeared to be hard during the exercises in the masterclass. We intuitively make journeys from the user perspective, putting humans centre stage without being fully aware of the implications. But are journeys the right vehicle in ecosystem design where all actors need to be included, even though they might behave differently over time?
When considering all actors in the ecosystem, these will often include non-humans, for example, oceans, plastics, or legislations that traditionally are not part of our ethnographic research scope.
But these non-human actors play a role in ecosystems just as much as humans, companies, or other organisations do. There are many different non-human actors like mountains or rivers, but also human-made non-human actors like legislation or social media. These can actively influence the dynamics of an ecosystem and even though they are not human they are crucial to map. Without these, it will be hard to analyse the behaviour, relations, and causal loops of the system.
Trust and patience
Building networks of true symbiotic collaboration, where egos are left outside the room favouring the greater good, requires a tremendous amount of trust. And there will be experiences where this trust is put to the test. To then stay optimistic and open requires a new type of entrepreneurial resilience. A new innovation muscle. Another insight is that ecosystem innovation doesn’t fit the mould of rapid sprint type agile working. It is a slower wavelength. It requires more open fuzzy front-end exploration and discovery, leaving room for serendipity, incubation, and open-ended intuitive sensing and probing. However, this process must lead to concrete results, so it needs to fuel the shorter wavelength of daily innovation practice. The challenge of integrating the two wavelengths of innovation has led to some lively discussions in the masterclass.
Are you interested in exploring an ecosystem innovation approach with us? We would love to talk to you about it, to reflect and iterate on our thoughts and apply them in the real world.