Charles Darwin said species evolve to adapt to changing environments. Natural ecosystems – species and their environments – have no ‘purpose’; they just are.
Now, if you believe in a creator deity, you might hold that biological ecosystems do have a (divine) purpose. We’ll come back to this point.
Artificial ‘ecosystems’ include business ecosystems, innovation ecosystems, and device ecosystems. Each of these is designed by humans, for a purpose. (This is true even if the system’s inception was spontaneous rather than government-led. People see the parade forming, decide it can advance their aims, grab a flag, and march.) The purpose may be support for industry growth, for local economic development, for the manufacture and distribution of a product, or for all three of these.
There is a large body of research, practice, and policy surrounding Regional Innovation Systems. The same is true for industry Supply Chains and Value Chains. These cover all and everything that today’s writers refer to when they say ‘ecosystem.’ So then, what is the harm in writing ‘business ecosystem’?
Unless the writer interjects a clunky digression noting that in one sense of the word an ecosystem has a purpose and in another sense it does not – and such a digression would void the easy buzzword value of ‘ecosystem’ – the harm is this: The reader will believe the writer has either committed the teleological fallacy, or is asserting something theological. Theological as in, either nature was intelligently designed, or the opposite, that humans have no free will and therefore cannot purposely design a business system.
If ‘ecosystem’ is to have a scientific meaning, then either natural ecosystems and artificial ‘ecosystems’ both must have purposes, or both must not.
The downsides of using ‘ecosystem’ for artificial systems, then, include the confusion of meaning, the fallacy of teleology, and the general uselessness of prefacing ‘system’ with ‘eco’ when describing local business or innovation systems.
We might want to forgive a phrase like ‘the iPhone ecosystem,’ which refers to the hw/sw platform and the inter-operable and complementary products that help make and sell the phone. For my money, though, ‘value chain’ still suffices for this, and doesn’t falsely compare the iPhone system to a biological ecosystem.
To be sure, everybody’s tired of hearing ‘system.’ Everything is a ‘system,’ groan. ‘Ecosystem’ has the buzz and novelty that marketers love, even if it doesn’t mean anything. I could be irked at my academic colleagues who attach themselves to the new phrase, degrading intellectual rigor. But hey, they do need to publish their papers, and sadly, a little bit of trendiness always helps. I do hope they know what they’re doing.