Innovation Ecosystems

In today’s world of changing business models, mass entrepreneurs, and a growing “maker economy,” we find a hotbed of innovation ecosystems. Where once companies sought to build everything themselves and make it perfect out of the gate, some companies are now creating platforms upon which others -- from companies to individuals -- are building businesses themselves.

There is a parallel to historical examples that demonstrate certain inventions must be made before new ideas can be brought forth and built upon them. For example, Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, talks about the concept of the “adjacent possible” and how discoveries such as oxygen only became a reality once ideas, concepts, and tools were available to make the discovery possible.

Such symbiotic relationships continue today in new forms. A well-known example of this is the App Store from Apple. An older example is eBay, which provided the platform for thousands of entrepreneurs to build home grown businesses. But they aren’t the only ones; a number of new products and services are now being built upon an original product offer that either creates supplemental offers, builds upon the original to make something new, or instead simply optimizes what’s there built upon the original form. It’s a new model of innovation -- utilizing platforms to create new products and services, sometimes beyond what anyone had imagined.



For instance, take Instagram, the photo-editing and sharing app, which still hasn’t turned a profit, but with over 100 million users has provided the platform for other entrepreneurs to build businesses and make a living. The businesses range from add-on services -- such as Printstagram, which allows people to create printed items using their photos from the platform -- to consulting firms such as Mobile Media Labs, which helps companies define their Instagram strategy.

Just launched in November 2012, Skype in the workspace enables small businesses to grow by using Skype's platform to connect with clients, partners, and suppliers anywhere around the globe. The new product is positioned specifically with this use in mind -- to provide a platform for small businesses to conduct business themselves. Skype in this instance is a facilitator in the process of delivering products and services to customers, in turn helping others build their businesses upon its platform.

LUNATIK found its start on Kickstarter -- raising capital for its first product, a watch conversion kit for Apple's iPod nano. The product builds upon a great innovation and turns an iPod nano into a watch that does more than just tell time. According to its Web site, the company now describes itself by saying, “we look for -- and find -- unseen connections between materials, categories and experiences.” It's as if this philosophy has become the company's mission and innovation model, if you will. 

Finally, another recent example is AOL's Alto, which gathers messages from numerous email addresses and creates "stacks" that share an organizing principle, such as being family-related, having attachments, or giving notifications from social networks. Alto isn’t another email service per se, but rather an aggregator and simplifier of existing email communication. They aren’t creating a new email system that offers these new tools, but rather takes what people have already and adds more value. So instead of sifting through the mess of individual inboxes and searching for an email in a haystack, users can now quickly pick the intuitive stack in which to begin their search -- a better solution to the original email service offer.

While marketers’ natural instinct is to be protectionist and seek competitive insulation, they just might find that their next innovation is not dependent upon their company or brands alone. Such a mindset would prompt a different set of questions: How can I work with disruptions rather than fight against them? What new innovations can help unlock innovation of our own? Who are potential partners that can drive innovation for our organization?

It can be quite liberating when we realize that inspiration and growth ideas can come from all around us. Today our more open innovation ecosystems simply make more possible -- so it is best to work within them rather than to fight against progress.



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