Technologies are shaped by the ecosystems that deploy them. Our understanding of these ecosystems, in turn, arose initially from studies of competition in high-tech industries, where the decisions of third parties, such as complementors, helped grow the scale and scope of ecosystems and determined the outcome of competition between rival ecosystems. Since then, they have been studied more carefully by academics. These studies have shown the importance of underlying factors, such as network effects, where the value of an item depends, in part, on whether others already have it. The influence of technical standards has also been important to the emergence of ecosystems. These standards help reduce complexity in a technological system and enable that system to evolve more fluidly, with a broader set of contributors.
These early studies were conducted primarily from the perspectives of innovation economics and technical complexity. Since the time of those studies, many ecosystems have grown to a size that far exceeded the expectations of earlier scholars. More recently, particularly in the case of digital technologies, some of these same ecosystems are now showing signs of retreat—even the possibility of collapse. To understand these new dynamics, a more sociological set of factors has emerged that complement our earlier understanding of ecosystems. These sociological factors center around social acceptance, or legitimacy, rather than concepts of profit and loss or scale and scope. It is now clear, for example, that many of the social networks that provide digital services to consumers are now running into limits in their ability to continue operating and growing. Any further growth will arise only if and when the underlying social legitimation of these digital services is renegotiated.
The importance of a sociological lens for understanding legitimacy in ecosystems is further reinforced by the expansion of the scope of many ecosystems. Rather than being only big, these ecosystems now offer a variety of services and products that span several industries, connecting sectors that have so far remained disconnected or unrelated. Many offer services, such as those in health and well-being, that transcend the boundaries of economic transactions and intermesh with the everyday lives and activities of individuals, organizations, and groups. It has become clear by now that the role digital technologies play in ecosystem emergence and growth is more than offering technical support or connectivity. Ecosystems are also shaped by the digital technologies adopted. Some technologies may evolve toward a more decentralized system of governance, while others may show opposite tendencies. As such, a sociological lens also contributes to a better comprehension of the dynamics of these ecosystems. Including technologies in the study of ecosystem legitimacy complements our earlier understanding of ecosystems and sets the stage for the study of ecosystems in an increasingly digitized society.
This report adopts this sociological perspective, as the EINST4INE project examines questions of innovation, grand challenges, and the possibilities of open innovation and sustainability. Inside, you will find several case studies that are underway, and you will see how social legitimation processes are informing the rise of these new practices. There will undoubtedly be failure cases along the way, and these too will likely require a sociological dimension to understand their lack of acceptance in society.
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