The Power of Ecosystems for Problem-Solving

The Power of Ecosystems for Problem-Solving

What do biological ecosystems have to do with promoting social change? In our work, using the metaphor of ecosystems has been a powerful tool for taking on complex and evolving problems.


Surprising as it may sound, working with people coming home from prison taught me how to better improve our food system. While providing reentry services—job placement, driver’s license restoration, counseling and financial support and more—in Newark, NJ, my colleagues and I saw the profound impact that the availability of affordable, nutrient-rich foods had on the people we served. Over time, food access became a consideration in our programming, influencing everything from the food we served to our financial, health and job counseling.

It became clear that inequities in local food access extended to the families and the zip codes to which people came home. I began supporting residents in becoming food producers and merchants in their communities, and eventually assumed a role in city government changing food policies and practices. Seeing the impact of these major systems– local food and criminal justice–on the daily lives of the people I served gave me an appreciation for activating the many organizations, institutions, programs, policies and individuals that interact as part of a larger ecosystem.

Thinking in terms of ecosystems helps me understand how seemingly unrelated or distant actors in a given geographic area function and connect, and therefore, how to promote constructive actions and disrupt negative ones. It’s an attractive metaphor for cross-sector collective action, which is fundamental to our work at Living Cities, because it can describe the interdependence and the complexity of relationships required to achieve population-level results.

Thinking in terms of ecosystems helps me understand how seemingly unrelated or distant actors in a given geographic area function and connect, and therefore, how to promote constructive actions and disrupt negative ones.

In biology, the term “ecosystem” describes the non-living and living components of an environment and how they interact. As the Greek root eco (meaning house or household) suggests, it’s about how these actors behave as a system within their defined “home.” Think of a marine, home to living organisms (fish, plankton, bacteria) as well as non-living things (oxygen, rocks, salinity). Each has distinct qualities, resources and roles to play. While there may be dominant “engineers” that significantly shape their home, such as whales, no one actor drives how the ecosystem functions. By definition, it is a dynamic network that emerges and exists through the connections between many different actors.

The same can mostly be said of human ecosystems, where biotic actors may be individuals, nonprofits, governments and private firms, and abiotic actors might include funding, policies and physical infrastructure. In our partnership with Code for America and National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, we’ve borrowed the ecological term to describe the interactions between local actors who use or create data and technology to improve civic life, specifically government services and policies that affect low-income residents.

While we weren’t the first to observe the power of “civic tech ecosystems,” we hypothesized that three groups–data intermediaries, civic technologist groups, and local governments—are key contributors to a culture where data and technology are valued and leveraged. With funding from the MacArthur Foundation, seven local collaboratives tested this hypothesis in their own communities. We asked them to become “ecosystem builders” by looking for existing and potential civic tech and data actors and exploring how players are or are not currently linked. They considered ways to create or strengthen ties between actors, including low-income residents who were too often disengaged from the conversation. The culture of trust and new relationships forged through this effort increased the flow of information, skills and resources in ways that promise to produce new outcomes or solutions.

The culture of trust and new relationships forged through this effort increased the flow of information, skills and resources.

Many fields have applied ecosystem thinking, so we knew civic tech and data practitioners had much to build on. For example, business ecosystems entered the lexicon of the economic community in the early ‘90s. Entrepreneurial ecosystem is currently a metaphor to describe the role that a diverse array of cross-sector actors, from universities to labor organizations, play in fostering a dynamic economy that enables start-ups to launch and thrive.

What’s so powerful about this concept, as researchers point out, is that unlike biological ecosystems, we don’t have to leave success to chance. Institutions are “structures designed and enacted by human actors with the goal of coordinating interactions, decreasing risk, and increasing certainty within and across organizational ecosystems.” Therefore, entities, like those in an entrepreneurial ecosystem, can intentionally plan and strategize to increase the success of entrepreneurs.

The ecosystem approach is also powerful for assessing how an environment is or is not working for people who have been marginalized or faced unique barriers accessing supports and resources needed to thrive in a given place. For our investments in local entrepreneurial ecosystems and civic tech and data ecosystems alike, that’s meant being intentional about engaging people of color and low-income people, who are disproportionately cut off from or underserved by traditional institutions, organizations, networks and power structures they need to tap into to get their businesses off the ground, or make their voice heard by policy makers, for example. By looking at who doesn’t currently benefit in an ecosystem, we can illuminate opportunities to forge new connections that result in systems that function more equitably for all residents regardless of race, geography or income.

Ecosystem mapping was a powerful tool for our CTDC participants

When we started this project, participants in our civic tech and data collaboratives were overwhelmed; essentially, their work was nobody’s job. Three years later, institutions have increased their capacity to work across sectors and leverage data and technology to address some of the root causes behind tough challenges in criminal justice, affordable housing, or youth engagement. Data intermediaries, local governments, technologists, engaged residents and other stakeholders have begun asking each other ambitious “How might we…” questions, because they are involved in defining priority issues and co-creating solutions.

The ecosystem approach helped our local collaboratives identify the interests and contributions of diverse potential allies and invest in their civic infrastructure to move beyond transactional, short-term activities toward long-term systems change relationships. Harnessing data and technology to increase the efficiency, equity and effectiveness of policies and programs to benefit low-income residents is increasingly valued as part of everyone’s job.

I’m convinced that an ecosystem approach is a powerful way to develop renewable capacity to take on complex and evolving problems. Are you ready to become an ecosystem builder?


Over the last year, we have been sharing the stories from The Civic Tech and Data Collaborative. In the next couple of months, we will jointly release a synthesis of their results.

In addition, in our efforts to close racial income and wealth gaps, there is already an ongoing ecosystem conversation. Currently, the dialogue around developing entrepreneurial ecosystems has been missing a racial equity and inclusion lens. We’re going to change that. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog on the work that we’re doing to create entrepreneurial ecosystems that close racial gaps.

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