[This article first appeared on the Guardian Media Network – March 2013]

We live inside networks

Human beings live inside networks. We always have and we always will. At a fundamental level these are genetic networks – we are physically connected to our parents and influenced by the biology we inherited. We lived inside extended social networks before we invented fire. At a broader scale, we live inside ecological networks or ecosystems – biological communities of interacting organisms and their physical environment: complex webs passing energy between decomposing matter, soil, plants, herbivores, primary and secondary predators and back again.

Humans are ecosystems in their own right. The number of bacteria living within the body of the average healthy adult human is estimated to outnumber human cells 10 to 1.

Now we also live inside digital networks too. Networks of networks, even. The internet. Some of these networks are taking on the characteristics of ecosystems with complex webs of their own, passing data rather than energy.

Organisations are creating digital ecosystems

Some of these “digital ecosystems” are more evolved than others. We’re used to seeing businesses that have a company website, some physical retail estate, a call centre, maybe a smartphone application and a page on your favourite social networking site. Many businesses treat these as separate, but linked, assets. Some businesses will even have separate teams responsible for the management of each asset.

Other businesses have a more coherent approach. The Apple ecosystem passes information between a suite of services in an almost seamless manner. Their system connects your computing hardware to a range of entertainment services via iTunes and steadily builds a taste profile. The approach is the same for mobile and desktop application downloads via the App Store. Your digital identity is also used to collate your preferences and purchases through the apple.com store and can be used to identify you when you enter a physical store, if you permit it. Your behavioural and taste data is “feeding” various components of the ecosystem automatically.

Google has a similarly evolved ecosystem composed of search data, email activity, calendaring, identity (G+), a mobile operating system, app store, docs and more. Your activities in one area automatically “feed” and inform the experience you have in another. The pinnacle of this approach is (at time of writing) Google Now, where a range of elements of the ecosystem converge on your handset to provide an experience directly relevant to the context you find yourself in: e.g. being woken up early so that you can make it to that important meeting and avoid the transport problems on the route you usually take.

Algorithmic ecosystems

Digital ecosystems can feel, for want of a better word, alive. The most extreme examples are high frequency trading algorithms. These algorithms trade stocks across Stock Markets directly, without human intervention, executing millions of trades per second, often over pennies. Programmed with simple rules to govern automatic buying and selling, these algorithms can soon start to exhibit complex emergent behaviours. These are behavioural patterns not anticipated by the programmers and certainly not planned. Just ask the Knight Capital Group who lost $440 million last year in the course of half an hour while they tried to find the “off switch” during what came to be called a Flash Crash.

Business ecosystems are typically designed to be self-contained (take Apple’s notoriously closed system) – and therein lies the risk for the organisation. We the people aren’t loyal to one organisation’s ecosystem. We’re connected to many different ones. We might love our iPhone but prefer Netflix to iTunes for streaming movies in the home, Amazon for ebooks on our Kindle, Xbox Live for multiplayer gaming with the nephews, Yahoo for our email, Ocado for groceries and Crochet-World.com for a bit of help with our latest hobby.

The individual is the centre

All of these separate ecosystems intersect or merge at the individual. We are at the centre of a complex set of sometimes competing systems. We are the centre, not the organisation or the ecosystem it created. A fundamental part of the design of the network-of-networks is to route around blockages. There’s a risk to organisations that their closed systems become regarded as blockages, not just by us but by the increasingly sophisticated algorithms we choose to help us thrive in the digital ecosystems of the future.

Photo Credit: Glisglis via Compfight cc