What Is An Innovation Ecosystem

It’s impossible to innovate in a vacuum. Here’s how to do it right

Illustration by WeWorkThe digital revolution once promised to scatter collaboration across the globe, with Skype calls and Slack messages fully replacing in-person conversation. But those early predictions missed something critical: Research shows that proximity can breed innovation.

That’s part of why growing numbers of people are moving to cities and why, for the first time in history, there are now more urbanites than rural dwellers. It’s also why people are attracted to coworking spaces and why companies still benefit from having a strong sense of community. The innovation that can come from being in groups and sharing ideas is more important than ever. To foster it, companies are putting their efforts into mapping and cultivating their innovation ecosystems.

To better understand these changes, WeWorkand The Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative surveyed over 30,000 people in 50 cities around the world forThe Future of Work and Citiesstudy to better understand the perceptions of work in a rapidly changing world. One finding was that WeWork members believe their cities have a better innovation ecosystem than nonmembers do.

This article explores what an innovation ecosystem is, what the most effective ones look like, and why both individuals and companies can benefit from building one.

An innovation ecosystem is a network of individuals, entities, resources, and structures that join forces in a way that catalyzes new products, ideas, methods, systems, and even ways of life.

Think of an innovation ecosystem like its equivalent in the natural world: an environment where each component part and its relationship to one another creates a complex web of symbiotic interactions that collectively keep the entire system humming efficiently and effectively.

Three types of innovation ecosystems
Innovation ecosystems can exist either within cities, or on a smaller scale within industries or corporations, with different players operating in each.

City innovation ecosystem
This may include coworking spaces, research institutions, innovation-enabling government policies, and startup competitions open to those who live within a given city.

Industry innovation ecosystem
This ecosystem consists of players like local startups, individual entrepreneurs, larger corporations, and venture capitalists.

Corporate innovation ecosystem
A corporate innovation ecosystem features components like a dedicated innovation lab, outside consultants to bring in fresh ideas, proximity to complementary companies for collaboration, and a dynamic workspace.

Six steps to creating a corporate innovation ecosystem
An innovation ecosystem is effective when outputs are increasing and new ideas are emerging. Here’s how to make sure that happens.

1. Encourage support, not competition
Innovation isn’t a zero-sum game. In a good innovation ecosystem, a positive change in one part of the network will ripple throughout.

2. Diversify across players and funding
When it comes to people, assemble a power team of diverse backgrounds and perspectives who hail from upper-level management to external consulting companies. Funding should be pulled together from a diverse portfolio that includes angel investors as well as banks.

3. Ensure information flows actively
Cultivate the free flow of ideas and information, and create a pipeline so those ideas can move quickly and efficiently from design to testing to iteration to scale.

4. Make an innovation tool kit
This can comprise everything from the physical space, like an accelerator or a coworking space, to cutting-edge tools—for example, design thinking, high-speed internet, 3D imaging, and artificial intelligence.

5. Encourage a culture of innovation
From top to bottom, innovation should saturate the ecosystem. Host company-wide (or citywide, or industry-wide) trainings and workshops that help people generate new ideas and act on them. Organize events and speaker series that spark innovation and collaboration.

6. Be dynamic and flexible
Whether it’s a new idea, system, or member, entry into an innovation ecosystem should be seamless. The structures must be rigid enough to sustain change, but not so rigid that they stop it.

Benefits of creating a corporate innovation ecosystem
Companies thrive when operations and output are constantly improving in efficiency and quality. An innovation ecosystem is one of the most effective ways to make sure that happens.

Shorter ideas-to-market timeline
A tight pipeline means bad ideas get weeded out quickly. Good ideas can then be immediately connected to the funders, media, and policymakers who will make them a reality.

Diverse perspectives
Even the most talent-saturated companies can’t generate all the best ideas solo. Large companies benefit from startups (and vice versa), and external consultants bring dynamic new perspectives. Consciously creating an innovation community brings them all together.

Faster overall growth
From job growth to company scale to investment opportunities, joining forces to cocreate always sparks growth.

Transparent communication
Intentionally mapping the constellation of actors, their relationship to one another, and their communication methods helps avoid duplicating efforts and keeps everyone in the loop.

WeWork members are part of an innovation ecosystem
WeWork and the Aspen Institute surveyed business decision-makers on the future of work and cities to generate consensus views on the widespread changes happening in these realms. By 2030, an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas, and by some estimates, up to 800 million people will need to find new jobs because of the ways technology is transforming jobs. Climate change will have huge, still-unforeseen impacts on the world.

As these changes take shape, innovative initiatives are needed to meet the challenges facing us. It’s part of why so many people are attracted both to WeWork and to cities right now—they convene people in physical proximity to ignite a kind of synergy and cocreation that’s challenging to achieve in isolation.

It makes sense that WeWork members are more likely to score their city higher on innovation than other residents. Members have already mapped the constellation of actors and factors, knowing that they’re an integral part of the innovation ecosystems that will shape the future.

Innovation ecosystems connect the dots and provide the spark; from there, the entire community—whether it be a city, a coworking space, or a company—can sit back and watch ideas catch fire.

A.M. Higgins is a writer and content creator in Washington, D.C.