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Building a social ecosystem conceptual framework



In my theoretical work I have used the concept of an ecosystem to describe and analyse an active social dynamic.  The original concept of a natural ecosystem describes the relationship between a range of ecological factors that interact as a functional unit to produce an equilibrium and sustainable natural condition.  The concept of a social ecosystem, on the other hand, describes the interaction of a range of human social factors functioning as a multi-level social and political organism to produce a new level of sustainable development.  The social ecosystem concept is less focused on stability and more on change.

This section elaborates the four stages of building social ecosystem conceptual framework.

  1. Critical reflections on David Finegold's High Skills Ecosystem model, elite entrepreneurial ecosystems and the imagining of an inclusive social ecosystem (see Figure 1 below).

  2. Spatial interpretations of Brofenbrenner's human ecological system to create a multi-level social ecosystem model.

  3. The identification of a range of cross-cutting factors and forces that create the dynamics for change in the multi-level model.

  4. The dialectic of state power and civil society participation through the concept of 45-degree mediation and politics.


Stage 1. The distinction between elite entrepreneurial and inclusive social ecosystems


Elite entrepreneurial ecosystems – innovation and exclusion

Finegold (1999), researching the rise of software and computer companies in California in the 1990s, showed how particular enterprises became successful due to their participation in self-sustaining ‘high skills ecosystems’ (HSEs).  HSEs were seen to comprise four elements – (i) ‘catalysts’ which can trigger development (ii) ‘nourishment’ to provide a stream of new talent; (iii) a ‘supportive environment’ and (iv) ‘interdependence’ between the ecosystem actors.  HSEs and their growth dynamic were contrasted to the ‘Low Skills Equilibrium’ (Finegold and Soskice, 1988) that conceptualised systemic low demand for skill within the UK economy in the 1980s. The four inter-related elements of Finegold's HSE model can be summarised as follows:

  • Catalysts which can trigger development (e.g. the original impulse of military spending, government demand and investment, together with key individuals in the case of California’s computer and biomedical industries).

  • Nourishment from world-class research universities that have provided a stream of new talent. 

  • A supportive environment including physical infrastructure such as transportation and housing, a climate that attracts and retains knowledge workers and a regulatory regime sympathetic to risk-taking. 

  • Interdependence and co-operation between the actors in the region based on flatter hierarchies within enterprises, together with strong local and regional networks. 

Looking retrospectively at Finegold's HSEs and what has evolved over the past two decades in Silicon Valley, we can characterise them as elite entrepreneurial ecosystems. Entrepreneurial ecosystems have been defined as clusters of firms of different sizes using high skills and innovative practices that connect digital development, marketing and finance.  Entrepreneurial ecosystem literatures have focused particularly on technological innovations associated with the relationship between ‘start-up companies’, the role of venture capital, flatter company structures and university-based or university-related innovation (e.g. Isenberg, 2011; Maleki, 2011).  The distinguishing features of entrepreneurial ecosystems are the exploitation of ‘placed-based assets' and, in particular, environments attractive to economic actors; adaptive industrial traditions; strong public infrastructure; pre-existing large companies with high tech functions and the processes of company decline and new shoots.  The latter are understood through the ‘metaphorical device’ of natural ecosystems to retrospectively reflect on the dynamics of tech/financial clustering and rate of ‘spin offs’ (entrepreneurial ecosystem dynamic).

High innovation, FinTech-related entrepreneurial ecosystems appear to have emerged ‘naturally’ in a financialised economy via a confluence of facilitating conditions including efficient transport and attractive housing, a conducive relationship between small and large businesses and the generation of ideas through bringing together different leaderships (Moss Kantner, 2012).  Crucially, these niche and market-oriented company clusters establish relationships with elite universities around technological innovation and can rely on a steady stream of highly educated labour prepared to migrate to global cities.


While the global role of giant Financial/Technological (FinTech) platform companies such as Google, Facebook and Uber have been criticized for the ways in which they manipulate ‘big data’ and their relationship with consumers (e.g. Zuboff, 2019, Morozov, 2019), less attention has been paid to their spatial effects.  The entrepreneurial ecosystem model with its focus on high tech industries, wealth production and the attraction of educational elites has resulted not only in immense wealth production, but also profound inequalities.  Relying largely on self-employment, temporary and flexible contracts and educated migrant labour, these global companies have also produced social displacement effects on surrounding areas through rising property prices and rents (Waters, 2017; Carrie, 2019).  The Silicon Valley dynamic in the San Francisco area presaged FinTech developments in other global cities, such as London, where the effects of financial and central business districts are producing similar environmental effects.  Entrepreneurial ecosystems, due to their exclusionary economic, living and learning dynamics, can be legitimately considered as elite and exclusive entities.  Figure 1 summarises its key characteristics of elite entrepreneurial ecosystems along a number of dimensions using some of Finegold's and through a process of comparative reflection.

Figure 1. Comparison of features of elite entrepreneurial and inclusive social ecosystems

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Reflections on elite entrepreneurial ecosystems and the imaginings of inclusive social ecosystems


Figure 1 contains two types of thinking - retrospective and prospective.  The Elite Entrepreneurial Ecosystem analysis in the left column is retrospective because it results from reflections on the historical and existing phenomenon of FinTech.  It uses an ecosystem ‘metaphorical device’ linked to the natural world in order to understand the growth dynamics of highly innovative wealthmaking economic and technological clusters.  


The concept of Inclusive Social Ecosystems, on the other hand, has been generated out of comparative analysis and social ecosystem thinking has yet to be applied as a social ecosystem conceptual framework or model.  The analysis in the right column, therefore, constitutes a thought experiment of prospective imagining about the components of a future social ecosystem.  This requires the development of ‘a social ecosystem conceptual framework’ as a guide to a future ecological construction process and to be part of a process of research.  Building on the preceding comparison the following section constructs a social ecosystem concept by way of a number of 'expansive and deliberative activities' on urban terrains.  In contrast to the attractive environments that typify the 'pull' of elite ecosystems, the localities that require social ecosystem development may relatively 'impoverished' and thus requiring 'ecological construction'.  The main starting point social ecosystem building is the shared desire to develop a locality in a holistic and participatory way; referred to as the 'common mission'.  


The main 'expansions' of social ecosystem methodology involves a summary of the different components of social ecosystems found in the right column of Figure 1.  

  1. The adoption of a common mission for public good expands on the main aim of private profit.

  2. Collective action by social partners in universal place-shaping rather than selective place-utilisation.

  3. Coordination of catalytic factors that span the public and private sectors.

  4. Development of strong local networks and activities that are strategically supported by higher tiers of government.

  5. Support of education institutions and systems beyond that of higher education.

  6. Widespread participatory activity in both the workplace and in wider civil society. beyond that of 'flat companies'.

  7. Socially developed new technologies that aid other ecosystem functions.

  8. The adoption of a long-term perspective - the deliberative use of 'time'.

These expansions can be seen as an elaboration of Finegold's high skill ecosystem elements - catalysts, nourishment, supportive environment and inter-dependence - extending these elements beyond the market and centralised state into the public realm and wider civil society.

Stage 2. The spatial dimension - conceptualizing the middle layers of governance and social activity

The spatial dimension of social ecosystem theory has been built through an adaption of Bronfenbrenner's (1979) concept of a human ecological system where he proposed that human development (in particular child development) has been influenced by factors operating at different ‘systems levels’ within a broad ecological structure, in which each level exerts reciprocal influences on the others.  

Figure 2. Bronfenbrenner's human ecological system

  1. The ‘microsystem’ contains the factors within a learner’s immediate environment. (e.g. school, family, immediate neighbourhood). 

  2. The ‘mesosystem’ encompasses the interrelations of two or more settings in which the developing person actively participates.  This might include relations between home and the learning institution, involving the role of education professionals.

  3. The ‘exosystem’ consists of settings ‘that do not involve the developing person as an active participant, but in which events occur that affect, or are affected by, what is happening in the setting containing the developing person’.  This could include the organization of the institution, its policies and wider system levels, including local and regional agencies and government.  

  4. The ‘macrosystem’ envelops the micro-, meso-, and exosystems.  Macrosystems in Bronfenbrenner’s conception are particularly associated with wider society, in which all settings at each level are to be seen within their historical, socio-economic and cultural contexts. 

  5. In a later edition of his work, Bronfenbrenner (1994) added a fifth dimension, the ‘chronosystem’ that recognized the patterning of environmental events and transitions over the life course, as well as socio-historical circumstances.

Hodgson and Spours (2018) created a spatial and political economy interpretation of Bronfenbrenner’s human ecological systems theory to find a way of conceptualizing multi-layered, linked and dynamic terrains on which working, living and learning take place.  


  • Microsystem - a learner’s immediate environment - family and close learning relationships particularly experienced in early life - this retains the Bronfenbrenner emphasis on the individual learner and their immediate developmental relationships.

  • Mesosystem - participation within formal institutions - school, college or workplace - this interpretation places more emphasis on the formality and complexity of learning and brings Bronfenbrenner's exosystem-layer down into the meso-layer.  This allows the exosystem layers to conceptualise wider economic/political contexts and relations.

  • Exosystem - local context for a school or college and provision of VET (e.g. a borough, town or district) and the larger politico-economic landscape between the local and national levels - regional economy and its governance.

  • Macrosystem - added to Bronfenbrenner's cultural focus is an emphasis on the effects of the role of the state, national policy and socio-economic contexts.

  • Chronosystem - the patterning of environmental events & transitions over the life course - should be regarded as a distinct dimension because all the others move through this as a result of the passage of time.


In terms of governance within England and the UK more widely, spatial interpretations have emphasized the importance of the ‘middle tier’ of political and social relations; the local levels of state and civil society where factors for skills, economic and social activity are essentially played out.  The development of the spatial multi-layered social ecosystem framework addresses what might be termed the 'missing middle' - a layers of governance, economic and social activity that have been hollowed out as a result of the emphasis of neoliberal policy on institutional competition and national steering mechanisms.


Stage 3. The identification of connective factors and forces

Unlike in Bronfenbrenner's model in which the different levels are nested (i.e. the macro frames the levels below), in the adapted spatial framework the levels are conceived as relatively autonomous.  There are potential relationships, but no particular given relationship. The dynamism of the whole social ecosystem is provided by a series of connective factors and forces.

  • Ethico-political vision, new types of knowledge, culture and learning – these are the educative and unifying processes needed to ideologically and politically connect different levels societally and to link laterally and globally.

  • Catalytic economic and material investment - social ecosystems cannot grow without a material element.  The question is the degree of popular control over the material factor.

  • Socialised advanced technologies – new contributions of artificial intelligence and machine learning.  This is not conceived of as a ‘technological fix’, but the introduction of an important socialised set of tools that can work in collaboration with other connective forces.

  • Connective 'organic intellectuals’ – bridging actors - individual and collective - who straddle the various levels.

  • Place-based connective institutions that seek to connect the different levels.

  • Horizontal networks and movements

  • Ecosystem evolution and acceleration – the paradox is that the Just Transition is a long evolutionary haul but, at the same time, has to accelerate to meet the scale of the crisis.




The third aspect of social ecosystem theory links the extended elements of the Finegold model and the spatial interpretation of Bronfenbrenner's human ecological model to the fundamental dynamics of the expanded modern state - the relationship between horizontal and vertical factors and forces of civil society and the governmental/political state.  The concept of 45-degree and, crucially, the role of mediating activity at the intersections between these fundamental dimensions of political life.  In Figure 3 45-degree analysis is applied to Finegold's four high-skill ecosystem elements to suggest a relationship between macro and exo factors and the role of 45-degree mediation.

Figure 3. The mediation of extended high skill ecosystem elements

The driving force behind the 45-degree politics is the role of the horizontal terrain.  It is along this dimension in particular that social ecosystem theory moves beyond the Finegold Silicon Valley high skills analysis by highlighting the role of the local and sub-regional which, in the adapted Bronfenbrenner multi-level model, concerns the middle tiers of Exo 1 and Exo 2.  Important actors here include local and regional government, together with local civil society organisations.


However, social ecosystems are not just built out of horizontal collaborations, but also as a result of ‘facilitating verticalities’ or what might be termed the 'Good State'.  The role of facilitating verticalities may be more effective when the four elements are related to each other - in other words, through the practice of joined-up governance.  Catalysts’ and a ‘Supportive Environment’ elements, that referred to limited state actions including financial boosts of military spending, key infrastructure projects and regulatory regimes, have been extended by proposing a more comprehensive role of the state (e.g. forms of public risk-taking in areas in which the private sector is reluctant to tread; supporting fundamental research; undertaking strategic long-term investments; providing regulatory regimes that protect the environment and ‘market shaping’ rather than simply ‘market fixing’) (Mazzucato, 2016).  Research-intensive universities, despite their apparent autonomy, due to their production of highly specialised vertical knowledge are also located in this national regulatory dimension.


Relating the intersections of horizontal and vertical dimensions is the role of human mediation (45-degree activity) through the intervention of key public intellectuals (e.g. local civic leaders) and what have been referred to as 'civic anchor institutions'.  These mediating forces bring together the powers of national/central and local/devolved action to bring about improvements in the ways in which citizens work, live and learn.  In natural ecological terms, these mediating forces might be referred to as 'keystone species', due to their potential transformative effects on local ecosystem terrains.  A key role is allocated to the concept of 'common mission' that provides the ‘glue’ between a diverse set of social partners, each with their own specialisms and preoccupations.  The common mission is exercised through what might be termed ‘ecosystem leadership’, the key function of which is to nurture, cohere and educate the different elements or forces of an expanded social ecosystem by relating its horizontal and vertical features.  Seen in terms of ‘system leadership’ Senge and colleagues (2015) point to three core capacities – ‘the ability to see the larger system’; ‘fostering reflection and more generative conversations’; and shifting the collective focus from 'reactive problem-solving to co-creating the future’.  

 4. Arriving at a definition of an inclusive social ecosystem

The relationship between these conceptual innovations eads to a provisional definition of a social ecosystem that connects the worlds of working, living and learning through the of inter-related dimensions of the horizontal, vertical, 45-degree mediation and time.


‘A social ecosystem is conceived as an evolving, place-based social formation that connects the worlds of working, living and learning with the purpose of nurturing inclusive, sustainable economic, social and educational development in diverse communities, localities and sub-regions.  The social ecosystem model (SEM) is currently conceptualized as comprising four related dimensions - 1. collaborative horizontalities (education networks, local anchor institutions, a range of social partners/communities supported by the connective the role of digital technologies); 2. facilitating verticalities (an enabling national state and empowered local state); 3. 45-degree politics and mediation through common mission and ecosystem leadership; 4. the concept of ecological time that allows for processes of holistic and deliberative system evolution’.

In the next page these conceptions and this definition are applied to the explorations of a new relationship between working, living and learning explored through the ideas of rebalanced polycentric cities; high skills ecosystems and decent work; citizen pathways and new approaches to lifelong learning.  


In subsequent pages, the theorisation of inclusive social ecosystems moves beyond Stage 3 with a discussion of transitions to a post-capitalist future through the development of historical concepts of organisational change (drawing in particular on the work of Laloux); the development of the concept of the 'Organic Intellect' and 21st Century organic intellectuals; and a socialised model of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

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