Social Ecosystem Thinking

A new holistic form of system thinking

Social Ecosystem Thinking (SET) conceptualizes nature and human society in an inter-connective and holistic way.  SET as a form of 'system thinking' is of growing importance due to the increasing complexities of economies and society, the challenges for governance, understanding changes in state and civil society and, crucially, growing existential threats such as the climate emergency.  A focus on the inter-dependence of human behaviours and environmental factors aims to create more resilient and adaptive human systems.   

Social ecosystem thinking also comes with a progressive set of values.  Far from the Darwinian interpretation of natural evolution and the survival of the fittest, SET is associated with concepts of human inter-dependency, collaboration, organic growth and sustainability.  These values, and the form of connective and holistic thinking being developed to support them, have the potential to create ways of thinking about .  In fact, SET can be seen to give us back the ideal of a sustainable and fair future that humans can shape; an alternative to the pessimism of neoliberalism that promises only the market and authoritarian socialism that failed to deliver advanced democracy.  In this sense, SET can also be understood as a green and democratic version of post-capitalist thinking.

Distinction between the terms 'ecology' and 'ecosystem'

The terms ‘ecologies’ and ‘ecosystems’ have traditionally been associated with the natural world to refer to dynamic interactions between plants, micro-organisms, animals and their environment.  Observations of these natural environments have led to the development of a number of abstract concepts to explain how they function.  The concepts of ecologies and ecosystems have been variously described as complex and dynamic systems that work together as a functioning unit, with inter-dependent relationships and processes of adaption, stasis, balance and development.  In recent decades, and in response to challenges of complexity, ecological and ecosystem thinking has spread from its origins in observations of the dynamics of the natural world and conservation to metaphors used to reflect on the dynamics of human societies (e.g. public life and private enterprise, child development, education and social care, entrepreneurialism, technological and business development and now to the wider world of governance and politics).


At this point, it may be helpful to make a distinction between the terms 'ecologies' and 'ecosystems'.  In earlier work, Prof. Ann Hodgson and I referred to 'ecologies' as representing a set of inter-dependent relations in any particular setting.  The condition of the ecology could exist is a variety of conditions - healthy/unhealthy, balanced/imbalanced.   Used this way, the term 'ecologies' is descriptive - describing inter-connected relations.  Ecosystems, on the other hand, are seen to possess particular qualities that can lead to dynamic human, natural technological developments.  Accordingly, the term ecosystem is also often preceded by a descriptor (e.g. high skill ecosystems or inclusive social ecosystems).  In this work I will largely use the term 'ecosystem'.

Ecosystem thinking - four stages of development

In an earlier Discussion Paper (Hodgson and Spours, 2016) we suggested that ecosystem thinking could be seen to be evolving through four stages of development - see Figure below.

Stage 1. Observation of natural ecosystems

This stage has involved an increased understanding of the dynamics of natural ecologies - spaces and habitats – with a particular interest in the concept of ‘ecological resilience’. This original conceptualisation of the natural world remains the most widely understood use of the concept of ecological/ecosystem in the minds of the public and, for this reason, we do not explore it further here.  But, as explained later, SET does not abandon natural ecosystem thinking.  Rather, it places the natural world within a more holistic and sustainable mode of human thinking.

Stage 2. Ecosystem metaphors for complex human activity

The use of the abstract understandings generated in Stage 1 have been metaphorically applied to an ever-expanding range of human and organisational activity, for example, child development and special needs (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), communication and information systems (e.g. Nardi and O’Day, 1999), business innovation (e.g. Bollier, 2000), deliberative governance (e.g. Hajer and Wagenaar, 2003), regional skills development (e.g. Finegold, 1999; Buchanan, 2006) and higher education, learning and professionalism (e.g. Barnet, 2010).  

Stage 3. Building  theories of social, economic, skills and technological development

Running in parallel with Stage 2 has been the emergence of more extensive applications of social ecological/ecosystem thinking that arguably take the concept beyond its metaphorical use into a theoretical realm.  Two stand out.  First, was the work of David Finegold (1999) and his identification of four dimensions of techno-economic development that could lever a region or national economy from a ‘low skills equilibrium’ to a ‘High Skills Ecosystem’.  Second, was the work of Urie Bronfenbrenner that viewed child development within a set of nested ecologies across different scaling.  

Stage 4. Social ecosystems as societal transitioning

Emerging out of Stage 3, social ecosystems can be seen as located within the history of human development and its forms of social and economic organisation (e.g. Laloux, 2014); associated with new democratic forms of governance particularly at the local and regional levels (e.g. Hodgson and Spours, 2012); and as an aspect of new social and networked political organisations (e.g. Adnan, 2016; Spours, 2016) and now the Just Transition (Spours, 2021)

The figure above illustrates these stages in a nested relationship insofar as each advancement of the ecosystem concept still retains within it some elements of an earlier phase.  These nested and interdependent relationships between the phases of ecosystem thinking recognises that any advancement of conceptualisation is always hybridised and never loses its original relationship with the natural world. Moreover, a selective continued use of the metaphorical device may be useful to aid public understanding of complex system issues.  

Moving beyond the metaphor - a social ecosystem conceptual framework (Stage 3)

The use of conceptual metaphors (the Greek root means to transfer or to carry) is widely recognised as an aid to human cognition by using images of concrete things as a ‘bridge’ understand the abstract.  Metaphors also transfer meanings across discourses arising out of an interplay of scientific and popular meanings.  In doing so they can slip between rigorous and speculative meanings.  The ecosystem metaphor can be regarded as a robust ‘correlational metaphor’ in which the complexities of the human version relate to the complex processes of the ecosystem of the natural world.  


At the same time, in the metaphorical transfer from the natural to the human and social world, certain meanings change.  For example, in ecological thinking about the natural world, the emphasis has been on resilience and adaptation whereas in the social/human world the emphasis has been on growth and development.  There comes a point, therefore, that the differences between the original world and the new one become too big for the plausible continuation of transfer.  In this situation, the metaphor moves from being ‘correlational’ to ‘analogous’.   In this latter condition the metaphor has to be either developed further or retired.  In order to move beyond the metaphorical use I have attempted to move ecosystem thinking to the theoretical stage (Stage 3). 

Three components of a social ecosystem conceptual framework

The main aim of a social ecosystem theory is to introduce a dynamic factor of the role of the public intellectuals, groups and politico-economic organisation on complex systems.  In my recent social ecosystem work I have integrated three components.

1. A critical appreciation and extension of the high skill ecosystem work of David Finegold (1999), reflecting on areas such Silicon Valley, in order to distinguish between elite entrepreneurial and and social inclusive ecosystem developments over the last 20 years.  This elaboration increases the role of radical political economy analysis in ecosystem conceptions.

2. A spatial reinterpretation of the multi-level human (micro/meso/exo/macro/chrono) bio-ecological theory of the American psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner (1979 and 1994) that is been applied to local and sub-regional terrains that lie between individual organisations and the national state.  While Bronfenbrenner's ecological system was primarily focused on the system surrounding the individual child (micro), the spatially adapted system is focused on the 'middle range' - meso- and exo-system relations that have particular analytical relevance at the local and regional levels.

3.  The introduction of the relationship between the 'verticalities' of the political state and the 'horizontalities' of civil society to explore the role of 45-degree politics in order to understand the role of the forces that connect the different scalars of the social ecosystem.  

The introduction of the third component, in particular, allows different configurations of social ecosystems (both economic and spatial) to be analysed in the wider political and ideological context (see website pages on elite/inclusive ecosystems and new spatial perspectives on cities).  The social ecosystem conceptual framework also assists in an expanded analysis of human activity (e.g. relationships between working, living and learning).