A Practitioner’s Model of Ecosystems

Ecosystems fascinate scholars. New publications are skyrocketing. Yet, when it comes to understanding ecosystems and how they form, scholars can quickly get wrapped around the axle. A practitioner perspective is more helpful.

Here’s a practitioner’s model of ecosystems that I developed over the past 30 years. My ideas began forming in Oklahoma City in 1993. Business leaders hired me to come up with a business-led strategy to transform their economy. 


When I arrived, Oklahoma City had been languishing for over a decade, battered by low oil prices and a banking collapse. The leadership had given up on the idea that one project — a big manufacturing plant, for example — would lead to transformation. Instead, we began with a different assumption. Our strategy would consist of a balanced portfolio of initiatives. 

But what type of investments? 

My experience as a corporate strategy consultant — working for General Electric in the 1980s, as it globalized manufacturing — underscored that in a global economy, brainpower is the only unique asset in any region. It all starts there. What research, technologies, and capabilities were unique to the region?

Beyond that, it was clear by the early 1990s – the dawn of the Internet — that networks and our ability to design and guide them would be critical to creating wealth. Prosperity emerges from open networks and “link and leverage” strategies.

We also understood that both individuals and organizations are mobile. They can locate anywhere. If we were going to make Oklahoma City “sticky”, we needed quality, connected places to attract and hold people.

Equally important, to guide people to a more promising future, we needed to change the prevailing narrative in Oklahoma City. We needed to point to our opportunities.

Finally, we needed a new discipline of collaboration to focus and align all of these initiatives. Oklahoma City is where #strategicdoing began.


By 2001, it was clear this model worked. I then taught it to Ernest Andrade, who used it to design the Charleston Digital Corridor. In 2008, I used it again to design The Water Council, now a global hub of freshwater technology. In 2014, we applied it to North Alabama. We are now introducing it to Iowa City, Alberta, Calgary, and Ecuador.

Last October, Andy Stoll of the Kauffman Foundation approached Scott Hutcheson and me to develop this model, so it could be easily replicated. We came back to him with a proposal to design a “learning platform” for entrepreneurial ecosystem development; a place where practitioners and civic leaders could learn the basics of developing a startup ecosystem.