Platforms, Institutions and Ecosystems

It is a crisp early morning at The iHub UX lab in bustling Nairobi. I just finished a meeting with the Gearbox founding consortium and I am about to settle in for a busy day at the Ushahidi office. What is on my mind is platforms, institutions and ecosystems. Literally (Version 3.0 of Ushahidi is baking in the oven plus www.crisis.net is live) and figuratively.

When looking at the technology space, with the runaway success of Apple and its strategy as a platform company that has created a lucrative ecosystem of devices, applications and network of developers, I feel compelled to revisit this important facet of strategy. The platform.

JP Rangaswami aptly put it when he wrote a series on this, beginning with this important observation.

Platforms enable ecosystems. They are “multi-sided” like exchanges and marketplaces, focused on simplifying interactions between participants.
As David Weinberger said recently, the smartest person in the room is now the room.

In our work, be it at a company, non-profit or institution, we have to ask ourselves, how does the strategy we pursue to increase value or impact dovetail with platform thinking? For some guidance on this, again – JP Rangaswami is our man.

We learn from him that
1. Platforms create value by enabling social interactions between participants. This has allowed people to build platforms themselves and sharing applications built ontop of the platform.
2. Sharing also creates value by reducing waste: The efficiency for anyone who has used services like Uber or other paragons of the sharing economy does not need a reminder on this.
3. All this sharing creates big, small and open data: Where it takes machines to filter, and a human to curate or be a skilled creator.

All the above lessons have implications for us on many levels. On a personal level, I ask myself, which platforms am I creating and in turn, which ecosystem am I building and participating in? I am reminded that with the deluge of data and complexity of networks, not to forget that when systems are highly complex, individuals matter. What is my contribution as an individual? What is yours?

For leaders of institutions, what is the implication for you? For your strategy? Do you play the open/closed game? How does it bode for your organization as the world continues its pace of technology adoption, automation and innovation? Where would you like your organization to be in in the arc of progress? Will you be the platform, will you build on the platform and will you have a key role as part of the ecosystem?

For policy makers and government leaders. Do you have a grasp of platform thinking? How do you evolve policies to look at what Fred Wilson aptly calls platform monopolies?

“…the Internet is a network and the dominant platforms enjoy network effects that, over time, lead to dominant monopolies.”

Do you keep up with the technological times and do you strongly insist on companies to provide API (Application programming interfaces) to encourage competition?
What role can government play in supporting and encouraging a healthy tech ecosystem? What does a healthy tech ecosystem even look like for your locale?

One of the people I am lucky to interact with several times a year as part of the MIT Media Lab Director’s fellows program is Joi Ito. Like other products of the periphery like him, I find his guidance, inspiration and example something that speaks to me directly and as I saw when he visited us in Nairobi, inspired us too. I am fortunate that I can answer the question for myself today as to which platform, which organization and which ecosystem and network I have a key contribution to make. That this network is both local and global is something that I am delighted about.

Here is a video of the Director’s Fellows Offsite in Nairobi. We learned together what its like to be part of institutions that think of themselves as platforms and to make together.

MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellows Offsite in Nairobi from Juliana Rotich on Vimeo.