Evolution of Business Ecosystems

Project summary

Bubbles and bankruptcies, crashes and crises - the economics and business management domains are at yet another crossroads. In order to examine these recent conundrums, this project returns to the classic questions that have been posed by evolutionary and complexity theorists in the economics and sociology literatures for decades: ‘Why do firms in the same industry vary systematically in performance over time?’ Seeking a systematic explanation of a longitudinal phenomenon inevitably requires characterising the evolution of the industrial ecosystem, as both the organisation (firm) and its environment (markets, institutions and industries) are co-evolving. Additionally, an interesting subset of the above question which is becoming increasingly relevant in today’s focus on sustainability is: ‘How do firms that have a stakeholder approach differ in competitiveness from firms that maximize stockholder wealth?’

This interdisciplinary, multi-level systems research lies at the intersection of the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities. It explores the complementary roles of formal quantitative models, qualitative metaphors and rational myths in understanding and explaining how complex socio-political-economic ecosystems evolve. More specifically, it focuses on the evolution of competition and cooperation and the emergence of inter-species competition in human social systems. In the process, it aims to shed new light on evolution-development-ecology interactions and in particular on the evolution vs. ‘intelligent design’ debate, where we are seeking ‘natural’ (as opposed to ‘supernatural’) explanations, focusing primarily on cultural and ecological (as opposed to genetic) inheritance mechanisms.

The objective of this investigation is to build theoretical frameworks in the social science domains of economics, management, and politics, using formal mathematical models from the natural science domains of ecological, developmental, and evolutionary biology, and interpretive methodologies from the humanities-based domains of philosophy, history and language. This ‘fit-form-function-performance’ economics framework begins to capture the biological processes of ecology-morphology-physiology-evolution. By engaging non-adjacent academic disciplines having significant variance in epistemological/ontological bases – ‘wicked interdisciplinarity’ – this project unlocks discipline-based orthodoxies and begin to develop novel insights for academic theory and practice (both at micro firm-level strategy and macro nation-level policy).

Additional project information and resources can be found in the Business Ecosystems section of the BII site on WebLearn. This is a members-only area: requests to join may be sent to bii@balliol.ox.ac.uk.  Additionally, information and resources can be found on the International Institute for Strategic Leadership website here.  Details regarding the seminar series are available for download here.

Please note that related BII projects include: A Systems Approach to Management Studies,  Cooperation and Reputation in Dynamic Networks and Inheritance and Cooperation.


Lead investigators

Dr Sophie Marnette, Balliol College, University of Oxford 

Dr Theodore Piepenbrock, MIT, University of Oxford, London School of Economics, Ashridge Business School and the International Institute for Strategic Leadership

Contact details for enquiries

Please email the lead investigator, Dr Sophie Marnette, about any queries regarding this project.