What is an Identity Ecosystem?

Abstract: I argue that the metaphor is unclear and violates basic properties of the concrete meaning in biology. The difference between biological ecosystems and economic subsystems is so radical that the metaphor can at best only be used as a source of inspiration, not for conveying clear objectives. The only property that could be reasonably indicated by the metaphor is the aspect of self-organization without a single leader. However, this contradicts the definition of business ecosystem, therefore another term, e.g. Identity Metasystem or Identity Infrastructure, should be searched and deployed.

The term identity ecosystem was boosted in the identity community when NSTIC picked up the term, and similar uses can be found with Google’s LMNOP Identity Ecosystem and the Personal Data Ecosystem. Yet, exactly what an ecosystem means and how it differs from similar terms like market, network, complex system and platform remains unclear.


Loosely classified, an identity ecosystem is an economic subsystem that is part of other more general systems like ICT, business and jurisdiction. The resulting key difference is that the rather strong physical segregation of biological ecosystems (BES) like rivers and forests has no equivalence in economic subsystems (ESS). While subjects in a biological ecosystem are mostly immersed in their system, the actors in an ESS are not. E.g. an actor in an identity ecosystem would also participate in an ICT system and a business system. To extract possible meanings of the ecosystem metaphor a short comparison of typical BES concepts with ESS is made:

  • Closed loop: Many BES show a closed loop using the producer-consumer-decomposer cycle, while ESS are much less inclined to recycle their production. Hence sustainability is quite different.
  • Self-organization and evolution: Organization the BES is an emergent phenomenon of its components and their interactions, and the BES evolves with the mutate/select pattern. ESSs might in contrast be controlled by strong players, which have no equivalent in nature (see business ecosystems below). In addition, ESSs involve a certain amount of planning from the outside, which is again different to nature unless you believe in hard-core creationism.
  • Equilibrium: In BES this is a romantic phantasy not supported by scientific models. Whereas neoclassic economic theory postulates equilibriums, there is no proof that they exist in reality. Hence that attribute is useless for the metaphor.
  • Food chain and value chain analogies do not match.
  • Other terms seem to apply to both systems, like niche, diversity, complexity and resilience, but lack relevance to identity infrastructure.

The properties of BES and ESS do not really match. The metaphor does not transfer well because a BES is mostly self-contained, whereas an ESS is just a certain aspect of a larger system.

When James F. Moore introduced the term business ecosystem in 1992 he defined it as

“An economic community supported by a foundation of interacting organizations and individuals …. The economic community produces goods and services of value to customers, who are themselves members of the ecosystem. The member organisms also include suppliers, lead producers, competitors, and other stakeholders. Over time, they coevolve their capabilities and roles, and tend to align themselves with the directions set by one or more central companies. … the function of ecosystem leader is valued by the community because it enables members to move toward shared visions to align their investments, ...”

This definition is a big deviation from the biological concept, because it divides the economy into smaller competitive ecosystems fighting for customers and – in the mature  ‘leadership stage’ - preventing innovators from building alternative ecosystems. Ecosystems of this type are Wintel PCs, Apple iPod + iTunes music store and Airbus + supply chain. This concept of ecosystem found its way into the IT industry, where it is widely used to describe numerous concepts like enterprise software frameworks (J2EE) or OSS projects (Linux). The application to OSS opens a new perspective of control, because in some OSS projects control is not identified with a single entity.

My view is that business ecosystem is still a misleading term because it violates the underlying assumptions of a mostly self-contained system where competition is within the ecosystem, not between ecosystems. When Annabelle Gawer published “Platform Leadership How Intel, Microsoft, and Cisco Drive Industry Innovation“ in 2002, she used the term platform to describe a similar concept as Moore’s business ecosystem. This term seems to be much more suitable to describe a system of stakeholders who are orchestrated by a innovation leader.

Back to the meaning that identity ecosystem bears in IdCommons, Kantara, NSTIC and other communities, the only property that I find relevant and useful in a metaphorical sense is self-organization. If seen from a societal perspective, the dominance of a platform that will become a critical infrastructure by a single player is highly undesirable. Any singleton in a system will constrain innovation, democratic control and adaption to the public interest; therefore a proper balance of power should be designed in such a system.

Regarding the terminology there are several phrases that describe this concept more or less precise, like Open market (as used by OIX), Community-governed Identity Network or Internet Identity Infrastructure Layer. My personal preference is the infrastructure layer, as the Internet has link and transport layers as well, and the term layer was good enough before ecosystem was invented.

[Update 01-Jan-2011]

Identity Metasystem seems to be better alternative term. It is short and has a solid definition.

[Update 07-Jan-2012]

Steve Wilson posted a similar critique in Feb. 2011.