Platforms and Ecosystems

I’ve written about how “product” is the wrong framing for many digital things. After I published that post, I’ve heard back from some people asking why not talk about platforms as the objects we’re designing, instead of ecosystems. After all, “platform” is a more common word in the world of software.

First, it’s important to clarify: “ecosystems” is not the right framing either. I’m not convinced we can design an ecosystem, and if we could we don’t have a history of doing so we can refer to. We can be stewards of an ecosystem, but not its designers. What we can design are information environments that support ecosystems. This is an important difference. We have a history of designing environments (architecture and urban design) to refer to as we create these new contexts that are serving host to so many of our activities.

Now, why use the word “environment” instead of “platform”? Well, “platform” connotes a technology-centric view of the situation while “environment” connotes an actor-centric view. We live in environments. They are the contexts in which we operate. Platforms, on the other hand, are what we build upon. Both terms refer to systemic contexts, it’s a question of what we’re focused on when designing them: people or technology.

These are not mere semantic quibbles. The language we use has a powerful impact on how we understand what we do and therefore how we do it. (This is a fundamental concept in the design of information environments, so it behooves us to be as precise as possible with language.)