From early childhood we learn simple arithmetic like 1 + 1 = 2. Arithmetic serves as the foundation for more advanced mathematical concepts and operations such as Algebra, Geometry, Calculus, and Statistics & Probability. Business leans heavily on arithmetic for accounting, sales, and product development. But ecosystem math breaks the basic tenets of arithmetic.

One of my most used ecosystem math concepts is the idea that 1 + 1 = 3.

In the basic arithmetic example above, each of “1’s” serves as a discrete artifact and there is no doubt with regard to their value.

In ecosystem math, which is based on the concept of complex systems and reaching an eventual emergent state, the “1’s” are not discrete values. Let’s go to chatgpt for a more thorough explanation:

An emergent state in complex systems refers to a phenomenon where larger entities, patterns, or properties arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties. Emergence is a key concept in understanding how complex behaviors and structures can develop from relatively simple rules and interactions.

Now allow me to convert the above into ecosystem english for you all.

Smaller and simpler entities are the “1’s” in ecosystem math. They are the programs, the non-profits, the institutions (govt and university), the economic development actors, the entrepreneurs, the investors and their funds. 

In a robust ecosystem, each one of these peoples and their activities are important but not any one of them is the most important. Each one has their value but any one of them standing by themselves does not create the state of emergence. 

Emergence is where you find the ecosystem math where 1 + 1 = 3.

The interactions between all of these smaller entities create something bigger than the value of any one of the entities. 

Before I knew what complex systems were and how they relate to entrepreneurial ecosystem building I borrowed some language from something much simpler that we all are keenly aware of – the whole vs the sum of the parts language.

While surveying the Raleigh Durham ecosystem circa 2009-2010, I met with 275 people in 5 months. Many of these same individuals saw what I was doing and asked me this simple question – what are you seeing out there, Chris?

My answer was that we were “slightly less than the sum of our parts”.

If you break down 3 basic states using that metaphor, a community can be:

  1. Less than the sum of the parts
  2. The sum of the parts
  3. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Emergence is where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Ecosystem math as applied to emergence is 1 + 1 =3 or the whole (3) is greater than the sum of the parts (1 + 1).

What does this all mean for you as an ecosystem actor? Spend more time connecting the actors, and their activities to each other as opposed to spending time just doing your thing (the 1’s). Spend as much time supporting other people and their activities then you do on your own things.

Do this and you will begin to turn that flywheel I talked about last week into a state of emergence where the value exceeds all of the individual actions taking place.