The real power of an ecosystem

By Arjen van Berkum

A few years ago I was engaged by APG in the Netherlands to help them create something that was then known as the Smart Services Hub. A brilliant idea where government (the province of Limburg), business (APG, the world’s largest pension provider) and Maastricht University joint efforts to create an ecosystem of technology in the smart services. Rather quickly Accenture and Conclusion where excited to join this initiative and a next Brightlands Campus was born. The reason I am writing this blog today is because I want to share some key takeaways from this journey.

Creating dynamics

For one, creating a space where people can work together from different organizations creates a vibe of knowledge and ideas. Especially if you are able to create diversity in the companies that are a member of the ecosystem. Small ones. Big ones. Long term oriented. Short term oriented. They will find each other, and it will create very positive dynamics.


The second interesting element is, that it will create a diversification in sectors. For instance, neither Conclusion nor Accenture where into healthtech very much at that time, but as a lot of smart services, they became oriented around that theme. One of the cool examples I found, is a company called Chipmunk Health. As a start-up it found a place at the Conclusion shop floor to work together on smart health services. Today Chipmunk offers a remote platform for patients, so that monitoring of groups at risk can be done at a distance. Safe. Secure.

Why this ecosystem is successful


It takes leadership to make an investment into setting up an ecosystem and be an active part in that. In this case the leadership of APG especially was pivotal as they were willing to leverage existing buying power to attract suppliers to their ecosystem. Offering unparalleled commitment of long term contracts (10 years) in order to help organizations to move to the Heerlen area in the Netherlands. Next to that, the leadership of both the state (in this case Limburg) and Maastricht university were vital to set up the academic footprint, the terms and conditions and the funding by the local government. Leadership fuels the passion to create.

A need

The initiating parties have to have a need. The need in this case was the ageing population in the Heerlen area combined with the long term outlook for the labor market. This was especially relevant for the province and APG. The university wanted to be an attractive partner for students and organizations. In order to achieve that, they needed to be more rooted into society than the old-school universities. Need drives the reason to build.

The business case

A real business case for any building of an ecosystem is more fueled by belief, then it is by hard facts. There are some assumptions and there must be a willingness to accept not knowing it all. This is not exact science. The business case is there to convince the bookkeepers.

Now for me managing this ecosystem can be done on the level of single contracts or it can be managed on the basis that there is a shared goal, a shared belief. What I have found very enlightening, in this case especially, was the fact that in the contracting the “overarching mission” was the binding element in all contracts. The why to achieve, not the how to achieve. That is a fundamental lesson that can be taken from this. If you want to build an ecosystem, go for shared goals. They encompass any reason. They drive cooperation. Now the interesting question remains, why are goals “what to achieve” so rarely a part of the contract? Is it all just about delivery of goods or services? You need contracts for a reason, and that is not just about spending or earning money.

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