One of my favorite things about the work I do is having the opportunity to interact with companies in so many different industries. Last week, I gave a speech to WSP Golder, one of the largest civil engineering consulting firms with 55,000 consultants, nearly 25,000 of which are focused on earth and the environment. They help many of the world’s largest enterprises assess and manage the sustainability of projects from building factories to mines. I was blown away by the level of deep science and specificity of projects from employees working on big picture questions around environmental sustainability.
Collaboration in natural ecosystems
In Australia, Golder’s engineers are supporting an effort to build a reservoir to improve the ability to store energy that will later be converted into electricity in a way that will limit negative environmental effects. They discovered that at the altitude that would be ideal for placing a reservoir, there exists a certain bush that is home to a precious symbiotic relationship—one that scientists are hesitant to interrupt.
Inside the bush, a species of blue-winged lycaenid butterflies has developed a mutually beneficial relationship with an unlikely partner—the ant. Ants are typically predators of butterfly larvae, but this particular type of butterfly has evolved to produce a sugary sap-like secretion that the ants find attractive. Instead of eating the butterfly larvae, the ants latch onto them to enjoy the sap and thereby protect the young from other predators and dangers.
The fascinations found in natural ecosystems are endless. In business partnerships, alliances, and ecosystems, we aim to replicate these harmonious give-and-take relationships that create advantages for all parties involved.
Such systems are becoming more prevalent as the challenges we face—both for customers and for the world—are becoming more complex. FLOOW2, a company based in the Netherlands, is one example of such an ecosystem that is providing hospitals in the Dutch healthcare system with the resources they need.
Business ecosystems imitate nature: FLOOW2
FLOOW2 has been developing business-to-business sharing marketplaces since 2012. In healthcare, the platform matches supply and demand of materials, equipment, services, and staff within and between healthcare organizations, resulting in reduced waste, cost savings, and improved efficiency. Locations advertise when they have a surplus, and other sites can procure what they need.
In the beginning, this type of sharing interaction, part of the “circular economy,” was novel and relatively unknown to the mainstream market. FLOOW2 cofounder Lieke van Kerkhoven and her team dedicated themselves to the mission of spreading awareness that it would be smarter to share resources and collaborate than maintain the “everyone for themselves” mentality that has prevailed in business since the Industrial Age.
At first, the message was met with resistance, but when the 2020 pandemic crisis hit, FLOOW2 was prepared. New demands on the healthcare system left hospitals and facilities with shortages of goods, equipment, and staff. Suddenly, collaboration and transparency were the only solutions.
FLOOW2 quickly stood up a nationwide platform to enable the flow of resources between Dutch hospitals and other healthcare facilities, including long-term elderly and disability care locations that had been left out of government initiatives. On one open platform, the FLOOW2 sharing marketplace stimulated cooperation, reduced overall costs, and enabled everyone to work more sustainably.
Ecosystems are helpful in times of stability, but during times of widespread challenge, they become essential. Today, the reaction to the sharing marketplace is, “Why didn’t we have this five years ago?” Imagine Lieke’s frustration—they were doing this five years ago, before the market demanded it! But she says that frustration has turned to relief that the global mindset is shifting in favor of teaming to solve problems.
An ecosystems mindset
Sometimes it takes a global crisis to catalyze necessary change. Organizations continue to use FLOOW2’s platform solution externally and across departments to save on procurement costs and reduce their environmental impact. During the current Russia-Ukraine conflict, organizations and hospitals advertise what they need or what they can supply to deliver aid to the right people in the right places.
Shifting to an ecosystems mindset requires an internal assessment of the structures, processes, and business models that mold the behaviors in an organization. For example, the idea of a sharing marketplace can interfere with traditional procurement processes. Usually, the easiest way to buy things is through your own organization’s ordering portal, but some companies using FLOOW2 have overcome this by standing up a new process that says when you want to buy something, you must first check if a colleague or someone on the marketplace has it.
According to Lieke, “We need a spiritual redevelopment—not a religion but a departure from traditional thought systems and conventions to return to ourselves and reevaluate our relationships and our environment.”
It is through a continuous process of reflection, reassessment, and realignment that real, enduring change can occur.