Human Ecology and Service System Evolution

The human ecology is made up of nested, networked service systems (Spohrer, Piciocchi, Bassano 2012).

The evolution of service systems can be viewed as a special case of meaning-creation in sociotechnical systems evolution (Spohrer & Maglio 2008); specifically…

“IV. Research Agenda  A central problem in service science is likely to be related to understanding service system evolution. After all, service innovation—our ultimate goal—creates changes to a service system, which is made up of clients and providers co-producing value, and which has direct impact on the evolution of the system. One measure of value is as a measure of the differential between supply and demand (low supply plus high demand equals potential for high value). Specialization is one of the key mechanisms for creating value. If two entities have different abilities for achieving a goal (supply diversity), then under certain conditions they can specialize on what they do best, and create an overall increase in productivity that leads to increased profits that are then invested in new goals (demand diversity). From the provider perspective, specialization can lead to high talent, high technology, or superior environment-enabled performances for creating value. Specialization leads to the need for trusting others and coordinating activity across potentially vast networks (with or without central control). As a result, service system evolution is a special case of meaning-creation in sociotechnical system evolution in which value is one locus of meaning and design (Trist, 1981; Engelbart 1963; Simon, 1996).”

Service systems (from people to businesses to nations) can be approximated as physical-symbol-systems because human’s are a symbolic species in which our brains and language co-evolved, and businesses and nations use contracts and written law to govern their interactions.

Therefore, the “process of valuing” that service systems engage in when they create, offer, and negotiate value propositions with each other can be viewed as a type of sensemaking or process of giving meaning to experience.

Sensemaking is about co-creating meaning.  Service science is about co-creating value, and ultimately co-elevating capabilities along the way.
Finding “worthy objectives” becomes harder and harder as capabilities increase.     Should we “colonize Mars” or “end hunger” or “build starships” – or what?

People try to stay in flow (optimal experience) by balancing routine and challenge;  too much routine leads to boredom, and too much challenge leads to anxiety.

Parents try to keep their “learners/children” in the zone of proximal development.

Businesses try to remain ambidextrous organizations that can balance exploitation (profitable routine) and exploration (innovation options), which is a type of organizational learning.

Some even see all complex learning systems as balancing on the edge of order and chaos.

In short, because people use symbols (language) to negotiate meaning (including worthy shared objectives) and to negotiate value-cocreation opportunities, service system evolution is shaped by symbols and the meaning we give them.

Knowledge (symbols in people) has the potential to create value through service – the application of knowledge for the benefit of others.   Knowledge that has the potential to create value,  but remains under-utilized or un-utilized is a type of waste.   Knowledge that is only slowly used to create value, instead of being rapidly put to work to create value is another type of waste.   Service science studies past, present, and possible future service systems, and the speed at which they can create new knowledge (meaning, co-elevation) and rapidly apply that new knowledge to co-create value.

Spohrer, J, P Piciocchi, C Bassano (2012).Three Frameworks for Service Research: Exploring Multilevel Governance in Nested, Networked Systems. Service Science. 4(2) 147-160.

Spohrer, J. and Maglio, P. P. (2008) The emergence of service science: Toward systematic service innovations to accelerate co-creation of value. Production and Operations Management 17(3), 1–9.

Additional Reading
Trist on the evolution of socio-technical systems

Mumford on socio-technical system design

Bonen on complex socio-technical system behavior


  1. My understanding is that socio-technical systems are very broad and include “leaf-cutter ants” …

    “human-socio-technical systems” or what Amos Hawley calls “Human Ecology” is closer to what service systems are…

    So the type of system known as “service-system” is in my mind a subset of the type of system known as “human-socio-technical-system”

    Service systems come in two types — informal and formal. Put simply, informal use promises & norms and formal use contracts & laws. For example, inside the family we tend to use promises & norms, and in the business and international worlds we tend to use contracts & laws. However, they inter-penetrate — family life is subject to contracts & laws, and business and government are full of promises and norms… so it is a bit more complicated than simple sets and subsets…

    There are many paths for socio-technical systems to evolve into service-systems. Service system evolution is a subtype of socio-technical system evolution, where symbols first unwritten and then written become more and more important in guiding and shaping evolution of service system entities (structure) and forms of interactions. Today, social media takes that shaping to a new level with Twitter and the like…

    Service system evolution really took off when cities formed (more opportunity for division-of-labor and specialization) and then really, really took off when writing, written laws, and coins (money) became common – as these allowed symbols to pass beyond one generation of people into a new generation of people in a more formal and tangible manner. The symbol systems that allow for the rapid evolution of technologies like burning coal and metal valves for the first steam-engines and then documents and transitors for the first search-engines further spurs the use of symbols in both service system and socio-technical system evolution. Academic disciplines can be thought of as the owners of symbols that can be applied to create value (change in the world that stakeholders prefer to as-is world).

    Symbols are very important in socio-technical system evolution and service-system evolution. Written contracts (accounting) and laws mark the beginning for formal service systems, and the rapid evolution of modern service system entities (from people to businesses to nations). From the spoken-commands of clan leaders to the written-laws of today’s society, rule innovation and technology innovation co-evolve as service systems are a type of physical-symbol-system as well as a type of socio-technical system.

  2. The gist is that people use symbols — we use symbols a lot to both negotiate meaning (knowledge-cocreation, sensemaking) and to negotiate value-proposition-based interactions (value-cocreation, purposemaking) – it is in this way that symbols impact the evolution of service systems. Service science studies the past, present, and possible futures of service systems – and even more and more we study the possible pasts – how history might have evolved, if the sequence of symbols had been different (e.g., what if photovoltaics had been perfected before steam engines, how would service system evolution have been different). For example, the challenge of rapidly rebuilding society:

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