Innovation through Exaptation

John Tropea made an interesting comment on twitter about one of my recent posts – asking how the idea of exaptation might be used to get our innovative ideas to spread through the network economy. This is a superb question, and well worth investigating (John’s blog is fantastic, by the way, and you should check it out).

First off, what is exaptation? It is a term from evolutionary theory that refers to shifting the function of a trait over time. An example of exaptation is bird feathers – their original purpose was to regulate temperature, but over time they were used to aid flight. Exaptation is a co-evolutionary process and is one of the ways that complex structures come to exist.

What does this have to do with innovation? Quite a bit, actually. One of the widely acknowledged characteristics of innovation is that the inventor often doesn’t know what the invention is for – the actual function of the innovation is discovered in use. John linked to a nice blog post by my friend Pierpaolo Andriani. In it, he talks about the introduction of micro-projectors.

Often when new things are introduced, everyone thinks that they will end up doing whatever people are currently doing, just slightly differently. Pierpaolo suggests that this is shortsighted, and that it is likely that micro-projectors will actually end up being used in some completely unanticipated way. He ties this in to Clayton Christensen’s ideas about disruptive innovation, and he says:

The take-home message is that disruptions are often preceded by a process of application discovery: underperforming technologies survive by creating new niches based on new non-competitive applications. How are the new applications discovered? Well, once prototypes are set free in the market, they will link with the nearly infinite universe of idiosyncratic needs, contexts, wants and combinatorial imagination of users out there. The co-evolutionary process between prototypes and users creates the new application space, it makes the rules of the game as it goes along.

So what’s likely to happen with the micro-projectors? That depends on another set of questions? Is the microprojector an underperforming technology? Is it disruptive? Is it going to be exapted into something else? If scaling down causes a change in the way projectors are used, then a microprojector might become something very different from a conventional projector. If this happens, then the last to know (what may happen) will be the experts!

If I were in charge of the development and commercialisation of microprojectors, I’d rather give a number of them to a group of highly diverse (cognitively diverse, á la Scott Page) group of people and invite them to play with the microprojectors, link with existing technologies, invent new behaviours (that the MP enables), form communities around the new behaviours, etc. In other words ‘exapt’ the microprojector!

This is a great example of the way that innovation works. In many cases, the final use of a new innovation ends up being completely different from what it was originally intended to do. A good example of this comes from a firm with whom John and I have done a fair bit of work – GroundProbe. Their technology is radar equipment that works with an extremely high degree of precision over a relatively short range. Originally, they thought that this would be very useful for locating pipes and underground power cables when people were digging things up – hence the name GroundProbe.

However, once the technology was brought to market, people were less enthusiastic for this service than expected. After quite a bit of experimentation, GroundProbe found several other uses for their technology. One of these was using the radar to monitor the stability of rock walls in mines. Wall collapses at a mine are extremely dangerous, and often very costly as well. These collapses are preceded by small changes in the face of the wall, and these changes can be detected by GroundProbe’s radar. Consequently, this technology can be used to evacuate a site before a wall collapse, and sometimes it can provide enough advance warning that the rock wall can be reinforced, avoiding the collapse altogether.

This is an exaptation. Pierpaolo’s example shows how we can use our networks to facilitate exaptation. This is one of the things that makes open innovation so powerful – it is a great way to find the diverse set of potential users. Doing this will make us more effective innovators – by finding the best possible function for our innovation through experimentation in use. You can improve innovation by pro-actively taking advantage of exaptation.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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7 thoughts on “Innovation through Exaptation

  1. Is there not then an issue around having to refine the product so it works for this new task?. Issues around Intellectual Property etc etc. I’m reminded of the story (possibly apocraphyl) of Avon discovering that one of its cosmetics was being bought in huge numbers by fishermen who had discovered by accident that it was a great mosquito repellent. There were, Avon thought, rather unpleasant brand-tarnishing implications.

    (One of my favourite words is ‘kludge’ – a wheel made of bricks)

  2. Thanks very much Tim, that’s a very helpful post. Have added this blog to my Google Reader, and doubtless will be taking up more of your literal and metaphorical bandwidth in the future!

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