Exaptation is Not a One Step Process for Innovation

Showing exaptations are a part of all innovation

Exaptation is not the one-step process of an accident producing a eureka moment that it is so often portrayed as…

Exaptation in business is a critical process in and of the innovation processes by which the new emerges.

Definition of Exaptation

What is exaptation? A simple way to define exaptation is: It is the process by which things with one function or even no function are co-opted for a different or new function. It takes many distinct forms and has many variations.

Exaptation for Business

Originally a concept developed in the field of evolutionary biology, it has over the last 20 plus years become seen as relevant to all forms of innovation, including, or perhaps especially, human innovation processes. There is a developing argument that exaptative processes participate in all human innovation in one way or another.

As the process of exaptation has becomes more well known in the world of human creativity and innovation circles we now hear the same stories repeated: first it is the dinosaur becoming a bird by co-opting feathers developed for thermoregulation to fly, then the story of radar melting a chocolate bar leading to the microwave or mold growing in accidentally left out Petri dishes leading to modern antibiotics.

These examples of exaptation in business are told as if what occurred was a simple one-off moment of ideation because of some chance event.

And they mirror the reduction of the evolutionary story to a roughly one-off event (dinosaurs have big feathers because of thermoregulation and they start leaping — soon they are flying…)

What we see is an innovation narrative where the innovation process becomes one of just adding a one-off unintended event to the beginning of the ideation process. And that in the ideation process this co-opted purpose is magically recognized for what it is — the new purpose. Then a plan is realized and before you know it we have a microwave oven.

But this narrative is just a retelling of the highly flawed “god model” (ideate, plan, make) of innovation. The god model is an illusion — it does not work, and simply adding exaptation as a one-off event to the beginning of this does not make it work any better — more importantly nor does it reflect what happens in exaptive processes.

Exaptative processes are far richer than this. There is much to explore and experiment with. We have been exploring exaptive design approaches for over twenty years (but are by no means experts) and are really curious about other people's explorations, experimentations, applications and research of exaptation.

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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