Patterns of Innovation: How Exaptation Can Lead to Creative Breakthroughs

Micaela Tam

Why do birds have feathers? Though feathers are essential to bird flight, they were not originally intended for this function. The Anchiornis, a dinosaur ancestor of modern birds, had a great amount of feathers. But unlike the asymmetrical shaped feathers of modern flying birds, those of the Anchiornis were symmetrical and therefore too weak to enable flight. Most likely, plumage provided insulation or acted as a visual mating signal.

The evolution of the function of bird feathers for flight is a great example of exaptation, or the co-opting/borrowing of old parts for a new function. This is different from adaptation, which accounts for a trait produced by natural selection for its current function. Another example of bird flight made possible by exaptation is seen in the wrist bones of the Anchiornis. Because the Anchiornis had such a large amount of plumage, its wrist bone was wedge shaped to prevent feathers from dragging across the ground. Now, modern birds now use a similar bone, but for a different function: to draw their wings up during flight. Evolutionary biologists have speculated that bird flight was made possible by many such exaptations that spanned across millions of years.

Termed by Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba in 1982, exaptation is not restricted to just evolutionary biology: it describes a process that extends, for example, to technological progress.

Many scholars have drawn inspiration from the theory of exaptation and have published articles on the process of exaptation but in the context of technological change. Gutenberg co-opted the wine press for the printing press. Corning Inc., originally named Corning Glass Works, used its long-standing expertise and innovations in glass technologies to produce pioneering research in fibre optics, which changed the world of telecommunications. Joseph Lister, the father of modern surgery, exapted carbolic acid (at the time used for treating sewage) for a new function, antisepsis, which reduced post-surgery mortality from 40% to 15%. You get the gist.

The theory of exaptation provides valuable insight into the patterns of innovation. Paired with the idea of combinatorial innovation, exaptation demonstrates how the combination of many components of different functions can lead to creative breakthroughs over time. Exaptation reminds us to open up our minds, to not be shortsighted. Progress does not always occur because of the constant betterment of already existing functions, and the most revolutionary changes rely on the creativity to reimagine the possibilities and produce what was once unthinkable. As Jeff Bezos puts it, “Every new thing creates two new questions and two new opportunities.” The sharing of ideas in networks with actors from various sectors unlocks the potential for innovation. This could be the secret to making multi-sector partnerships so powerful and sustainable. It’s a matter of taking advantage of the resources that we have to go beyond boundaries.

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