Exaptation as a way to innovate

David Alayón
Jan 18, 2021 · 3 min read
Photo by @Calebminear

Language creates reality and at a time when we are all connected, certain terms become buzzwords very quickly. In the world of innovation and strategic foresight we can find VUCA, resilience or even antifragility, systems thinking, problem solving, transformation or adaptation. The thing is that I’m finding in different places with very interesting people like Daniel C. Dennett or Dave Snowden, a word that I think could become one of those in the next few years: exaptation.

Exaptation is a term that comes from biology and was first used in 1982 in an article by Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba entitled: “Exaptation — a missing term in the science of form”. It refers to a characteristic of an organism that originally evolved as a trait that provides adaptation to certain conditions, and once it’s consolidated it begins to be used for another purpose, most of the time not related at all to its original purpose.

We can find many cases: originally the ear of vertebrates appeared as a residual result of a structure destined to suck water towards the gills without opening the mouth; the feathers of birds, originated by the branching of the body “hairs” (protofeathers) of theropod dinosaurs as means to maintain body temperature, then they became key in flight; or the false thumb of the red panda (ailurus fulgens) emerged for a more effective displacement through the trees, and now they use it to manipulate bamboo.

What relationship do you think this has with innovation, institutions, companies and governments, and the VUCA context in which we live? Although in nature, exaptation takes millions of years to occur, consolidating a trait and giving it another use, the times of consolidation of “something” in companies, institutions and governments are much faster. In fact, all the machinery that surrounds any organization is based on standardization to last as long as possible.

But we live in the era of adaptation, we have to be liquid, navigate the tsunamis of uncertainty, be in constant change… What happens then with all the assets that large organizations have (material and immaterial) in this process of adaptation? This is where exaptation comes in.

One way to approach innovation could be to analyze and look at all the assets of a company, institution or government, and innovate by giving them a different purpose than they originally had. In this way we do not discard, we reuse, it would be a full-circular innovation process! Very much in line with the foundations of social innovation.

If we digitize, what do we do with the physical stores we have? If we automate these functions, what do we do with the people who perform these jobs? If we launch a new product, what do we do with the infrastructure of the previous one?

Obviously there are many “assets” that are not worth evolving and will be left behind by natural selection, but others will be able to take advantage of exaptation, reinventing their use so that it makes sense in the new context.

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