What do feathers and microwave ovens have in common?

March 27, 2008

Nearly all biological traits and many products for particular markets and functions, began life as something different. Feathers were selected for thermal insulation, microwave ovens started life as radar magnetrons and gin&tonic was a concoction to mask the unacceptable quinine taste to British troups in India. The analysis of history of technology and biological evolutions shows that at the root of any adaptive trajectory it is usual for a structure to have been subverted – perverted –from a different function (Gould and Vrba called it “exaptation”). I did a quick review of 19th century innovations and found that about 30% (the real number is likely to be higher) of innovations have an exaptational origin.

Generally exaptation has been regarded as contingent, serendipitous. But, if, as we think, there are regularities, if not rules, then the question becomes: can we exploit these regularities to improve innovation?

At the heart of the innovative potential of exaptation is the indefinite – rarely made explicit – range of potential functions of existing objects: “At the end of its production a US master sergeant wrote nostalgically of its uses: as seat, pillow, washbasin, cooking pot, nutcracker, tent-peg pounder, wheel chock, and even – with the explosive from an userviceable Claymore mine – popcorn popper.” (Tenner, 2004: 253). What was this? The American army helmet.

Innovation-by-‘progressive’ adaptation, or the Market-pull model of innovation, is what traditional business schools, and ‘adaptive radiation’ biologists, teach. This is bland, uninteresting, and very incremental. Innovation-by-exaptation is different because the unforeseen connection between an existing tool and a new function (for which the tool was not designed for) creates the new phase space (the microwave industry sector was created by the serendipitous melting of peanut butter in Dr. Spencer’s pocket whilst working on a magnetron in 1946).

For a jump to new function, there must be permissive contexts that create effective bridges between old tools and new functions. Perhaps there are driving contexts, contexts that encourage contiguity of form and function, so that exaptation is promoted. Here the bio literature helps: Ecosystem engineering (Jones et al., 1994), niche constructionism (Odling-Smee et al., 2003) and external physiology (Turner, 2002) all show how new feedbacks between organismal traits and meta-environmental factors appear. The earthworm I cited in my previous blog is a classic example. Such niche construction ‘engineer’ species build their own environment by ‘perverting’ environmental factors, they hijack external fluxes of ‘energy’, which they use to build new niches, thereby changing their selective trajectory – and everybody else’s! Niche construction (like the creation of new industrial niche/sectors) starts with an exaptation, then evolves/adapts into a locked dance between the two pairs: exaptation/adaptation and organism/environment (or goods/market: think automobiles/gas stations or mobile phones/towers).

What properties of the context are permissive for exaptations? Clearly, a sparse, almost uninhabited region of phase space has few opportunities for the contiguities necessary to establish functional bridges among tools, technologies or indeed species. Exposure to new contexts (projects) favours translation of tools into new functions (‘horizontal’ exaptation), whereas cooptation of tool modules into new architectures (‘vertical’ exaptation) generates new technological families.

We claim that network-based recombinant environments, like the Silicon Valleys, the Cities, and the industrial clusters of the world, are so innovative because they exploit the power of exaptation.

To conclude: how many academic articles do you know that discuss innovation as exaptation?

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