Sub-theme 24: Exaptation: Creativity, Innovation and New Product-Market Creation

Gino Cattani
Stern School of Business, New York University, USA
Pierpaolo Andriani
Euromed School of Management, France

Call for Papers

"This process in which one sort of work leads to another must have happened millions of time since the whole history of human economic development" (Jacobs, 1969: 53).

Exaptation (sometimes referred to as pre-adaptation) is one of the most important and yet little studied evolutionary mechanisms in the history of species, ecosystems and technologies. Gould and Vrba (1982: 6) refer to it as "? characters, evolved for other usages (or for no function at all), and later 'coopted' for their current role". They make a distinction between adaptation, a gradual process driven by natural selection (akin to climbing a peak in a fitness landscape), and exaptation, a sudden functional change of a biological trait or technology in the absence of selective pressure.

Exaptation appears to be ubiquitous. Nearly all biological traits and many commercial products developed for particular markets and functions, began life as something different (Kauffman, 2000; Dew, Sarasvathy et al., 2004): feathers were most likely selected for thermal insulation, microwave ovens started life as radar magnetrons. As a consequence, this concept has seeped into several disciplines: in evolutionary biology, for example, the new field of niche construction (Odling-Smee, Laland et al., 2003) posits that new ecological niches start with an exaptation and (Mokyr, 1998) stresses the role of exaptation in technological change.

The main purpose of the track is to solicit contributions from researchers with diverse backgrounds and engage them in an interdisciplinary discussion on the theoretical and empirical implications of studying exaptation. The track thus constitutes a unique avenue for enhancing our understanding of exaptation not only within the context of management, but also of other social sciences (e.g., economics, sociology, public-policy, etc.).

We invite theoretical, methodological and empirical contributions that:

  • Expound on the conditions fostering the emergence of new niches/markets by bridging approaches from Evolutionary Biology, Evolutionary Economics, Complexity Theory and Management. We believe that by discovering novel associations between a function and a pre-existing technology, an exaptation event can be critical for the creation of a new niche with the potential to evolve into a new innovation space and a new technological trajectory.
  • Probe more deeply the relationship between innovation and serendipity by bridging studies on Innovation, Sociology and Business History. We believe that their integration can help better understand the environmental conditions in which exaptation events are more likely to occur and thereby enhance innovation. What are the features of these environments? Can we apply this understanding to R&D or Industrial policy?
  • Clarify the relative importance between intentional and emergent processes in the development of new technologies/products by bridging Resource- and Capability-based views of Firm Competitive Advantage, and New Product Development Studies. It is usually assumed that the development of new capabilities that underlie innovations is a gradual and planned process. Relevant evidence shows this is only part of the picture and that exaptation-based mechanisms play an important role in NPD. The issue is particularly important in R&D intensive industries, where superior performance often depends on innovation.
  • Achieve a better understanding of the relationship between networks, diversity and innovation by integrating Open Innovation, Network-based Innovation Theory and Diversity Studies. These collectively show that the success of an innovation often depends on connecting separate knowledge domains from across disparate actors, communities or social networks. By linking these different knowledge domains, unanticipated creative syntheses can be obtained and often times even prove highly consequential as they might result in the creation of new technological trajectories, markets or industries. This bears important implications also for entrepreneurship, especially recent research on effectuation as the key to entrepreneurial success.
  • Identify appropriate – and possibly widely shared – methodological approaches for studying exaptation. Although formal modelling has been used to describe the dynamic of exaptation, researchers still face the challenge of devising ad hoc research strategies for documenting and analyzing when and how exaptation occurs in real-worlds situations. Longitudinal case studies that rely on a variety of data and particularly original documents detailing, for instance, the decisions and actions of the actors involved in developing a new technology or product precisely when those decisions and actions were first taken looks a very promising research approach. But alternative approaches – e.g., lab experiments – might just as well serve the purpose of studying exaptation.



Dew, N., S.D. Sarasvathy et al. (2004): 'The economic implications of exaptation.' Journal of Evolutionary Economics, 14 (1), 69–84.
Gould, S.J. & E.S. Vrba (1982): 'Exaptation – a missing term in the science of form.' Paleobiology, 8, 4–15.
Jacobs, J. (1969): The Economies of Cities. New York: Random House.
Kauffman, S. (2000): Investigations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mokyr, J. (1998): Neither Chance nor Necessity: Evolutionary Models and Economic History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Odling-Smee, F. J., K. N. Laland, et al. (2003). Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution. Princeton, N.J, Princeton University Press.


Gino Cattani is Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at the Stern School of Business, New York University. His research focuses on creativity, innovation, and market/industry formation and evolution.
Pierpaolo Andriani is Associate Professor in Innovation and Complexity Management at Euromed Management, France. His research interests are focused on the impact of complexity theory on organizational theory, industrial clusters and innovation.