Pierpaolo Andriani (PhD Durham University) is Professor in complexity and innovation management at Kedge Business School, France. He got his BA/MSc in physics. He started his career as a scientist in industrial R&D in Italy, as a project manager for various European research and development projects in the laser industry. He then moved to academia and received a Ph.D. in the social sciences from Durham University, United Kingdom. His research interests are focused on the impact of complexity and evolutionary theory on innovation.
Exaptation, the emergence of latent functionality in existing artifacts, is an underexplored mechanism of novelty generation in innovation. Several key discoveries in the history of science and innovation were the result of the often serendipitous emergence of new functions in existing artifacts when exposed to new contexts. Just to cite one, the drug Marsilid originally designed to fight tuberculosis happened to greatly improve the mood of the patients taking it and became the first anti-depressant. This observation led to a paradigm change in our understanding of mental health―depression could be treated with synthetic chemicals―and to the establishment of a new field in the pharmaceutical industry. Exaptation thus constitutes a mechanism through which unexpected solutions ‘push’ the emergence of novel problems, instead of being ‘pulled’ from ex-ante problem formulation and search. To date, however, no study has quantified the frequency and impact of exaptation in innovation and assessed its role as an emergent mechanism of opportunity discovery. We offer the first measure of the frequency of exaptation in the pharmaceutical industry and speculate about the reasons behind exaptive discovery. We propose that exaptive innovation constitutes a different search mechanism and problem-solving approach from deliberate innovation.