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Old rusty horseshoe, repurposed to hold a wooden bar used to close a rudimental gate, in a rural area in the Italian North-Western Alps (note: bramble stem visible in the background)

Exaptation, also radical repurposing, is the taking of an idea, concept, tool, method, framework, etc., intended to address one thing, and using it to address a different thing, often in another domain.


The term "exaptation" was proposed by Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba in 1982. It describes a shift in the function of a trait during evolution.

The term is frequently used by (Andrews et al. 2002, Buller 2005, 84) in evolutionary psychology, whereby “exaptation” is understood as follows: “T is exaptation if and only if T is now adaptive for F, and (a) T was selected for F’ (where F and F’ are different), or (b) T is a by-product of a different adaptation T”.

Human beings appear to be quite effective in radical repurposing of things. In particular, abstraction, and the ability of observing a system from different perspectives and at different levels of granularity are key human skills here. This is usually true, though, only when adequate conditions exist, such as when the completion of a task is required under time pressure, or in the occurrence of an emergency or a crisis. By contrast, inattentional blindness can limit the individual capacity for exaptation.

The conditions for human-driven exaptation can be artificially created through the application of appropriate methods and the use of adequate tools. This is particularly useful in the pursuit of innovation. It is the case, for example, of the Exaptive triggers method.


  • Biology and evolution
    • Cerebellum evolution in higher apes to manipulate muscles in fingers and subsequent exaptation in humans to manage grammar in language
    • Dendronization [1] in plants that evolved to produce wood
    • Feathered dinosaurs evolving into birds
  • Business and technology
    • Microwave ovens
    • IBM's 18th century punchcard repurposing for data processing
  • Pharma, health, and medical care
    • Snorkeling masks repurposed as oxygen masks during the Covid-19 crisis
    • Cardiological product side-effects exapted into a new medicine
  • Russian invasion of Ukraine 2022
    • A Ukrainian web app designed for use for transport, parking and paying utility bills has been repurposed to warn of air raids, and directs people to bomb shelters. [2]
    • AirBnB is used to get money directly to residents of Ukraine [3]
  • Miscellaneaous
    • Plastic bags to wrap cars during floods in Thailand

Types of exaptation in organisations

In organisations exaptation is a process that repurposes or redesign existing resources. Three types of organisational exaptation can be found in the Field Guide for managing in complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis:

  • Stress-based exaptation or extreme repurposing: an unexpected process forced by chaos and crisis, to bring stability and limit catastrophic effects.
  • Stimulated exaptation or the design of radical innovation: a voluntary excursion into chaos or the liminal area between chaos and complexity in the Cynefin framework, reframing the problem space and challenging the norm.
  • Dispositional exaptation and the design of strategic initiatives: a consolidation of practice and design of capabilities to collect and connect knowledge, and capabilities to inform strategic monitoring and decisions.

More available on the methods for the above in the exposition of the Exapt phase of managing in complexity (and chaos) in crisis.

Supporting artefacts

Any training material, posters and like with links to where they can be acquired







Articles and books

  • Oliver Schlaudt, Exaptation in the Co-evolution of Technology and Mind: New Perspectives from Some Old Literature, Springer (May 27, 2022), "The term exaptation, describing the phenomenon that an existing trait or tool proves to be of new adaptive value in a new context, is flourishing in recent literature from cultural evolution and cognitive archaeology. Yet there also exists an older literature from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which studied more or less systematically the phenomenon of “change of function” in culture and tool use. Michel Foucault and Ludwig Noiré, who devoted themselves to the history of social institutions and material tools, respectively, occupy an important place among them. This article offers a brief overview of this literature and attempts to show that it provided ideas that remain relevant to current approaches to cognitive archaeology, in particular regarding attempts to understand the impact of technological evolution on the human mind."
  • Snowden, D. and Rancati, A., Managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis. A field guide for decision makers inspired by the Cynefin® framework, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2020, JRC123629
  • Cattani, Gino & Andriani, Pierpaolo. (2016). Exaptation as source of creativity, innovation, and diversity: introduction to the Special Section. Industrial and Corporate Change. 25. 115-131.
  • Andrews P., Gangestad S., and Mathews D., (2002) “Adaptionism - How to carry out an Exaptionist program “ Behavioural and Brain Sciences 25: 489-553
  • Gould, Stephen Jay; Vrba, Elisabeth S. (1982). "Exaptation — a missing term in the science of form". Paleobiology. 8 (1): 4–15.
  • Cristoforo Armeno (1557) Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo, Per opra di M. Christoforo Armeno dalla Persiana nell'Italiana lingua trapportato. Venezia, Michele Tramezzino.

Blog posts


Link to case articles here or third party material

Other references

  1. https://eukaryotewritesblog.com/2021/05/02/theres-no-such-thing-as-a-tree/ "To abstract a little more, there is a common and useful structure in herbaceous plants that, when slightly tweaked, “dendronizes” them into woody plants."
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/15/kyiv-transport-app-is-transformed-into-life-saving-war-information-tool "Kyiv transport app is transformed into life-saving war information tool"
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/mar/03/ukraine-airbnbs-booked-in-effort-to-get-money-to-residents-pay-not-stay "Ukraine Airbnbs receive bookings in effort to get money to residents"