Exaptation in a digital innovation ecosystem: The disruptive impacts of 3D printing

Ahmad Beltagui, Ainurul Rosli, Marina Candi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This research investigates disruptive innovation through the under-explored relationship between two ecological concepts, exaptation and ecosystems. Exaptation-driven innovation involves exploiting unintended latent functions of pre-existing technologies. Digital innovation ecosystems account for industry-spanning co-operative and competitive dynamics among firms related to innovations that combine physical and digital elements, such as 3D printing. In this work the evolution of the 3D printing ecosystem is traced over four decades, from the first patents—presented as exaptation-driven innovations—to the present threat of disruption to established manufacturing. Through a longitudinal narrative study of the formation and growth of this ecosystem, a four-phase process model is developed. This addresses gaps in the exaptation and disruptive innovation literatures with respect to innovation ecosystems. The implications for theory are that disruption requires an appropriate supporting ecosystem, but ecosystems take on a life of their own, so cultivating a healthy ecosystem means sowing the seeds of disruption within that ecosystem. For practice, this research highlights the managerial challenges of predicting disruption by exaptation-driven innovations and the constant competition for niches within ecosystems. For policy, it outlines implications concerning how best to support new innovation ecosystems and cultivate exaptation opportunities.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103833
JournalResearch policy
Issue number1
Early online date26 Aug 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2020

Bibliographical note

© 2019, Elsevier. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/


  • 3D printing
  • Digital
  • Disruption
  • Ecosystem
  • Exaptation
  • Modularity


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