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 print ingecosystem 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.
- £D printing