Interview with Lift France Speaker Pierpaolo Andriani

Sep. 25, 2013

Pierpaolo Andriani will build upon his research on "non-linear innovation" in order to help us reflect on the possible futures of the "Makers" movement: Can we get rid of economies of scale? Are we headed towards "niches of 1" products? What new species of players (and of objects) might emerge from such a landscape? Who stands to gain, and to lose?


Pierpaolo, who are you and what do you do?

I come from physics, laser physics, a field where i did R&D for several years. Then I moved to Britain to do an MBA and decided to study innovation, mostly from a social viewpoint. I became a lecturer and a researcher in that area. 2 years ago i moved to Marseille to work with Euromed Management, which has now become Kedge Business School.


Tell us a bit about one of your latest projects your were working on.

I've been working for some time on exaptation, which is a word that describes the changing functions of an existing object. As an example, the role of feathers was for thermal regulation and only later they became coopted for flight; the microwave oven appeared when an engineer realized that a subsystem of a radar, called the magnetron, could cook food. In fact in the Netherlands microwave ovens are still called magnetrons.

My research questions are: Is this important in technology? Is this pervasive? Do we need to modify the way we do R&D in order to make space for this? Do we really invent things or do we just "discover" the hidden properties of things and then transfer technologies from one domain to another?

Recently I have discovered that the field of pharmacology is full of exaptations. I can’t attach a number but it seems that a large part of innovations happens in this way. I think I can show that the origin of modern pharmacology industry and the modern organic chemistry industry both comes from the exaptation of the coal tar, which was a byproduct of the pyrolisis of coal. At the beginning coal tar was thrown away. And then it was exapted in the first artificial dye, from which the modern chemical industry evolved. And then dyes were exapted into staining agents for microbiology and then into drugs, actually they were the first fully syntethic drugs.

My objective is to demonstrate the frequency of exaptation, not only to understand it, but also to measure its importance and to figure how this understanding should inform R&D and innovation strategies.


What recent change, technological or social, were you surprised by? Why?

The long tail surprised me in many ways. I come from complexity theory, where we like to look at extreme events, "black swans". When Chris Anderson published The Long Tail, i told myself I had been a complete idiot. While we focused on the low frequency/high impact tail, Anderson showed us that there was so much more to see on the opposite tail, the high frequency/low impact one.

The makers movement is a wonderful extension of that same, simple idea: democratizing the tools of production in manufacturing will open a long tail dynamics in manufacturing. As Chris Anderson says, the long tail of bits and the long tail of atoms. The result will be a ‘Cambrian’ explosion of diversity.


What do you do to disconnect?

I have to admit i don't. My job is about reading, writing and interacting with people.  I love this stuff so much that i don't see the need to disconnect.


Thank you Pierpaolo, we are looking forward very much to learning more about your fascinating projects at Lift with Fing in October!