The Material Imagination project captured my attention from the first time that I heard about it nearly two years ago in February 2018. My interest in the project is myriad, mapping onto my many identities as a scholar with an interdisciplinary background in communication and policy working in a professional design school.
First, as a social scientist, I am excited by the idea of understanding the ways in which the future is constructed and imagined by scientists working on soft matter physics. This allows me to extend my previous work on digital technologies into the realm of living materials, biomaterials and biohybrids. In the past, I have studied the materialities, imaginaries and futures of socio-technical systems such as autonomous vehicles and smart cities; 3D printing, local manufacturing and innovation ecosystems; automation, distributed labor practices and the future of work; and, computational fashion, smart textiles and wearable medical technologies. And, digital technologies and living materials are not as disconnected as one might think. For example, algorithms are currently being used to identify all of the possible combinations of materials in a wide range of fields.
Second, as a design researcher, I am interested in the domain of living materials as an area in which what I call critical futures — drawing on participatory design and speculative design — can be explored in order to support open and responsible innovation. Critical futures bring together critical theory from the social sciences and humanities with generative methodologies from the field of design. I am particularly interested in the way in which concepts from feminist theory, critical race theory, disability theory, theories around decolonization and multispecies theory might inform an imagining of alternative possible futures in the field of soft matter. I’m inspired by the ways in which soft matter can be itself considered as a design material as well as the ways in which bringing these processes to life through other kinds of representations and embodiments such as images, models and prototypes can be useful for thinking about the future of this emerging area of research. I’m also excited about the generative and liberatory potential of creating narratives in the genre of science fiction, feminist fabulation and Afrofuturism.
Third, since my early days of graduate school, I have participated in wide range of policy-related projects and forums. With soft matter physics, there is an opportunity to begin to shape the ways in which this emerging field is developed and regulated. Finally, I am excited to collaborate with an interdisciplinary team of physicists, sociologists, artists and designers in Durham — which feels a little bit like my hometown Ithaca, New York — a small, beautiful, hilly town with a large research university.