By Torben Elgaard Jensen

When Margarita and Tiago invited me to join the Material Imagination project I was more than delighted and accepted without much hesitation. As an STS researcher, I have studied and worked with many aspects of the relations between science, technology and society: The involvement of users in design, the engagement of publics in discussions about science, the efforts organizations make to facilitate innovation. In my mind, all of these themes and topics resonate well with the Material Imagination project. But the Material Imagination project is also very different from anything I have worked with before. Material science is an immensely resourceful and creative field, but as of yet it has no standard formats for how to engage and collaborate with external stakeholders. The Material Imagination project is therefore a step into the unknown. What Margarita and Tiago have planned is a bold team effort to develop and test a new model of open innovation in a field where this has not been attempted before. I look very much forward to being part of that event and experiment.

In the back of my mind, I have begun to think about what I, as a Scandinavian STS researcher, might bring to the project when I arrive in Durham in January. So far, I have three items on my packing list: Two ideas and one physical item.

The first idea is a long-standing intuition that I take with me from the field of STS. When STS was first developed in the 1970’s it was commonly believed that the results of science could be attributed to unique cognitive capacities of scientists. Among philosophers of science there was much talk of ‘scientific rationality’, ‘scientific imagination’ or ‘scientific genius’, all of which supposedly was entirely different from the thinking of common people. STS was always very skeptical of such ideas. So rather than believing in super-brains or super-humans, STS researchers visited the labs and used ethnographic methods to investigate the practical circumstances of science; the laboratory practices, the instruments, the paper trails, the investments, and the ways scientific debates were opened and closed. STS researchers found that scientific results, creativity and knowledge was much better explained by the material circumstances and processes than by speculative ideas about a peculiar set of cognitive processes that would be unique to scientists. On the contrary, all the capacities and creativities of labs are derived from the whole package of resources, people, instruments, and elaborate relationships to other labs past and present. I have taken this STS lesson to heart. When thinking about the imaginative potentials of material science, I am convinced that the imagination we are interested in and want to engage external stakeholders with, is profoundly tied to the practical circumstances, such as the specific ways in which materials can be visualized, manipulated and combined. So for this reason, I very much like the title of the project: Material Imagination. To me, this suggests not only imagination about new materials, but also the materiality of imagination. 

The second idea on my packing list for Durham is derived from the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design. In the 1970’s and 80’s a range of new technologies were introduced in Scandinavian production companies, and the labour unions were alarmed that the workers’ jobs might become de-skilled, trivialized and lesser-paid while smart machines would take the center stage. First, the unions tried to block the new technologies tout court. That failed. Then they changed their tactics and tried to get a say in the specific configurations of the new production technologies. This led to projects where designers and factory workers came together to discuss possible technological futures, such as the specific configuration of machines and workflows between machines on the factory floor. In these projects, the designers realized that their architectural drawings were fairly incomprehensible to others, and the workers realized that their intimate and partially tacit knowledge about the production processes were difficult to bring to the table and into the discussions. What emerged out of this was a series of new workshop formats and materials that could facilitate collaboration. Simple mock-ups made out of easily manipulable materials such as card board boxes and Lego bricks were used to create situations, where different people could conduct hands-on discussions about possible technological futures. This was the beginning of the Scandinavian tradition for user-involvement and participatory design. The key idea, that we might take from this, is that collaborations crucially depends on the invention of new formats and the use of practical materials that we can think and work through, together. These materials may often be simple, and they may often be custom-made. In the Material Imagination project, we will also develop and test collaboration tools. I look very much forward to working on this with the other participants.

And the third item on my list? I will surely bring a thick, warm sweater. Not only will it keep me warm in the English winter, it will also make me look like a character in ‘The Killing’ or some other Nordic Noir TV-series – hence making me recognizable as the Scandinavian fellow in the project.