By Tiago Moreira

In 2015, I received an email from Margarita Staykova, from the Physics Department, asking me whether I would be interested in providing some training in ‘responsible research and innovation’ in the EPSRC Soft Matter and Functional Interfaces Doctoral training Centre. Margarita had asked Phil Macnaghten, one of the authors of the RRI framework favoured by the EPSRC (Stilgoe, Owen and Macnaghten, 2013), to suggest a social scientist in the university who he thought might want to help her provide this training. Luckily, he suggested my name.

Margarita and I were both new to this type of multidisciplinary teaching, but both had experience of working across disciplinary boundaries in research, her having worked with social scientists in one RRI project (REF) and myself having worked with biomedical scientists (Moreira et al, 2009). Soon it became clear that the main challenge was not working across disciplinary ways of thinking and doing things, but instead that there was a lack of research on soft matter in society. Most of the examples we could draw upon to engage students with the concept and techniques used in RRI, were cases where innovation had become controversial, i.e. cases where involvement of stakeholders and publics could have anticipated the trouble technologies had come to encounter. These examples came mainly from other fields of research, and spoke to students more as citizens than researchers.

Soft mater is a ubiquitous but somewhat invisible part of contemporary social and cultural life. How many of us realise that as car components, toiletries and medicines, all manner of plastics, cleaning materials as well as food are the result of soft matter research and innovation?  In addition, there also is a lack of understanding, in research and practice, about how to apply RRI to the area of soft matter. Soon we realised this was a unique opportunity.

Margarita was beginning to be interested in working in area that focuses on materials that are at the boundary between the biological and the physical, and which have the potential to respond and adapt to use – living materials. This led to developing a project with Wilson Poon (U Edinburgh), to  explore novel ways to organize and pattern living cells, by creating biohybrid systems that can move, sense and respond to stimuli by employing the sensory and motility apparatus of bacteria. On the other hand, I had a long standing interest, stemming from work in science and technology studies, anthropology and design, in understanding materiality and the role of objects in social and cultural life. In an ongoing project, I had become interested in how linear models of innovation might restrict the openness of knowledge making in cell biology. Alternatively, we might want to also use what Felt and colleagues (2007) have called ‘collective experimentation’, where a continuous engagement between scientists and interested groups in society can lead to anticipating and reflecting on futures uses of innovation.

It was from this confluence of interests that the Material Imagination project slowly emerged between 2016-17. We want to explore how opening the research at an early stage, and building collaboration on imaginative practices of scientists, artists and other stakeholders, can enrich the directions of research and future applications of living materials.