Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Material imagination


The recent advances in genetic engineering and material science provide a unique opportunity to create materials that fuse the intelligence of living organisms and the robustness and designability of non-living matter. Such “living” materials provide us with the opportunity to redefine our relation to and use of materials, i.e. by replacing the traditional pre-programmed materials with ones that “grow” and adapt into their application. The research on smart living materials is still in its pioneering phase and the vision for their application is not completely ripe; living materials are too advanced for the established health and engineering industries, but very versatile and potentially impactful to be neglected.

The aim of this project is to investigate whether it is possible to apply a specific approach to ‘open innovation’ – participatory design - in research on living materials by engaging a variety of stakeholders in their co-creation and in shaping their future applications. It does so by combining a collaborative physics project on fusing living bacteria with artificial membranes, science and technology studies’ work on Responsible Research and Innovation and public engagement, and insights from arts and humanities on creativity and public engagement.

Term: Epiphany 2020

Principal Investigator: Professor Tiago Moreira, Professor, Department of Sociology, tiago.moreira@durham.ac.uk

Principal Investigator: Dr Margarita Staykova, Assistant professor, Department of Physics, margarita.staykova@durham.ac.uk

Project Description


Living materials is an emerging subfield of materials research that focuses on the development and characterization of materials, which fuse living organisms with non-living matter. Such materials can organically grow into their application and improve their efficiency, by continuously adapting their properties and function in response to environmental factors, and by their ability to take and execute decisions. Research on living materials is in its very early stages and as such does not have immediate applications. However it has a huge potential to impact our use of materials and relationship with them.

To channel this potential in a meaningful and responsible direction, we propose to engage a variety of stakeholders in the co-creation of living materials and in shaping their future applications. Such ‘open innovation’ approach is strongly encouraged by the current innovation policies of RC-UK and ERC, as a mean to address more adequately societal needs, share benefits and concerns. Examples of its application, especially within the material sciences, remain however very limited.

To put ideas into practice, we will work with a new research project that proposes to fuse living bacteria with non-living artificial membranes. The project is developed jointly between two physicists, Dr Margarita Staykova and Professor Wilson Poon (University of Edinburgh) and aims to explore novel ways to organize and pattern living cells, as well to create biohybrid systems that can move, sense and respond to stimuli by employing the sensory and motility apparatus of bacteria. We want to explore how opening the research at an early stage and sharing the imaginative practices of scientists and other stakeholders can enrich the directions of research and future applications.

In the related field of synthetic biology, one key approach to open innovation process to publics has been the exploration of the intersections between biosynthetics engineering, design and artistic practice. This has enabled engagement with wider questions about manipulations of biological materials and the role of human creativity in changing ‘life itself’. Our project draws on this ability of art to mediate between stakeholders in innovations processes to explore the potential of participatory design in the development of smart materials.

Participatory design (PD) is an approach that supports collaborative relations stakeholders throughout the various phases of the innovation process. PD is defined as ‘the process of investigating, understanding, reflecting upon, establishing, developing, and supporting mutual learning between multiple participants in collective ‘reflection-in-action’(Robinson and Simonsen, 2012: 2).PD practitioners have used a variety of social science methodologies to gather views of users to inform the iterative design of technologies, but there is emerging consensus that sustained interaction between users and designers/experts is best achieved through participatory methodologies, where stakeholders are involved as collaborators and not merely as end users. With origins in co-design and cooperatives approaches to systems design in Scandinavia, PD has recently gained renewed attention in STS because of its ability to prompt participants to articulate desired futures and envisage concrete socio-technical change. Until now PD has been mainly used in ‘local’, proximal software and urban design, where users can draw on their concrete experience to participate in the design process. Synthetic biology and smart material development open new possibilities of ‘collective experimentation’ and extended collaboration in the governance of innovation. This however presents challenges to the PD methodology. By aiming to engage stakeholders at an early stage of technological development, the project opens the field of possible applications of the technology, its potential users and its societal and ethical challenges. It is not known, therefore, if participatory design approaches can be used in the development of emerging ‘smart material’ technologies.

The project aims to answer the following research question: can participatory design methodologies be applied to the development of smart living materials?

Project objectives:

  • To develop a model of open innovation for research on new materials, based on participatory design approaches and establish the ‘proof of principle’ of this model.

  • To test how inviting stakeholders to take part in an on-going research project on living materials enriches the research practice itself, and broadens the scope of its applications.

It is proposed to achieve these objectives through a series of interlinked, evolving activities. Two academic, interdisciplinary workshops will, through presentation of state-of-the-art research and discussion, lay the ground for the stakeholder event where we experiment with the usage of participatory design methodologies in smart material development. The workshops will be designed as interdisciplinary symposia, combining the contributions of physical scientists, social scientists, STS scholars, and design studies researchers. In addition to contributions from International and Durham Fellows affiliated to the project, two international academics will be invited for each of the workshops to present their work, to help develop the focus and method of the stakeholder event.

An artist in residence, will be involved in all the activities and will draw ideas from the research on living materials for the art. The Artist in Residence will provide guidance on the use of art on mediating between expert and lay publics and implementing, with PIs and Fellows, such approach to the project at hand.

Programme of investigation

  1. Workshop 1: Research on Living materials: challenges to Responsible Research and Innovation (January 2020).
    Aims: a) to understand, through key examples, the key processes and stages of developing contemporary smart, biohybrid materials and, b) to explore how they can be addressed through concepts and tools of responsible innovation

  2. Workshop 2: Responsible innovation in smart materials: the possible role of participatory design (February 2020)
    Aims: a) to map and understand how responsible research and innovation approaches have been used in biological and smart materials and, b) to explore the use of participatory design methodologies in materials research, and to map stakeholders

  3. Participatory design stakeholder event: whole day (March 2020)
    Aim: to implement participatory design methodologies in developing smart materials.
    Participants: Drawing on the stakeholder map, and on the challenges identified, we will aim to engage a wide range of professionals, who are interested, through their professional practice in the development of biohydrid smart materials, e.g. molecular cuisine chefs, architects, textile and clothes designers, doctors, as well as established pharma, cosmetics, food industries, etc.
    Output: transcript of the workshop for analysis by the research team, to inform the further development of smart materials at Durham and beyond.