Material Imagination

Project summary

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

Project website:

Latest News – 2022

Dr Margarita Staykova (Physics) and Professor Tiago Moreira (Sociology), who led this project, talk about how cells can physically interact with their environment.

Project fellows

Principal Investigator: Professor Tiago Moreira (Sociology)
Principal Investigator: Dr Margarita Staykova (Physics)


Alexandra Carr is an international, scientific, experimental artist working on a wide range of interdisciplinary projects in partnership with MIT, Oxford University and Durham University. The work makes responses to a range of natural processes and phenomena, from magnetism, light, ice structures and dark matter. Her practice involves collaboration with experts and world leading researchers including chemists, cosmologists and theoretical physicists. The work is experimental in nature and includes installation, sculpture, kinetic works, drawing, photography and video. Of particular focus is the boundary between art, science and technology.

Aalborg University

Professor Torben Elgaard Jensen is Director of the Techno-Anthropology Research group at Aalborg University, Denmark. His research examines innovation practices and user involvement across range of different contexts.

“I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to work in Durham. The willingness to invest in novel interdisciplinary collaboration is extraordinary and impressive – and a clear indication that Durham takes its position as a world-leading university seriously.”

Illinois Institute of Technology

Laura Forlano (BA Skidmore College 1995, MIA Columbia University 2001, PhD Columbia University 2008) is Associate Professor of Design at the Institute of Design and Affiliated Faculty in the College of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology where she is director of the Critical Futures Lab. Over the past ten years, she has studied the materialities 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.

University of Edinburgh

Wilson Poon is Professor in Condensed Matter Physics at the University of Edinburgh. Professor Poon is regarded as one of the most imaginative and interdisciplinary scientists working in the UK today. He has written on a broad area of science, science policy, theology, medieval studies, language and philosophy. As a soft matter experimentalist he has been responsible for many breakthroughs in the field.

Institut Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Sorbonne University

Suzie Protière is a CNRS researcher in Soft Matter Physics at Sorbonne Université (France). She works at the Institut Jean le Rond d’Alembert in Paris. Dr Protière is recognised internationally for her work on fluid-structure interactions at the capillary scale.