It was at a workshop about bandages in 2005 that I started to question whether I was in the right profession. Developing new wound dressings that are breathable but odorless, sticky but dissolvable, antibacterial but bio-active, was our task for the afternoon. We had been given presentations by medics and nurses about the huge suffering that existing bandages cause, and the impact we could have if we could use our specialist knowledge to solve the problem. But I had no ideas. ‘Its not my area’ kept popping into my head as an unwanted thought, and I tried to ignore it while I diligently took notes. Looking around the room I saw the other materials scientists feeling the same. We carried on though, dutifully coming up with ideas, posting them on the wall with sticky notes, and voting for the best ones. In truth none of us really had a clue.

The failure of the workshop was twofold, I decided later. Firstly, improving wound dressings although clearly a materials problem, does not fit into the classical materials science activities that go on in most departments, such as improving aerospace alloys or a creating self-cleaning coatings. The functionality of wound dressings is distributed across many scales, from the nanoscale scale of their anti-bacterial function, to the microscale of the membrane layers, to mesoscale of their fluid handing properties, to the macro-scale of their form fitting stickiness. Moreover, aesthetics is important and affects how the patients feel about their treatment and condition, this affects recovery rates, which then has a huge impact on the costs incurred by hospitals. Thus developing new wounding healing systems not only involves solving physical problems, but also requires understanding the look and feel of materials: their so called psychophysical properties. Although we had a diverse range of expertise in the room, we were not used to working together to solve such a complex problem.

The second issue was that post-it notes are not the right thinking tools for materials scientists and engineers: we need stuff. There was not one wound dressing in that room to enable us to get to know this technology. We needed to take them apart, to analyze them, to muck about, and to practically try out new things. I was confident that this would have led to better ideas because it is more enjoyable to think with your hands as well as your head.

I decided I should not bother trying to solve such real world, complex and important problems unless we had the right environment. After doing a bit of reading I discovered that others before me had come to exactly the same conclusion. Fab Labs, Hack Spaces, MakeSpaces, are the names given to these kinds of spaces designed to stimulate discussion while building and testing physical prototypes. At the last count there were more 1300 Hackspaces spread across the globe, from California to Russia, from the UK to Beijing. Visiting these spaces I was struck by the creative buzz in the air, but also that there was often an emphasis on electronics and robotic development. Would this suit a materials problem like wound dressings I pondered, where materials scientists, chemists, engineers, medics, nurses and psychologists would all need to feel at home. For a space like that you would need materials to be at heart of the space, containing samples of everything from metals to fabrics, from smart materials to adhesives, from plastics to coatings. This type of space did not seem to exist, so I teamed up with artist Zoe Laughlin, and designer Martin Conreen, and started dreaming up such a place. We opened it in 2013 at University College London: it is called the Institute of Making (

At the heart of the institute is our material library containing more than a thousand material samples. Some are exotic, such as aerogel, uranium glass or self-healing concrete; but the vast majority are the materials used daily in manufacturing around the world. Our institute also contains a fully kitted out workshop containing a laser cutter, milling machine, kiln, kitchen, 3D printer, sewing machines, etc. We do not have everything but our aim is to create a workshop where you use the materials discovered in the library to prototype ideas. Together we hope these two resources and the connection between them create the right environment where complex problems, which sit outside traditional discipline boundaries, can be tackled. Returning to the wound dressing problem, we now have a place where such a meeting can take place which mixes presentations, with hands-on testing of existing products, to an exploration of the materials library, to the construction of prototypes – all of this being part of the thinking process. Its problem solving by doing, not because theory is irrelevant to tackling complex problems, but because making stuff stimulates a creative approach.

We now have more than 1800 members from across UCL whose disciplines range from nanotechnology to psychology, from anthropology to chemistry, from engineering to architecture. We are a place in the university where unusual projects are born and supported, such as an EPSRC project to design wearable assistive materials for exoskeletons of the future, which brings together civil engineers, biomechanical engineers, materials scientists, surgeons, and rehabilitation experts.

I no longer wonder if I am in the right profession, we now have the right intellectual and practical environment to have a meaningful go at solving multidisciplinary complex materials science problems. Now about those new wound dressings…

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DOI: 10.1016/j.mattod.2013.11.004