TEDGlobal 2012

Catarina Mota: Play with smart materials

Filmed:

Ink that conducts electricity; a window that turns from clear to opaque at the flip of a switch; a jelly that makes music. All this stuff exists, and Catarina Mota says: It's time to play with it. Mota leads us on a tour of surprising and cool new materials, and suggests that the way we'll figure out what they're good for is to experiment, tinker and have fun.

- Maker
A TEDGlobal Fellow, Catarina Mota plays with "smart materials" -- like shape-memory alloys and piezoelectric structures that react to voltage -- and encourages others to do so too. Full bio

I have a friend in Portugal
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whose grandfather built a vehicle out of a bicycle
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and a washing machine so he could transport his family.
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He did it because he couldn't afford a car,
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but also because he knew how to build one.
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There was a time when we understood how things worked
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and how they were made, so we could build and repair them,
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or at the very least
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make informed decisions about what to buy.
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Many of these do-it-yourself practices
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were lost in the second half of the 20th century.
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But now, the maker community and the open-source model
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are bringing this kind of knowledge about how things work
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and what they're made of back into our lives,
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and I believe we need to take them to the next level,
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to the components things are made of.
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For the most part, we still know
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what traditional materials like paper and textiles are made of
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and how they are produced.
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But now we have these amazing, futuristic composites --
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plastics that change shape,
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paints that conduct electricity,
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pigments that change color, fabrics that light up.
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Let me show you some examples.
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So conductive ink allows us to paint circuits
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instead of using the traditional
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printed circuit boards or wires.
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In the case of this little example I'm holding,
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we used it to create a touch sensor that reacts to my skin
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by turning on this little light.
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Conductive ink has been used by artists,
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but recent developments indicate that we will soon be able
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to use it in laser printers and pens.
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And this is a sheet of acrylic infused
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with colorless light-diffusing particles.
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What this means is that, while regular acrylic
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only diffuses light around the edges,
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this one illuminates across the entire surface
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when I turn on the lights around it.
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Two of the known applications for this material
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include interior design and multi-touch systems.
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And thermochromic pigments
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change color at a given temperature.
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So I'm going to place this on a hot plate
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that is set to a temperature only slightly higher than ambient
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and you can see what happens.
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So one of the principle applications for this material
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is, amongst other things, in baby bottles,
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so it indicates when the contents are cool enough to drink.
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So these are just a few of what are commonly known
02:49
as smart materials.
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In a few years, they will be in many of the objects
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and technologies we use on a daily basis.
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We may not yet have the flying cars science fiction promised us,
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but we can have walls that change color
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depending on temperature,
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keyboards that roll up,
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and windows that become opaque at the flick of a switch.
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So I'm a social scientist by training,
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so why am I here today talking about smart materials?
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Well first of all, because I am a maker.
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I'm curious about how things work
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and how they are made,
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but also because I believe we should have a deeper understanding
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of the components that make up our world,
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and right now, we don't know enough about
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these high-tech composites our future will be made of.
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Smart materials are hard to obtain in small quantities.
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There's barely any information available on how to use them,
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and very little is said about how they are produced.
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So for now, they exist mostly in this realm
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of trade secrets and patents
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only universities and corporations have access to.
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So a little over three years ago, Kirsty Boyle and I
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started a project we called Open Materials.
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It's a website where we,
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and anyone else who wants to join us,
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share experiments, publish information,
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encourage others to contribute whenever they can,
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and aggregate resources such as research papers
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and tutorials by other makers like ourselves.
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We would like it to become a large,
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collectively generated database
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of do-it-yourself information on smart materials.
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But why should we care
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how smart materials work and what they are made of?
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First of all, because we can't shape what we don't understand,
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and what we don't understand and use
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ends up shaping us.
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The objects we use, the clothes we wear,
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the houses we live in, all have a profound impact
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on our behavior, health and quality of life.
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So if we are to live in a world made of smart materials,
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we should know and understand them.
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Secondly, and just as important,
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innovation has always been fueled by tinkerers.
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So many times, amateurs, not experts,
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have been the inventors and improvers
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of things ranging from mountain bikes
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to semiconductors, personal computers,
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airplanes.
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The biggest challenge is that material science is complex
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and requires expensive equipment.
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But that's not always the case.
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Two scientists at University of Illinois understood this
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when they published a paper on a simpler method
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for making conductive ink.
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Jordan Bunker, who had had
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no experience with chemistry until then,
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read this paper and reproduced the experiment
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at his maker space using only off-the-shelf substances
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and tools.
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He used a toaster oven,
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and he even made his own vortex mixer,
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based on a tutorial by another scientist/maker.
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Jordan then published his results online,
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including all the things he had tried and didn't work,
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so others could study and reproduce it.
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So Jordan's main form of innovation
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was to take an experiment created in a well-equipped lab
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at the university
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and recreate it in a garage in Chicago
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using only cheap materials and tools he made himself.
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And now that he published this work,
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others can pick up where he left
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and devise even simpler processes and improvements.
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Another example I'd like to mention
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is Hannah Perner-Wilson's Kit-of-No-Parts.
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Her project's goal is to highlight
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the expressive qualities of materials
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while focusing on the creativity and skills of the builder.
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Electronics kits are very powerful
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in that they teach us how things work,
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but the constraints inherent in their design
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influence the way we learn.
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So Hannah's approach, on the other hand,
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is to formulate a series of techniques
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for creating unusual objects
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that free us from pre-designed constraints
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by teaching us about the materials themselves.
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So amongst Hannah's many impressive experiments,
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this is one of my favorites.
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["Paper speakers"]
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What we're seeing here is just a piece of paper
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with some copper tape on it connected to an mp3 player
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and a magnet.
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(Music: "Happy Together")
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So based on the research by Marcelo Coelho from MIT,
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Hannah created a series of paper speakers
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out of a wide range of materials
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from simple copper tape to conductive fabric and ink.
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Just like Jordan and so many other makers,
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Hannah published her recipes
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and allows anyone to copy and reproduce them.
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But paper electronics is one of the most promising branches
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of material science
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in that it allows us to create cheaper and flexible electronics.
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So Hannah's artisanal work,
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and the fact that she shared her findings,
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opens the doors to a series of new possibilities
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that are both aesthetically appealing and innovative.
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So the interesting thing about makers
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is that we create out of passion and curiosity,
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and we are not afraid to fail.
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We often tackle problems from unconventional angles,
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and, in the process, end up discovering alternatives
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or even better ways to do things.
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So the more people experiment with materials,
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the more researchers are willing to share their research,
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and manufacturers their knowledge,
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the better chances we have to create technologies
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that truly serve us all.
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So I feel a bit as Ted Nelson must have
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when, in the early 1970s, he wrote,
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"You must understand computers now."
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Back then, computers were these large mainframes
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only scientists cared about,
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and no one dreamed of even having one at home.
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So it's a little strange that I'm standing here and saying,
09:25
"You must understand smart materials now."
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Just keep in mind that acquiring preemptive knowledge
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about emerging technologies
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is the best way to ensure that we have a say
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in the making of our future.
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Thank you.
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(Applause)
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Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the Speaker:

Catarina Mota - Maker
A TEDGlobal Fellow, Catarina Mota plays with "smart materials" -- like shape-memory alloys and piezoelectric structures that react to voltage -- and encourages others to do so too.

Why you should listen

A maker of things and open-source advocate, Catarina Mota is co-founder of openMaterials.org, a collaborative project dedicated to do-it-yourself experimentation with smart materials. This is a new class of materials that change in response to stimuli: conductive ink, shape-memory plastics, etc. Her goal is to encourage the making of things; to that end, she teaches hands-on workshops on high-tech materials and simple circuitry for both young people and adults--with a side benefit of encouraging interest in science, technology and knowledge-sharing. She's working on her PhD researching the social impact of open and collaborative practices for the development of technologies. In other words: Do we make better stuff when we work together? She is also a co-founder of Lisbon's hackerspace altLab.