A good question
The simple desire to know more is science’s rocket fuel. Which is where, says Professor Oscar Ces, Imperial’s Hackspace comes in.
As humans, we are hard-wired to be curious. Whether it’s a child asking 300 questions a day, or adults just trying to find out the latest gossip, a curious mind is an integral part of what makes us, us. And curiosity is what drives everything we do at a university. It’s a desire to make connections between apparently unrelated phenomena, and to see the world in a new way. But it’s also a call to action – a force that compels us to push forwards, make new discoveries and generate solutions to important societal problems.
It’s become commonplace to run creativity sessions where walls end up covered in sticky notes, each with the nugget of an idea; but in many cases, they progress no further than the wall. Tantalising ideas that remain bound by the frames they were written within. To me that’s frustrating, as curiosity is bound up with creativity. Unlocking the process of moving from concept to execution is as exciting as having the idea in the first place: not just having the eureka moment but proving it works and then doing something useful with it.
True curiosity refuses to be contained within a silo. It is often multi-disciplinary. It encourages us to leave the comfort zone of our own specialism and collaborate across boundaries. Many of the big challenges that lie ahead – everything from discovering new drugs and therapies through to developing artificial life and novel materials – require a mix of expertise from different fields.
My own department, Chemistry, is a perfect example. As we take up residence in a new building at the White City Campus – the Molecular Sciences Research Hub – we hope to promote a networked approach to science where chemists will sit alongside other molecular scientists and engineers to take on problems that demand that fusion of disciplines. The Hub will be a magnet for curious minds wishing to meet, discuss and swap ideas.
True curiosity refuses to be contained within a silo. it encourages us to leave the comfort zone of our own specialism – and collaborate"
Proper collaboration requires time, resources and commitment. When a chemist starts talking to a medic, each will have a very different perception of the challenge to be tackled, even down to different scientific vocabulary. Finding common ground is a big deal.
It’s this ethos that has led to initiatives such as the Imperial College Advanced Hackspace, a community-operated prototyping workspace which has now been running at Imperial for three years. True curiosity demands a place where the means to collaborate, innovate and create working prototypes are available to anyone – whatever their department, and whether they are undergraduates, PhD students, post-docs or staff. The Advanced Hackspace imposes no rules on how the space is used and aims to give everyone the means of innovation; turning a population of stakeholders into a population of innovators. Today it has 2,400 members, drawn from every faculty in College, and more are joining at a rate of 100 every month. It brings together people with common interests in everything from computers, digital art, synthetic biology, robotics, healthcare, automation and machining. Its aim is to be the best place in the world to turn ideas into a reality.
But operating in a vacuum benefits no-one, so it’s important that collaboration extends beyond the College. The Hackspace community has extended to encompass alumni, SMEs and industry. In order to foster this growth and allow members of the local community to come together with our staff, students, alumni and partners to test out their creative ideas, the College recently founded The Invention Rooms. This venture houses an exciting mixture of workshops and interactive spaces. It’s like a condensed version of the whole of Imperial, and it’s already bursting at the seams with activity.
The Invention Rooms at White City has three key elements. There’s the main Advanced Hackspace for College members, where they can collaborate with businesses and other partners. Next door is a community ‘maker space’ that offers workshop and design studio facilities for young people from the local community. It’s a way to foster and develop their curiosity, and I believe it’s a game-changer to have the two spaces on the same site. Then there is the Interaction Zone – a vibrant public events space where local people and College partners can discuss science and connect with Imperial’s research through a wide-ranging programme of activities.
Invention and innovation thrive on forums for discussion and development. One example is that of Hackathons that offer multi-disciplinary teams the opportunity to spend extended periods of time, from days to weeks, working on a challenge set by a member of staff, a partner company or a charity. This maelstrom of creative diversity always delivers unexpected results and it comes back to the principle of releasing ideas from sticky notes hanging on the wall. In a Hackathon, you don’t just imagine it, you build it, and when the teams present their solutions at the end of the event, there may be five along the lines we’d imagined, but there will also be 15 that are so left-field. These catch the judges and sponsors totally by surprise, and outcomes like this demonstrate why the Hackspace has been described as a ‘serendipity engine’.
Another example is that of entrepreneurial Dragons’ Den-style competitions in College. During these, students come up with an idea for a start-up, and they are provided with training in development, marketing and business planning. Successful teams in these ventures are often invited to pitch to a ‘dragon’ for a chance to win some funding. Traditionally, when these students get to the final of the competition, it’s on the basis of an idea they have never had a chance to test. So they could win the money with a great pitch, and then use it to come up with a working prototype and find out whether there was any development potential in the first place.
When you’re awarding finance in this way, it’s effectively a prize rather than development funding. This is something that the Enterprise Lab, a new entrepreneurship Hub at Imperial College, working in partnership with the Hackspace, is trying to change. If you can get the students to actually make a prototype during the competition and show that their idea works, you’ll be awarding money that can immediately be used to push their business plan forward.
In the end, curiosity thrives when we are not afraid to fail. There are large numbers of people – both inside and outside Imperial – who are inherently curious and creative, but don’t have the confidence to pursue their ideas. What initiatives like the Hackspace mean is that it doesn’t matter if you fail ten times before you make your idea work.
We need these environments, and the time to use them, if we really are to go beyond the sticky note and pursue our creative goals. Even at a university, life has a habit of getting in the way. For students and staff alike, there will always be lectures to attend or research deadlines to meet. But we should be careful not to lose the instinct to learn for learning’s sake, to build on our ideas and to find out just how far our curiosity can take us.
To find out more about the Imperial College Advanced Hackspace, The Invention Rooms, the Enterprise Lab and the White City Campus, visit www.imperial.ac.uk/advanced-hackspace, www.imperial.ac.uk/enterprise/enterprise-lab and www.imperial.ac.uk/whitecitycampus.