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Meet the team: Ben Oldfrey

Our “meet the team” series captures the stories and experiences of some of our wonderful colleagues at GDI Hub. We will be covering what led them into the disability innovation sector, their expertise and current projects, and any tips they can share for others wanting to pursue a career in a similar field.

In this fifth edition we met with Ben, lecturer and assistant professor at UCL.

I have always predominantly loved making things and making things that are useful – I want utility to come from my work.

A photograph of Ben, a white man with short hair, stood outside on a sunny day

Hi Ben, tell us a bit about your academic journey to GDI Hub?

I began my academic journey with pure science – taking a master's degree in physics, followed by a further master's in mathematical modelling of biological complexity. Within these master’s my interest developed in electrophysiology – which is the electrical behaviour of body-tissue. I grew particularly interested in the skin and mechanical devices, which led to my PhD between mechanical engineering and orthopaedics, focused on soft prosthetic liners.

I was very interested in the actual mechanical devices, in making something – and that ‘something’ being useful. My PhD work was conducted primarily at UCL’s Institute of Making, with Prof Mark Miodownik and the various types of fabrication & craft work going on there strongly influenced what I wanted to do further.

I wanted to use my PhD to try to replicate biological ideas and create artificial sensor skins with carbon nanotubes and silicone elastomer composites. Much of the usefulness of sensing within the body is not so much necessarily just the skin receptors, but also how the brain processes those messages. I was exploring replicating this whole sensing system, using deep learning and computer vision to train those soft stretch sensors to be able to measure stretch in two dimensions on a surface, inside prosthetic liners. So it was focused on replicating the whole sensing system within the skin and the body. This included exploring 3D printing of soft materials – which is an underdeveloped area relative to rigid plastic material printing.

What did you do after your PhD?

Following my PhD I began a postdoc between the GDI Hub and Institute of Making working on the AT2030 programme, where I started working on wider applications of 3D printing. I was thinking about how we use manufacturing techniques to increase access to devices, exploring more innovation in the production process, rather than the actual final product itself.

Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, I worked for 2.5 years leading on FCDO Covidaction Local Production Local Solutions, which looked at local production of a range of things that many people globally were struggling to get. We supported 9 innovators in Kenya, Nigeria, Zambia, South Sudan, Uganda and Nepal to produce over a million critical products for their communities in the face of global supply chain inequality, with the long term aim of building their manufacturing capacities for future development.

When I look back over this journey, I can see the narrative from pure science to making things and now a strong interest in the systems in which things get made.

And outside of academia?

In-between my study and academic jobs I have worked much more practically – including 6 years as a chef in various intense kitchens! My first job was building and repairing bikes in a workshop, then in France for 6 months I was building, tuning, and repairing skis and snowboards. I have spent time building bamboo huts in Costa Rica and taught English, Maths and Science in Honduras, Taiwan and England through a TEFL teaching course.

What's your current role at GDI Hub?

Now, I predominantly work on the AT2030 programme, leading on a few different projects. One of them being work on local system strengthening - looking at how to develop local production and innovation systems in countries that have much less innovation going on currently.

This innovation is needed to fill gaps in service provision that we see as being left out unless there are more local activities alongside globalised manufacturing routes. An example of this is around complex needs and the bespoke manufacturing of devices as well as sourcing spare wheelchair parts.

I am also working on advanced soft materials composites, and structures to try to address comfort issues, including prosthetic liners and wheelchair seating. All coalescing back to soft material printing.

What's your role on the Disability, Design and Innovation MSc?

I am teaching and leading on the module Future Global Technologies which begins by looking at the wider landscape around disability, culture and justice in the world as a backdrop to technology. This helps to prepare students to better understand where innovation comes in, how it has its place and the system any assistive technologies or innovations sit within.

We explore approaches and frameworks that are useful to the development of new disability focused products and services - be them assistive technology or not, because the “assistive technology” doesn't cover all of the innovation that we're interested in doing, particularly around service design or supply.

What do you enjoy about your roles?

I have always predominantly loved making things and making things that are useful – I want utility to come from my work.

But what I enjoy about my current role is having the increasing opportunity of being able to operate and incorporate work streams and actions that cover much more of the systems that enable or create barriers around the appropriate, quality making of what is needed.

Thinking about the relationship between; production ecosystems, innovation ecosystems, material ecosystems, vision ecosystems, etc. and what effect that has on innovation of new products themselves and then ultimately the users of those technologies.

Do you have any advice for those wanting to pursue work in this field?

I am not sure how planned my paths in life have been but - when opportunities align with your passions – jump on them! Even if you think those opportunities are slightly tangential often, they are not as tangential as you think they are.

What would you say to those who are interested in the MSc?

In order to do good work in the field of disability innovation, you really do need to be more than one role and to understand many multiple perspectives.

You need a solid grounding and understanding of human based knowledge as well as engineering and design type knowledge to appropriately apply different schools of thoughts in the wider mainstream fields they need to be applied to.

And that’s what this MSc does, it’s incredibly holistic. So, particularly for people who might not know exactly where their place is in terms of specific skill or process within the disability innovation space it can open quite a lot of avenues for you.

If you like thinking about things in different ways - that’s what this MSc can give you.

Anything else to add?

On the MSc and relating it back to GDI Hub – one of the things that strongly attracted me to GDI Hub is because of this strong relationship and model between the Community Interest Company and the Academic Research Centre. I like doing traditional academic work. But I also love applying that knowledge into real world practice.

And compared to other master programmes, there is tangible opportunity for real world engagement, and applying your theoretical learning practically within projects. Which I don’t think is replicated elsewhere.

Applications are now open for the next cohort of students on the Disability, Design and Innovation MSc... find out more below: