Advances in the field of supramolecular chemistry have made it possible, in many situations, to reliably engineer soft materials to address a specific technological problem. Particularly exciting are “smart” gels that undergo reversible physical changes on exposure to remote, non-invasive environmental stimuli. This review explores the development of gels which are transformed by heat, light and ultrasound, as well as other mechanical inputs, applied voltages and magnetic fields. Focusing on small-molecule gelators, but with reference to organic polymers and metal–organic systems, we examine how the structures of gelator assemblies influence the physical and chemical mechanisms leading to thermo-, photo- and mechano-switchable behaviour. In addition, we evaluate how the unique and versatile properties of smart materials may be exploited in a wide range of applications, including catalysis, crystal growth, ion sensing, drug delivery, data storage and biomaterial replacement.
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