Whatever you do, don’t call it North by Northeast.
With the launch this weekend of HUBweek — the weeklong festival intended to showcase the region’s dominance in science, art, and technology — organizers promise to transform Boston and its environs into a sprawling laboratory. A sample of the offerings: free sessions in stress management and cancer research; drone demonstrations; and a multisensory nighttime art festival where the Green Monster is transmogrified into a three-story percussion instrument.
The event may resemble South by Southwest — the annual gathering in Austin, Texas, that began in 1987 — but HUBweek will be very much about Boston, and all the area has to offer.
“It’s fair to say that Boston is one of the leading centers in the world, with a lot of smart people trying to focus on some of the world’s biggest problems,” said Peter Slavin, president of Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the festival’s founding institutions. “I’m hopeful that people will be just blown away by the work that’s being done in the region.”
On Sunday, Faneuil Hall will serve as a philosophical forum, where Harvard’s Michael Sandel, dubbed a “rockstar moralist” by Newsweek, will lead a discussion with high-profile panelists on citizenship in the modern era. (The event was moved from Fenway Park amid predictions of bad weather.) Later in the week, Converse will open its new Rubber Tracks Studio facility so aspiring musicians can create new samples. Harvard will hold a seminar on privacy in the age of big data.
But the real experiment will be HUBweek itself, a newcomer that must compete in the increasingly crowded field of international, multidisciplinary festivals. That field includes titans like Austin’s South by Southwest and the seemingly ubiquitous TED conferences, but also the Aspen Ideas Festival, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and any number of international art fairs — economic drivers that not only attract highly skilled professionals, but also burnish the reputation of their host cities as hotbeds of creativity and innovation.
HUBweek, scheduled to run Saturday to Saturday, Oct. 3-10, is a nonprofit venture founded by MIT, Harvard University, MGH, and The Boston Globe. Organizers say they hope not only to encourage cross-disciplinary exchanges among professionals, researchers, and institutions — but also to raise awareness of the cutting-edge research that’s taking place in the Boston region.
“There’s a power in convening to shape the narrative of what a city is, and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” said Linda Pizzuti Henry, the Globe’s managing director who has spearheaded the effort. “We can’t market ourselves as where arts, science, and technology collide if it’s just a few people saying that, so it’s a bit of us having all of these companies and institutions opening their doors and showing this really cool stuff that they’re doing.”
Unlike similar conclaves, which often boast rosters of imported talent, HUBweek’s focus in its first year is on area institutions, with scores of other businesses and nonprofits collaborating to host events.
Whereas attendees at other festivals often must buy passes for access to events and networking opportunities, most of HUBweek’s festivities are free and open to the public.
“It’s certainly not limited to local people or aimed only at local people,” said HUBweek’s executive director, Brendan Ryan, a former chief of staff during Deval Patrick’s administration. “That’s one of the things we’re testing this year: What is a sustainable model? How do we do this? Growth is key to this thing. If it’s going to be successful, it has to continue to be outward looking and inclusive and welcoming of anyone who’s willing to help do something like this.”
Organizers have taken to calling this inaugural event “Year Zero,” which Ryan said “signifies that this is the start of something. It’s far from a finished product, and we will try a lot of different things this year and see what works and what we would do differently in the future.”
That certainly tracks with the evolution of South by Southwest, which began modestly as a music festival nearly 30 years ago, but later evolved into a three-pronged event that also features film and interactive media programs.
“We really didn’t know what we were doing with multimedia for at least the first 10 years,” said Hugh Forrest, director of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. “The fact that South by Southwest was largely bootstrapped forced it to do some things in cost-effective ways and grow organically and grow slowly and sometimes that kind of growth is best for long-term health.”
‘If it’s going to be successful, it has to continue to be outward looking and inclusive and welcoming of anyone who’s willing to help.’Brendan Ryan, HUBweek executive director
Forrest added that South by Southwest recently released an in-house study showing that the festival’s economic impact for 2015 equaled $317 million.
“That’s a great figure, it sounds great, but again, that’s 30 years in the making,” said Forrest, who added that South by Southwest had “many fumbles” in its early years.
“We still have plenty of fumbles, but I also think that the overall perspective on these things is significantly different in 2015 than it was in 1987. You could get away with much lower production values in 1987. In 2015 people are expecting that you’re going to go to a TED Talk,” Forrest said.
HUBweek organizers declined to disclose the festival’s budget. But they added that with its broad emphasis on arts, science, and technology, the event has not only room to grow, but is also poised to transform swiftly in coming years.
“Things move a lot faster now than they might have a quarter of a century ago, so HUBweek is, and is going to need to evolve rapidly,” said MIT provost Martin Schmidt. “I’m not sure I have an answer as to where I hope it will be in 10 years, because I’m not sure I know what the nature of global collaborations will look like in 10 years. To some extent what we have to do is have an organization and a structure that allows us to evolve it in each iteration.”
Organizers added that they hope some 40,000 people will attend a HUBweek event this year, which include the five-day GlobeDocs Film Festival; an open-lab event at Kendall Square; a conversation at Harvard with Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Entertainment; and discussions at MGH on the opioid crisis.
“Our commonwealth is characterized by the undeniable cultural and intellectual accomplishments of its residents,” Governor Charlie Baker said via e-mail. “HUBweek is an important opportunity to spotlight their innovation and creativity.”
Still, Ryan said that this first year, while ambitious, is sure to have some kinks and will likely be significantly different going forward.
He added that organizers hoped that HUBweek would help better define the Boston area as a center of cross-disciplinary creative thought
“This is a place where big things happen,” said Ryan. “We already have so many elements of a successful, innovative, and creative community here, so we’re not in a position where we need to create that from scratch.”Malcolm Gay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay
Correction: An earlier version of a photo caption in this story misspelled David Nuñez’s name.