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Ty Burr

What’s under the domes? Hope for a future

Sights and sounds of HUBWeek
Sights and sounds of HUBWeek

It was the farm in a box that finally sold me. Although the robot cockroaches were pretty impressive, too.

Now in its third year, HUBweek has always eluded this onlooker as a focused civic event. Part TED talk, part idea lab, part world’s fair of arts and sciences, the festival (cofounded by The Boston Globe, Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has seemed to exist as a way to pull together all those brilliant minds fizzing up and down the Charles — the medical geniuses, the tech Yodas, the academics and entrepreneurs and artisans and eco-pioneers and nonprofit angels who dot the map of Greater Boston.


Throw them all together in a variety of venues and what do you have? A smorgasbord of brainpower that’s as thriving but as decentralized as the city itself. This year, however, HUBweek has had a hub of its own for the first time, a node to call home, and it makes quite a difference. The six-day festival that ends on Oct. 15 has anchored itself at City Hall Plaza, a miniature colony of geodesic domes and cargo containers full of art and initiatives.

It feels makeshift, friendly, sudden, as though a fairground from the future had appeared through a time-space rift for a limited time only. In fact, this year’s HUBweek made me feel for the first time in a long while that we may actually have a future.

I spent a day wandering through the . . . well, “exhibits” sounds too stuffy for what was going on. Hopeful windows onto various possibilities, perhaps. Inside the domes were panel discussions on technology, health, governance, robotics — which sounds like a snooze except the emphasis tended to be on the human factor: Who’s it going to help? What are the speed bumps? What have we learned so far that will keep us from screwing up down the line?


I heard doctors at the “Digital Dilemma” panel earnestly ask the next generation of software developers to build information technology that would result in less burn-out for medical professionals. I heard speakers at the “Women Behind Digital Health” panel acknowledge that Boston has a long way to go to achieve diversity in the medical fields and that, Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” aside, it’s better to reach out and pull in.

Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg was the star attraction in the mega-dome on Friday morning — later in the day, the crowds would be coming to hear Malcolm Gladwell interview “Being Mortal” author Atul Gawande — and Bloomberg gave the audience a sort of civic B-12 shot, claiming that “America is going to meet its Paris Agreement goals with no help from the federal government, and it’s all through private initiatives.” He also talked up the Bloomberg-Harvard City Leadership Initiative, which is essentially a series of seminars dedicated to training new mayors and building informed competence in government. The nerve of the man.

I spent a fair amount of time lying on the floor of the Swissnex Dome watching immersive movies because I’m, uh, a movie critic. Did you know there’s a Swiss consulate in Cambridge serving as a liaison between the two countries’ scientific communities? Me neither. In any event, the cine-dome was a good idea that’s still working out the kinks in terms of content. I watched a fascinating new planetarium show called “Phantom of the Universe: The Hunt for Dark Matter,” which was narrated by Tilda Swinton and lets you pretend you’re an atomic particle whooshing through the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN research center in Europe.


I also watched a few short abstract immersive works from US and Swiss filmmakers. One, “Apoptose,” combined black-and-white patterned squiggles and orbs with trippy strobe effects; the effect was not unpleasant, like being inside a giant eyeball while someone was rubbing the eyelid. By contrast, “Of Matter and Spirit,” an adaptation of a techno album/video game by Aisha Devi, threw an overloaded jumble of images at the viewer to an irritating EDM track; the effect was highly unpleasant, like being inside a headache. The pillows were comfy, though.

Outside the domes are a variety of exhibits ranging from altruistic corporate ventures to micro-local health, science, art, and community services. All are housed in individual cargo containers arrayed neatly around the plaza, as though the good ship Endeavor had upended its contents atop the old Scollay Square. Some of these came rolling in pretty much as is, like the “Curiosity Cube” bus that crisscrosses the United States bringing coolio science experiments to public schools, or the Fresh Truck that brings fruit and vegetables each week to 17 different Boston neighborhoods that aren’t served by grocery stores.

Other groups use the containers as a sort of canvas to dramatize what they’re doing, like the collaborative artworks made by recovering addicts in the Charlestown Coalition program cosponsored by MGH, or the exhibit devoted to Union Point, the still-to-be-built “smart city” planned to rise on the site of the old South Weymouth Naval Air Station.


Some of the exhibits are just . . . pretty, like the black-light living space called Neon Dream, or the multimedia artwork “Pollinate” by the Widowmaker Collective that’s an eyeful by day but apparently a brain-melter at night, when everybody’s already rocking out to dance parties.

And some of the displays are underwhelming, such as — I have to say it — a Boston Globe installation that projects over a century of this paper’s news headlines onto a domed screen in a slowly evolving yet surprisingly uninvolving diorama of hard-to-read historical moments.

The HUBweek exhibit that gave me the most hope for the future, even if civilization finally goes the whole Mad Max? The Freight Farm — “a complete vertical hydroponic growing system built entirely inside a shipping container capable of growing a variety of lettuces, herbs, and hearty greens.” Yes, that’s 1.8 acres in a box, harvestable weekly, and I think I want one.

The sneakiest HUBweek exhibit of all? That would be Plantbot Genetics, a “sustainable agriculture” company that’s working on inserting robot DNA into plants, bioengineering moths to take the place of disappearing honeybees, and other projects that teeter between the utopian and the scary.


The Plantbot exhibit has goofy battery-operated talking plants and solar-powered robot cockroaches to draw in the crowds, as well as a man and a woman in serious white lab coats to explain the Big Science behind it all. And, honestly, the more you look at it, the fishier the whole thing smells. It almost could be a parody of the bright promises on which HUBweek is built.

In fact, Plantbot Genetics is a parody, and the scientists in the coats are actually conceptual artist/pranksters Wendy DesChene and Jeff Schmuki, who created the fake company as a way to force us to think through some of the consequences of modern agricultural practices. (There’s a reason one of its invented robot plants is named Monsantra, a cross between Monsanto and monstrous.)

Wait, do the HUBweek organizers even know one of their exhibits is a put-on? Were they punked? It almost doesn’t matter. That kind of outside-the-box thinking is an unexpected and welcome surprise, and it’s the kind of thing that will get grumpuses like me coming back next year. That and the Freight Farm, if I don’t already have one by then.

Ty Burr can be reached at