pHacktory for wild ideas

Posted on Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Three men smile for the camera with balloons floating overhead

Andrew Pelling (right) with CEO of CHEO Alex Munter (left) and Carleton University professor Manuel A. Báez. Photo: Morgan Weir 

By Brandon Gillet

It all started with an idea he inserted into a talk shortly before going on stage. University of Ottawa professor Andrew Pelling had no inkling that this last-minute thought would result in a bold new initiative to bring science to the masses and encourage their curiosity, creativity and craziest ideas.

Last year, as he was preparing to give a public talk, Pelling thought of a novel way to help the audience relate to the playful, curiosity-driven research that takes place in the Pelling Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at uOttawa.

balloons floating above a crowd of people

Photo: Morgan Weir 

Wouldn’t it be cool, he told the audience, if a lab like his was out in the community, like a factory, so anyone could engage with it? After the talk, he was inundated with questions about this facility – which didn’t actually exist.

“I just thought it would be a way to spark a conversation,” he said. “But I got off stage, and there was a line of people saying, ‘where is it?’ and ‘when is it open?’ And I said, ‘guys, I have no factory’.”

Responsibility to create

Then emails began arriving, from corporations, museums and community groups. “I figured I had a responsibility now to figure out what I’d created!” Pelling said.

Thus, pHacktory was born – but with no one physical location, he explains, because it’s everywhere.

“pHacktory is a research lab – for anything, really,” he said. “It’s independent of any institution, on purpose, because we will be curating research projects that are likely to blow up in our faces. So it’s important we take all the risk, rather than sink somebody else’s ship.”

“We want ideas that are basically 99%-certain to fail. When we see a proposal, we want to be able to look at it and say, ‘this is nuts’. The point is, if we can pull this idea off, how transformative and awesome would it be? We want to send the message that curiosity and playfulness matter – it’s how you discover things you never would have expected.”

pHacktory’s founding partners are Shopify, the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, and In the coming months, the new street-level lab will issue public calls for proposals for the zaniest research ideas they can dream up.

pHacktory launch

To demonstrate the kind of thing he has in mind, Pelling was inspired by conversations with his friend Manuel A. Báez, an associate professor at Carleton University’s Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism. He and Pelling were discussing the concept of shape-shifting buildings: structures that can be made to change shape in response to sensors or human interaction.

To get a point of his research across, Báez came up with the idea of tying 1000 helium-filled balloons together and pushing them off the roof of a parking garage in the Byward Market. The balloons would form a canopy-like structure (inspired by the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi) that passers-by could manipulate by yanking on strings, simulating the idea of a building changing shape.

On the evening of Saturday, October 1, a massive, illuminated balloon structure rolled off a parking garage roof and into Williams Square, to the cheers and laughter of the  crowd of all ages gathering below. And pHacktory’s public launch was a suitably wild success.

Related stories: Using fruits and veggies to grow human tissue, Behind the scenes of a TED talk

balloons floating above a crowd of people

Photo: Luc Lalande


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