Much of the techy uber-glimmer of the annual PopTech conference was absent from downtown Camden last week.

The installation on the village green was missing, for one thing, and there were not as many break-out sessions around town or interactive demos upstairs at the Opera House. I could not even find one earnest Steve Jobs lookalike wearing a black turtleneck and pressed jeans wandering down Bay View Street. 

The lack of flash was misleading. This year’s conference was designed by a team that ditched any self-conscious trendiness and curated for quality. This didn’t feel like people looking to be noticed. It felt like what PopTech has become now that it is no longer the cool kid on the block. Grown up. Stunningly smart. Determined to change the world. This didn’t seem like a lot of  TED talks strung together in a two-and-a-half day feel-good binge. It felt like the place where stuff starts.

PopTech turned 20 this year, but many midcoast residents still know relatively little about the insider conference and its evolution over the past two decades. 

That isn’t so surprising. It is not really intended for the general public and the tickets are prohibitively expensive for many. The goal is to bring together speakers and attendees who are innovators in their own fields — science, technology, design, corporate and civic leadership, public health, social and ecological innovation, and the arts and humanities — and give them room and opportunity to mix. For attendees, the conference acts as much as a networking opportunity and ad hoc incubator for turning their skills towards socially conscious innovation as it does for sharing new technology or new ways to tackle problems.

Not surprisingly, new collaborations and even marriages have been initiated at PopTech.

This year, the conference pieces fit together smoothly, alternating between sessions on successful technology development to get cheap internet access to remote villages in Africa and to the Navajo nation in Arizona, to discussions about human sexuality research, love and mating, and how emotions shape social and economic decisions, to how Bernie’s main social media guru brought his punk rock sensibility to make online political fundraising a 2016 phenomenon.



Alan Alda’s admirable efforts to improve science communication after a near-death experience in South America made me wonder if he knew Maine-based entrepreneur and science enthusiast David Shaw, who initiated his own science communication efforts at the National Park Service with a $1 million donation. He decided to do so after a near-death experience in South America. 

And that was only during the parts of the conference I was able to attend. I missed a lot.

Moran Cerf, former computer hacker turned professor of neuroscience and business at the Kellogg School of Management, was the lead host and was pitch perfect both with the audience and leading onstage Q & A’s. Even when the live video feed from Eric Ben -Artzi went wonky, Cerf kept his smart and imperturbable cool. 

If the boat ever founders, I want to be on the same life raft as Cerf. 

At my randomly chosen seat at lunch at Peter Ott’s on Friday we spent the hour talking about how to communicate science effectively to a fact-averse public. My table mates were a software designer in his thirties from Microsoft,  the chief engineer for the Mars 2020 project at the Jet Propulsion Lab, a quiet young man from California who does something at a high-tech firm and has an aversion to social media, and a 29-year-old professional woman from New York who grew up in Maine and keeps tabs on her international development contacts through instant messaging.

When I left the conference at the Camden Opera House on Friday afternoon wondering how I was going to decide what to write about, I stopped in front of a brand new hydrogen fuel cell Toyota Mirai parked around the corner on Washington Street. I was offered a test-drive.

I hopped in.

The Mirai immediately accelerated into speeding-ticket range. 

Fueled by electricity made mostly from an oxygen-hydrogen reaction, with water as the only emission, the car was as quiet as a hunting owl. Premium audio, presets for everything, and heated seats are standard. If it marries Tesla, a future Mirai will let you fall asleep at the wheel free of greenhouse-gas guilt while it drives.

I want one! Even without the self-driving daydream.

Unfortunately, I would have to move to California and shell out about $60,000 to make that happen.

For more on PopTech, the conference and the rest, see poptech.org.