Can We Build Scenius From Scratch?
On crafting tight-knit communities with potential for high future impact in the post-pandemic era.
One of the biggest buzzwords I’ve heard over the last year or two right next to metaverse, blockchain, and hybrid work is community. From mixers at school to remote water cooler chats in the workplace, everyone is looking for community. Why is this the case? Why do we care about community right now?
Community in the 21st Century
These aren’t difficult questions. An easy guess would attribute our social fragmentation to the pandemic. We’re currently in the long tail of remote work following COVID-19 and it looks like the genie is out of the bottle. Companies that have gone fully remote are struggling to round up their employees back into the office.
The distributed nature of remote work has its benefits. Employees can work in different parts of the world and easily attend to other issues in their life.
But it has a devastating impact on collaborative problem solving. It is hard to work on the same problem when everyone is on different timezones. It is also equally difficult to bounce ideas about a problem that you are solving with a friend in an adjacent field, usually sitting in a cubicle beside you.
We’ve known for years that knowledge is becoming harder and harder to sew together. The future of technology is not dependent on any one particular technology, but rather a cooperative blend, from artificial intelligence and digital money to energy efficient devices and unforeseen modes for communication. Interdisciplinary collaboration is the new norm. Remote work prevents serendipitous connections between those working on different things; every meeting is planned ahead and has a focused agenda.
A university campus is a microcosm of society and serves as a helpful backdrop for building communities between unique groups of people. Just in the engineering side of campus, you have your pockets of math geeks, blockchain bros, computer whizzes, get-stuff-done operators, and so much more. A successful community connects these partitions of an ecosystem in a mutually beneficial way. Communities prove that a collective can have a greater impact than its parts.
Generally speaking, most communities help steward a vision for the future forward, but they’re not conducive to architecting technological breakthroughs. The way we build new technologies is by focusing on building a special type of community which places the individual at the front and center: scenius.
What’s a Scenius?
There are two types of professional/intellectual communities that come to mind.
Commons. This is the classical expectation of a community. A bunch of people with diverse talents and similar ideas on the future come together to hangout, riff on new concepts, and share their enthusiasm. Commons create a cycle of knowledge in a positive feedback loop, where the older more experienced mentor the new. The goal of a commons is to build up a curated library of knowledge and share it with those interested.
Scenius. A small band of individuals devoted to a fringe concept. A scenius exists to fill a void. It has to be small, fringe, and borderline heretical because otherwise members would join reputed existing communities. Every individual has their own unique reasons for buying into the shared religion with full conviction. Those who are part of a successful scenius early on end up in history books. Knowledge is created in a scenius, and then spun off into commons.
In sum, those involved in a scenius are held accountable to following through on their ideas, not lose sight of the preposterous, and check-in on their comrades.
The term scenius is an amalgam of scene and genius, coined by Brian Eno (and later analyzed by Kevin Kelly). Kelly outlines the key attributes of scenius, but I think the best way to understand what it really means is via example.
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When you think of the philosophers of ancient Athens and Florence during the Renaissance, there are names that immediately pop into your mind. Aristotle. Socrates. Pythagoras. Michelangelo. Da Vinci. Donatello. All of these individuals lived around the same time frame and contributed immensely to their respective craft.
Some other examples throughout history:
Gertrude Stein’s home in Paris, where Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Picasso worked alongside many leading figures of the modernist movement.
The Society of Arcueil, where Laplace, von Humboldt, Lavoisier, Poisson, and many other physicists/chemists built the foundations of modern science.
Bell Labs (from 1940-1980s), where everything from the first programming languages and operating systems to the transistor and digital circuit design were invented.
General Magic, a group of builders/tinkerers who attempted to build the iPhone a decade before the world was ready for it.
As an aside, if you ever have free time, any of these examples are worthy of a deep dive. It’s surprising how so many incredible contributors to society came out of some scenius or another.
Individuals define a scenius, not the other way around. However, the early community formed by a scenius enables the correct conversations and rapid iterations on the (likely flawed) visions of individuals in the group. Sceniuses (scenii?) are magical because they transform those involved into the best versions of themselves.
A non-example is Silicon Valley today. It’s too broad in geography and in population. I’d argue Silicon Valley in its early innings would still lack the niche a scenius necessitates.
By staying small and devoted, every scenius is vulnerable. The biggest threat to a scenius is its size. Once too many people buy into the vision a scenius proposes, those at the forefront get pushed into the mythos as the scenius transforms into a commons.
Y Combinator demonstrates how sceniuses can lose their captured magic by scaling into larger organizations. Early Y Combinator was a scenius. Many of the first few cohorts built industry-defining companies. However, by scaling too quickly, YC lost the same mystique that made the first cohort so successful. YC transformed from a scenius to a commons.
This explains their decision to scale down significantly in the next batch. Maybe they will find a sweet spot where they can maintain a level of scenius while still sharing their troves of entrepreneurial knowledge? Only time will tell.
How do you build a scenius?
From the outside, it can seem as if scenius was a historical coincidence. A combination of being at the right place at the right time with the right people is rare.
This shouldn’t stop people from attempting to create, or even force, scenius. We’re witnessing the development of two kinds of attempts at building these small, excitement-driven communities.
The first is cohort-based, where individuals with a common goal come together to solve their own problems in a group setting. OnDeck and YC are good examples, both of which seem to be suffering from the scaling effects mentioned earlier. If these organizations focused less on scaling and more on high throughput engagement and authenticity, I would be willing to bet that we would see more sparks of scenius.
The other is in-person coworking/coliving communities/houses in hub cities, like SF and NY. Given the advent of remote work, these options have been gaining a lot of traction in the last year or two.
The goal in constructing a scenius is to place talented, driven individuals as close together as possible, with the belief that sharing convictions and networks will make the impossible possible. Both of these methods do this in their own unique way.
I strongly believe coliving spaces will end up being successful in the long run due to their immersive nature. You can’t avoid your ideas when everyone around you is also passionately working on theirs 24/7. This explains why universities seem to easily incubate early sceniuses (and is probably the largest benefit of attending a top college).
Fully digital spaces are still new, and it’s unclear if they will be able to nourish the next breakthrough communities. There might be an optimal balance between remote and in-person events that drives these to succeed.
As someone about to graduate from school soon, there is an important takeaway I’ve had over the course of exploring this topic.
When deciding on a new place to live, optimize for people. You can only participate in emerging communities, or scenius, in a cutting-edge discipline if you are physically present. This is crucial. Being in-person helps you be aware of what’s important and what’s new at a faster rate while gaining a deeper intuition for your industry.
“When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there long: so great are the advantages which people following the same skilled trade get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn many of them unconsciously.” – Alfred Marshall
The chance of encountering scenius in tech, for example, is much much higher in Silicon Valley than anywhere else. Despite living in an age of digital work, it absolutely does matter where you live, especially after college, and it’s worth thinking about why.
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