In 2024, I’m Creating Events That Might Just Change Your Life Forever
Co-living with hundreds of brilliant strangers in 2023 has inspired me to go all in on creating “innovation playgrounds” that inspire innovators to do the best, most impactful work of their lives.
Last week, I posted this on X:
Let me elaborate on one part in particular:
“When you’re part of a community where every person has an extreme bias for action, shares what they’re learning on their journey, and pushes everyone else to think bigger and bolder, taking that leap of faith becomes far less daunting. These kinds of life-changing communities are far rarer than they should be, so I feel called to make sure more of them exist in the world.”
How will I make sure more life-changing communities exist in the world in 2024?
By creating what I call “innovation playgrounds”—one week to multi-month in-person experiences designed to accelerate innovators’ careers and birth new innovations.
During these playgrounds, people who are building at the cutting edge connect repeatedly, learn from one another, and co-explore how to do their best, most impactful work for humanity.
You can call these playgrounds many things: Oases for techno-optimists; experiments in co-living and co-working; popup villages; popup campuses…
Each label is somewhat accurate.
But here’s a label that feels most true to the essence of what I want to create:
“Gardens where scenius can flourish”
“Scenius” is the emergent collective intelligence that supercharges and is co-generated by every person immersed in the same community or “scene.” So, in other words, I want to create environments that bring out the best, most creative versions of the people immersed in them.
I don’t believe that there is a shortage of brilliant people in the world. I believe humanity has all the talent it needs to solve every problem we are facing.
But what I do see is this: individual geniuses can only accomplish so much in isolation. In fact, I believe most of the innovation in society doesn’t come from individuals working in solitude.
Musician Brian Eno, coiner of the term “scenius”, agrees:
“I was an art student and, like all art students, I was encouraged to believe that there were a few great figures like Picasso and Kandinsky, Rembrandt and Giotto and so on who sort-of appeared out of nowhere and produced artistic revolution.
As I looked at art more and more, I discovered that that wasn’t really a true picture.
What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people — some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were — all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work.
The period that I was particularly interested in, ’round about the Russian revolution, shows this extremely well. So I thought that originally those few individuals who’d survived in history — in the sort-of ‘Great Man’ theory of history — they were called ‘geniuses’. But what I thought was interesting was the fact that they all came out of a scene that was very fertile and very intelligent.
So I came up with this word ‘scenius’ — and scenius is the intelligence of a whole… operation or group of people. And I think that’s a more useful way to think about culture, actually. I think that — let’s forget the idea of ‘genius’ for a little while, let’s think about the whole ecology of ideas that give rise to good new thoughts and good new work.”
What makes scenius flourish
Wired founder Kevin Kelly suggests that a fertile scenius emerges when the following conditions are met:
Mutual appreciation. Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius as the best kind of peer pressure.
Rapid exchange and refinement of tools, techniques, and ideas. As something is invented, it is flaunted, then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
Success is contagious. When a record is broken, a hit happens, or breakthrough erupts, the success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
Local tolerance for the new. The local “outside” does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. Renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.
(Quote from Kevin Kelly modified slightly)
I’ve personally witnessed what happens when these conditions are met. Ambition and innovation flourishes.
Example #1: As cofounder of a once popular music curation brand on Soundcloud, Dancing Pineapple, I saw and participated first hand in the scenius that was the tropical house scene. Between 2015 and 2017, we scouted bedroom producers, brought them together into a united collective, and created something like a safe space where the artists would push each other, do songs and shows together, and take inspiration from each other’s viral successes. Multiple members of our artist collective—and many others who were part of our wider community—would go on to play at some of the biggest electronic music festivals in the world.
Example #2: As a former internet activist who built a very popular Facebook page, I became immersed in a scene of other Facebook page admins focused on similar issues. The admins of these pages strategized in group chats, shared each other’s posts, would sometimes hang out in-person, and engaged in a friendly competition that pushed each of them to innovate to stay relevant. The pages grew together, and their careers blossomed together. Many of them are still friends to this day—and collectively oversee pages with tens of millions of followers on Facebook and other platforms.
Why I want to conjure scenius
Why do I want to create “gardens where scenius can flourish”?
As I mentioned in my tweet referenced in the beginning of this post, I believe a Golden Age for humanity is possible, despite serious risks of us heading toward something resembling a new Dark Age.
However, I believe a or the bottleneck to us achieving something like a global renaissance is a shortage of environments where talented people can fully realize their potential by being immersed in an ecology of talent and idealism.
The good thing is that I am betting that “innovation playgrounds” will be a great way to unleash the scenius humanity has been waiting for.
So, in short, I want to conjure scenius(es) to accelerate humanity’s trajectory toward a Golden Age.
I want to see more people working on…
d/acc technologies—protecting democracy, freedom, and human agency
new housing and cities—drastically reducing the cost to flourish as a human
new art and culture—that inspires us to remember that we are made in the image of God, and should act more like it
A new global renaissance is near. We just need to do a little alchemy with innovation playgrounds to get there.
Why “innovation playgrounds”
I got a glimpse of the potential of innovation playgrounds when participating in “Zuzalu”, a two-month co-living experiment conjured by Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin that took place in Montenegro and brought together 200 full-time residents and about 700 visitors from March 25th to May 25th, 2023. I then deepened my belief in innovation playgrounds co-producing “ZuConnect,” a follow-up to Zuzalu, which brought together about 400 innovators for two-weeks in Istanbul before Devconnect in November 2023.
At these events, new technologies like Zupass were incubated; life-changing friendships were formed; numerous people quit their jobs to pursue more fulfilling and higher impact work; and most people left feeling more optimistic about the future (which is no small feat).
What do I think enabled these positive outcomes at Zuzalu and ZuConnect?
Almost every person invited was a practicing engineer, a scientist, or someone else whose job is to directly support the innovation process: many of them very successful people who want to pay it forward to the next generation.
The attendee list represented the cutting edge across many disciplines—not just crypto, but also AI, governance, public goods, longevity, biotech, music, and more. This created a beautiful collision of ideas and energies.
Extreme tolerance of new, even “fringe” ideas—and culture of building and testing tools when they are in their most nascent stages. Nonconformity welcome.
Lecture and unconference spaces, where it is easy to host community-organized knowledge sharing sessions led by people who are building at the cutting edge—giving tons of inspiration to participants.
Extremely nourishing environments—where healthy food and drinks are the default, and there are plenty of recurring activities (rituals) to keep your mind and body in a state where you can take advantage of the connection and learning opportunities.
Almost everyone living within a 10 minute walk from each other and event spaces are easy to book, so hangouts, whiteboarding sessions, dance parties, and spontaneous ideation sessions happen all the time.
Communication tools that keep people informed on what’s happening and make it easy for people to connect and coordinate.
Quality co-working spaces and fast internet.
Almost total freedom for participants to create what they wish.
In 2023, I witnessed what happens when brilliant people co-live and co-work together for an extended period of time—longer than a typical conference. These innovation playgrounds are much better than typical events for connection and collaboration. Each playground can help forge hundreds of valuable relationships, seeding opportunities for innovation and personal life changes.
A 1-month playground with 100 innovators
Each person builds 10 high quality connections across that month
That’s 500 new relationships 🤯
How many groundbreaking ideas and solutions will be generated by these new friends?
Why social media is no replacement for multi-week in-person experiences
Some of you might be thinking: “Doesn’t social media facilitate idea exchange?” “Doesn’t YouTube make people more knowledgeable?” “Don’t discount online courses or even Wikipedia!”
While digital tools can absolutely enhance the fertility of a scenius-conjuring in-person environment, social media and the internet are no replacement for the unique affordances of an in-person environment.
This whole clip between Packy McCormick (who wrote an inspiring essay “Conjuring Scenius”) and David Perell is GOLD:
But to pull out a couple key points:
People are comfortable using social media to share and propagate refined ideas; but in-person, people are way more comfortable playing with nascent ideas, being un-self-consciously creative, and breaking new ground. Proposing the new makes you vulnerable. People are more comfortable being vulnerable around people they trust. Trust is easier to build in-person (free from fear of being clowned by online trolls).
Thanks to the pandemic, people are more willing than ever to uproot and live in a new place for weeks or months at a time. So, what was previously impractical even if ideal (asking people to co-live and co-work with you), is now increasingly desirable for many people.
Practically speaking, I believe the most innovative communities will be those that, yes, do stay connected on social media and private digital platforms year-round, but come together in-person multiple times a year for multiple weeks at a time for intense bursts of co-learning and co-creation.
Creating a machine that repeatedly captures lightning in a bottle
By the way, I’m not saying creating such an environment where lives are changed and great ideas emerge is easy.
As Kevin Kelly warns, it’s really hard to manufacture scenius:
“Although many have tried many times, it is not really possible to command scenius into being. Every start up company, or university would like their offices to be an example of scenius. The number of cities in the world hoping to recreate the scenius of Silicon Valley is endless, but very few have achieved anything close. Innumerable art scenes begin and vanish quickly. The serendipitous ingredients for scenius are hard to control. They depend on the presence of the right early pioneers. A place that is open, but not too open. A buffer that is tolerant of outlaws. And some flash of excitement to kick off the virtuous circle. You just can’t order this.”
Some attendees of Zuzalu in Montenegro may believe that that two-month experience was magic that cannot be repeated. That trying to replicate what happened there is as challenging as capturing lightning in a bottle.
After all, getting everything just right—including the talent density, talent diversity, programming, venues, housing, food, location, season, fundraising, execution team, etc—is extremely difficult.
Skeptics are right about the difficulty of this challenge. But don’t we live in an age where we humans have figured out (or are well on track to figuring out how to)…
Create artificial suns (nuclear fusion),
Build assistants that can do anything (AGI),
Grow meat where no animal is harmed (cultivated meat),
Connect brains directly to computers (BCIs),
Engineer truly privacy preserving systems (ZKPs), and
Reverse the aging process (longevity breakthroughs)?
With each of these seemingly impossible things becoming more possible by the day, it’s not hard to believe that an organization—led by world-class experience designers and scene gardeners—can pull off creating innovation playgrounds that consistently conjure scenius.
And that’s exactly what I, along with a few other passionate scenius conjurers who drove much of the success of Zuzalu and ZuConnect in 2023, aim to do in 2024.
Join me at an innovation playground in 2024
If you’re a builder (or someone who helps builders) who believes a Golden Age is possible and wants to be part of an ecosystem that encourages and unlocks the inner genius of everyone who is a part of it, I’d love for you to explore joining one of the innovation playgrounds I will be co-producing in 2024.
The first one will be during ETHDenver at the end of February 2024, and will gather innovators at the intersection of crypto, ZK, AI, biotech, governance, art, and urban development.
As we enter 2024, I pray that you get lots of opportunities to be part of talent ecologies that push you to think bigger and bolder about who you can be and accomplish in this life.
So much love,
America 2.0 (by Gary Sheng) is a reader-supported publication focused on exploring how we can accelerate faster toward a Golden Age. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.