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Scenius, Innovation and Epicenters
Alex Steffen, 26 Jun 08

Ally Kevin Kelly has a terrific piece up about Brian Eno's concept of scenius:

Brian Eno suggested the word to convey the extreme creativity that groups, places or "scenes" can occasionally generate. His actual definition is: "Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius."

Individuals immersed in a productive scenius will blossom and produce their best work. When buoyed by scenius, you act like genius. Your like-minded peers, and the entire environment inspire you.

The geography of scenius is nurtured by several factors:

• Mutual appreciation -- Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.
• Rapid exchange of tools and techniques -- As soon as something is invented, it is flaunted and then shared. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
• Network effects of success -- 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 novelties -- The local "outside" does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.

Scenius can erupt almost anywhere, and at different scales: in a corner of a company, in a neighborhood, or in an entire region.

I've been lucky enough to be involved (at least peripherally) in a few really vibrant scenes of communal innovation, and in my experience, the one thing they all have in common is what I've called an epicenter:

[E]very community needs the space where people who do innovative, creative, risky, noble, worldchanging things get together and fuel each other's ardor. Meeting your allies -- shaking hands, sitting down and eating together, talking, laughing, getting to look one another in the eye, getting to know someone in all the rich, primate non-verbal ways which can only happen in actual physical proximity -- is powerful. Epicenters are tools.

Kevin quite rightly points out that scenius is difficult, if not impossible, to create on demand, and the same is true of its epicenters. You can't just open a bar and expect collective genius to erupt. Artists can tell you that the same thing is true of any form of human creativity -- it just doesn't turn on like a tap. But artists can also tell you that while you can't command creativity and innovation, you can create a welcoming space for it and increase the likelihood that it will show up. It can't be commanded, but it can be courted.

The art of courting genius is one that people hoping to solve the world's big problems would do well to learn, because truly worldchanging solutions don't arrive steadily or predictably on schedules as deliverables for rational investment. No, truly worldchanging solutions tend to arrive in unruly clumps, in great non-linear spills of changed thinking.

This reality vexes today's philanthropists and social investors. For the past two decades, the trend in the practice of giving money intelligently in an effort to do good has been all about measurable outcomes and predictable returns on giving. This approach has had some benefit, driving social enterprises to leaner operations; but mostly it's been an abject failure. Indeed, as I wrote last summer, many social investors are finding that in trying to bring predictability to their work, they've become incredibly averse to risk, and that this fear of risky giving has left them almost completely incapable of finding and funding efforts that would create the conditions for the emergence of the kinds of innovation we most need.

(Worse yet is the trend towards half-assed citizen media and social networking approaches, projects based on the insane assumption that all that's needed to court collaborative creativity is a website and a good advertising campaign. This tendency to think that innovative collaboration comes free of cost, bubbling up out the Internet like spring water, betrays a poor understanding of the actual workings of either online collaboration or quality thinking. Most often, when these open/ citizen-media/ online-collaborative approaches work, it's because a core group in the project provides most of the important input, and usually curates most of the other participants' input into useful forms. So, frequently, funders' hopes that they can create transformation on the cheap actually just create a system that appears cheap because it externalizes the cost of expert participation onto the shoulders of others... and when their enthusiasm lags (or they need to get day jobs), the project falters or dies. The examples of failed peer-based social innovation efforts outnumber the successful cases by orders of magnitude.)

I suspect what we need is an exploding number of epicenters, independent and creative people and groups, and well-designed networks to support them -- things that set the conditions for a planetary explosion of new thinking. We need to prepare lots of welcoming spaces where genius can take roost. That's going to take some risk-oblivious, keenly perceptive, imaginative money.

But even more, I suspect it's going to take worldchangers understanding how valuable networked scenius is, and joining efforts to welcome it into their own lives and communities.

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Awesome. I know the feeling--like participating in a great permaculture design charette or community mind-map. There's a feeling of empowerment and positivity that unlocks inherent creative qualities and problem-solving abilities within each participant.

The philanthropy issue is very frustrating. The millions and millions that are wasted every year could be fueling the creation of real wealth. I'd love to see some money going to the global ecovillage network and to the creation of ecovillage incubators around the world.

Posted by: greensolutions on 26 Jun 08

very inspiring...

Posted by: anab on 27 Jun 08

As "intuition of a...cultural scene", this reads analogously to emergent properties in any complex system (e.g., ecosystem services in natural systems being more than the sum of all discrete parts of that system)...

As essential, I think, is respecting and acknowledging limits. When one accepts given limits (natural, cultural, etc...), it automatically creates "room" for innovation, and space for novelty to fashion sustainable solutions.

Posted by: JoshS on 27 Jun 08

Love these ideas - reminds me quite a bit of Richard Florida's The Rise of the Creative Class (which I'm finally starting to read, perhaps a couple of years too late) - although this sounds a bit smaller in nature, if same in ideals.

Posted by: pat allan on 27 Jun 08

Alex - Does your comment about failed innovation websites mean that a JudgeWiki won't work as an Epicenter? While a JudgeWiki would be primarily a decision tool, I was hoping it would at least allow for a more rapid "highlighting" of important innovative solutions.

Posted by: Mark Capron on 28 Jun 08


"Worse yet..." = right on. Very, very perceptive little paragraph there. :-)

Posted by: Jon Stahl on 29 Jun 08

Well said! Especially the parts about "leveraging" web 2.0 without doing the real work of creating a true community.

Posted by: Dean Pajevic on 30 Jun 08



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