MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Scenius and workspace genius

Last summer in Sydney, Brian Eno, the English musician, curated “Luminous,” a festival of music, ideas, light and performance. As its finale, he and associated musicians performed an almost day-long improvisational suite called “Pure Scenius.” One reviewer, the blogger indolentdandy described the settling like this:

The stage design was fascinating. From the audience’s perspective, Eno and his assistant were on the left sitting on office chairs behind desks with laptops and devices. Towards the centre at the front was Karl Hyde with laptops, a keyboard and devices. Behind them were The Necks: pianist Chris Abrahams, drummer Tony Buck and bass player Lloyd Swanton.

In front on the right was a lounge area (above) and next to it was a cafe tables with electric kettle, tea and milk clearly visible. Behind this were Jon Hopkins on piano and devices and Leo Abrahams playing a chocolate coloured Gibson SG through a MacBook Pro.

When not contributing to a song, musicians would wander over, make a cup of tea and sit and watch. The ensemble also grouped there in the intervals rather than going to a dressing room backstage…

It was amazing to watch Eno implementing his famous oblique strategies live – brief notes written and shared (using a webcam at his desk I think that displayed his notes on the laptop screens of the ensemble) for the band to respond to. Notes included (as best as I can remember them) ‘quiet and warm like blood’, ‘approach the extremes of pitch’ and ‘introduce hot and cold’.

via indolentdandy

The setting is interesting in the embodiment of “scenius,” a concept of place-based collective creation. Kevin Kelly describes scenius as “like a genius, only embedded in a scene rather than in genes.” He says that 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.’”

The concept has resonated in a significantly large and diverse body of theory and practice. This idea that the design of place can play a significant role in the formation, development and nurturing of communal genius and organizational knowledge development has been tested by political action groups, social movements, and creative groups, and its influence observed in serendipitous innovators and others. The concept moves in terms like “epicenters,” “third places,” “third neighborhoods,” “combined interactive intelligence,” “collective inspiration,” “social scene,” “community genius,” and Eno’s own references to “fertile scenes,” the “ecology of ideas,” and “an ecology of talent.”

A corporate profile

I got caught by the concept because of the very wide acceptance of the importance of place in creative collaboration, yet the resistance to the concept in the corporate domain by many who are nonetheless seeking ways to transform cultures and become more innovative, whether to contribute to or benefit from the achievement of a different sense of community.

In our work we have been called upon to develop, design or implement corporate facilities programs using newly developed “standards” or “guidelines” to transform a specific space or a portfolio of places to support, augment, or initiate other organizational change initiatives. These usually arise out of a finance function, most typically corporate real estate. Success is measured in terms of place and space (square feet per person, e.g.) and finally in terms of finance (cost reduction).

In best practice, the change initiative is cloaked in terms of cultural, operational or organizational change like “innovation” or “collaboration.” In many of these cases, the form language of the change is in “open” offices and smaller work stations, and measured, in the end, by the financial and real estate metrics of people per seat, square feet per person, and dollars per square foot, rather than operational, social, cultural or impact measures.

Among the key emerging tools used in these programs is a body of data collected in various direct and indirect ways. Depending on the tool used, the data can provide analysis and insight on a spectrum of occupancy metrics– whether a space is occupied, for how long it’s occupied, who is there, etc. I many cases the concluding analysis is, in effect, “look at how little of this real estate is used in the course of a day,” leading to a program to cut space by 40% or more. In the best cases, there is additional information and observation to advise on the efficacy of a space for its purpose or to illuminate why it is that certain places are chosen for certain types of work and why they might work so well.

The very real caution to take in programs like this is to understand that the subject of the study is the space, and not the people using the space nor the intention of the space. Poorly designed or inappropriate space will show low occupancy and will be cut from the program and portfolio. The question of what space would be better for people and purpose is not asked, and so is not planned, designed and implemented. The program then delivers space that potentially leads to the next round of observations that make the proof for yet another space reduction, and a disengaged staff and reduced organizational performance, while yet showing great financial performance.

Places where people want to be

So back to “scenius.” The concept that Eno outlines, the idea that the configuration or design of place and space is a significant and important component of creativity and innovation has been bubbling for a while.

Ray Oldenberg may have started this growing awareness of place-based creation and innovation with his book, The Great Good Place. It may have been Oldenberg who coined the term “third places” to describe the settings in the urban environment that nurture a sense of community and belonging. They are places that are informal, voluntary, and without the marks of status.

Stowe Boyd over at /message picks up the theme and talks of “third neighborhoods.” Boyd is something of an expert in what he calls “social architecture.” He speaks of the importance of social tools and settings for both startups and well established large organizations. He believes that “we are seeing a rethinking of work, collaboration and the role of management.” Scenius for him is what the calls “social scene” where “every aspect of our identity and psychology is shaped.”

The theme also resonates with Alex Steffen, editor of Worldchanging – A User’s Guide for the 21st Century. In his blog, Steffen suggests that the “art of courting genius” is an essential capability of those attempting to innovate and develop solutions to big problems. He points out that genius does not arrive on cue, but instead in “unruly clumps, in great non-linear spurts of changed thinking.” Without the right places and spaces, you’ll miss what you had hoped to achieve. Instead, you must “create a welcoming place for [genius] and increase the likelihood that it will show up.” Steffen uses the term “epicenters” to embrace the concept of scenius, places with the right ingredients to “set the conditions for a planetary explosion of new thinking.”

Design principles

Kelly’s reflection on scenius suggests that it is a concept achievable at many scales that allow this eruption of creativity to take place almost anywhere. He offers a succinct checklist for  establishing the “geography of scenius” that includes conditions of mutual appreciation, the rapid exchange of tools and techniques, the network effects of success, and local tolerance for novelties.

We’ll reflect in a later post on some more specific guidelines for achieving the potential for scenius. In the meantime, the setting of the improvisational performance we quoted in the top of this post offers a pretty good guide in its informality, ease, casual hospitality, elimination of the affects of stardom, various settings for participants, and multiple forms of spontaneous communication. The impact on the audience was huge, calling for multiple encores after hours of performance.

Most interesting was the impact on the performers themselves. Karl Hyde, one of Eno’s collaborators said, “It was extraordinary! We all came off stage thinking, ‘I’ve never been with a group of people that were so open-minded, generous and ego-less.’”