Yes, we are currently working on a better name. Thanks for the input, and feel free to send me a message if you have a great idea.
The Berlin Hub: Longtermist co-living space (plan)
Thanks for the question!
Here you go for a chunk of the background models which informed our decision:
I see three main potential benefits that can come from impact-focused co-living projects like these:
1) Reduced living cost
2) centralizing everyday chores like cooking, cleaning, and restocking to keep peoples’ backs free for work
3) fostering synergies and cross-pollination between residents’ projects
CEEALAR (formerly “EA Hotel”) leverages 1) to the max by pushing the living costs as low as 6500£/year/person (according to memory, I might be off). At the same time, all the restocking and a significant chunk of the cooking and cleaning is taken care of so that people have their backs maximally free for EA work. Meanwhile, CEEALAR doesn’t have a specific cause area focus and doesn’t specifically invest much resources into enabling mentorship for residents and facilitating cooperations. These things are encouraged and do happen, but they are not a key priority. In the three months I have been there so far, the default has been people working on their projects side by side and only occasionally exchanging feedback and plotting shared endeavors over dinner.
As Berlin is significantly more expensive than Blackpool, we won’t be able to leverage the reduced living cost as well as CEEALAR can. At the same time, we are making plans to maximize synergies between residents’ projects. If things go according to my current dreams, The Berlin Hub might turn into an incubator for longtermist research groups and startups within the next years. A bit of diversity is useful for preventing groupthink, but with insufficient overlap between peoples’ subculture and interests, it would make little sense for people to even try collaborate. The filter we are putting into place shall ensure that professional exchange and cooperation between the residents is possible with relatively low effort.
We explicitly don’t want to only hang out with longtermists, but are trying to find a good balance. For example, we plan to run open-to-(EA-)public events at the hub without a specific cause area focus to make sure we don’t only simmer in our own juice. We’ll also encourage residents to mingle with the local EA- and non-EA community. After all, that is one of the reasons we picked Berlin in the first place.
In addition to my personal cause prioritization, I’m doing this because I’m excited about the idea of impact-focused co-living projects in general. I’d be delighted if we manage to deliver a proof of concept that goes beyond what CEEALAR already did and inspire others to try similar things. In fact, I’m already in contact with people from several countries across the globe who have plans for founding EA co-living projects. I’m happy to share my models and network with anyone who wants to do that as well, independent of their cause area focus and specific theory of change.
I only have limited time and would rather do one thing well than ten things badly. In this case, following my personal cause prio and my understanding of the longtermist community’s bottlenecks, the one thing I’m trying to do well is to start a longtermist research group incubator for the Schengen area. Somebody has to run the pizza booth. If my comparative advantage and what excites me most is baking pizza, I believe it would be unwise of me to not focus on making the best pizza in town, but to offer mediocre pizza instead so that I can sell veggie burgers, curry, tacos, hot dogs, pasta, ice cream, and haircuts on the side.
Is that response satisfying? Do let me know if not.
Each question helps me explicate my partially implicit models a bit more. Thanks for this one, it was fun to think through!
I see three downsides to our current model compared to CEEALAR’s:
1. We plan to rent instead of buy, and that in Berlin’s instead of Blackpool’s housing market. Whether just initially or long-term depends on how great the house we manage to get turns out to be. This implies that what Greg paid to buy the hotel in Blackpool (around £100k-£200k, if I remember correctly) is what we would need for anywhere between 1 and 4 years runtime for the property alone. If we were to immediately buy an appropriately sized house in the Berlin area, the price would lay somewhere between €1m in the surrounding countryside and €12m within the Berliner Ring (i.e. in one of the more central, but less calm districts).
2. Minor point, but: The best buildings we found so far are apartment buildings in the outer districts of Berlin. They are far cheaper than we feared, and offer all the key features of suburban living: A calm, conducive-to-work neighborhood, closeness to nature, as well as sufficiently good public transport connections to central Berlin. In addition, we wouldn’t have to navigate legal complications around the local zoning regulations like we would if we tried to repurpose a hotel for longer-term residency. However, this also means that we don’t have a central industrial-grade kitchen for the whole house. Accordingly, the everyday life at The Berlin Hub might end up looking a bit more like a large impact-focused flatshare than the unique model of CEEALAR.
3. Humans being as they are, the closer collaboration we plan to instigate at the hub might lead to us cultivating an idea monoculture at The Berlin Hub that isn’t conducive to our cause. Something CEEALAR through the bigger diversity and faster flowthrough of residents doesn’t seem to be in danger of developing.
Thoughts/preventive strategies on these:
1. In CEEALAR’s current model, the default is to offer free stays to everyone working on EA-aligned projects so that they don’t have to waste time in day jobs. The largest target audience of this model are people in phases of career transition—just like I was when I stayed there this winter after finishing my master’s and during developing the concept for The Berlin Hub.
The residents we would expect the highest counterfactual impact from in our project, however, are slightly more senior and financially solvent: Either freshly transitioning out of well-paid tech jobs, or already advanced enough to be just above the entry barrier for receiving LTFF funding as independent researchers. Accordingly, we plan to take some rent by default. Whether at or below cost and whether we can afford offering stipends to people who we consider exceptionally competent depends on our funding situation.
One quirk of taking rent: I got some anecdotal evidence that mainstream EA funders are suspicious of CEEALAR’s “weird” model of having people stay for free, so it might actually be easier for us to get additional funding if we take rent by default.
2. Not being able to free the residents from all the inconveniences of everyday life would be inconvenient, but isn’t a catastrophe. After all, other co-living projects succeed in managing their own cooking as well.
3. Bringing fresh ideas into the house and preventing an idea monoculture from forming will be a key part of my job as a community manager. We will experiment with this once things are up and running. In the current plans, that is where a) the visiting scholars program, b) shorter-term guests, and c) occasional events like community dinners with the local EA community come into play.
Does that answer your question, does it raise more?
Tl;dr: In order to create the best possible version of the hub, we’ll delay the launch to spring/summer 2023.
For anyone who is curious about the reasons, here you go. I’ll split the writeup into two categories: External reasons, and internal ones.
Launching a charity in Germany takes time: The process has been set in motion two months ago but could still take six more months. It doesn’t make sense for us to continue the search for houses before we have a registered charity with a provably full bank account. We’ve already found a house that would have been perfect for our purpose, but landlords are (for obvious reasons) unkeen to rent properties to not-yet-existent charities backed by anonymous crypto donors.
The recent crypto crash hit one of our two funders badly. While he is still committed to help make this project happen, we need some time to sort things out and see whether crypto recovers and whether it makes sense for us to get additional seed funding. Our first year of operations is still covered if necessary. However, it would be good to sustain our seed funder’s capability to start projects longer term and give him the opportunity to withdraw our promised funding at a point in time when it hurts less.
For the last six months, we’ve largely taken one step after the other and re-evaluated all the levers and gears of the project week by week. This made sense because the project is huge and unconventional and has few precedents. There were hundreds of conversations to be had so we’d be able to bump into a satisfying number of the relevant unknown unknowns. Hadn’t we continually gone bigger and more public over the last months, we’d probably not have been in the position to have most of these conversations.
By now, the road forward is sufficiently mapped out that we’ll want to switch from “explore” to “exploit” mode. At the same time, it’s clear that actually taking the time for the “exploit” phase will make a huge difference for the quality of the project. Here are some reasons why:
We want sufficient time to draft, correct, and perfect some key documents and processes. This includes policies for the house and how to enforce them, and legally binding and adequate contracts for future resident fellows. First and foremost, it includes finally finishing our doc on downside risks (and how to mitigate them), which has been on hold for a while.
The founder effect is a thing. If fellows self-select for non-relevant traits at the start of the project, we’ll end up with an imbalanced community. Because people feel most comfortable among their kin and because our reputation will travel, it will be way harder to correct such a mistake after the launch rather than before. I have identified two ways in which my current skill set might exert suboptimal selection pressure:
Before picking up this project, I optimized my facilitation toolbox for communication training and self-development workshops—something that is only interesting and relevant for parts of the EA community. If I were to bring only this skillset into the community, that would serve our plan of creating an impact- rather than self-development-focused intentional community quite imperfectly. In particular, it might lead to more self-development focused EAs feeling particularly welcome, while the rest decides the hub is not the place for them. I’d like to prevent this by enriching my toolbox with workshops on career planning, applied rationality, and research support already before I fully operate under The Berlin Hub’s brand and roof. (By the way: I’m very open for suggestions on which tools to learn and teach. If you have any ideas or even want to collaborate, shoot me a message.)
Before picking up this project, I optimized my facilitation toolbox for a target audience that is far above average in liking routines and structures. I personally *love* regular rituals like “Alright, let’s all sit down in a circle and answer these prompts together: 1) What went well during my last week? 2) What went badly? 3) What have I learned? 4) Which adjustments do I want to make for next week?” For others, having this as a regular feature of the house would be merely bearable or even pure kryptonite. I want to make sure to create a community that feels welcoming not only to me and copies of myself, but also to people who are quite dissimilar. This requires me to learn a more minimal and flexible approach to facilitating group processes. So to speak, I’ve mastered the Krav Maga of facilitation over the last years, but for leading a healthy community, I’ll have to pick up the Aikido of facilitation as well. This, too, will require some deliberate practice.
So, what’s next?
Laura is still doing ops remotely, but she is focusing full time on becoming a professional retreat organizer in the Bay Area this summer. I will facilitate as many workshops and retreats as possible over the next months for the Berlin area EA and rationalist communities (and sometimes in other locations) in order to fill the mentioned skill gaps. Feel free to reach out if you have ideas for workshops you’d want to see more often. Reach out as well if you’d like to collaborate on this, particularly if you are keen to help with operations.
As always, questions and comments are very welcome.
AGI Safety Needs People With All Skillsets!
Strongly agree! I actually drafted this post during a conversation of two alignment field builders when one said, “Somebody should write a forum post about this!”
The technical track of the AGI Safety Fundamentals course probably is the best entry route, and then getting to know more people in the field and discovering your niche.
The readings are linked on the homepage, and each week’s core readings only take 2-3hrs. With a reading group or e.g. tutoring from a bachelor-level computer science student, they should be totally doable without waiting for the official cohort to start.
And of course, the encouragement to reach out to 80k and AISS goes for you, too. :)
In addition, there’s a wonderful way to learn the necessary technical bits while contributing as a writer from the start: You could join the team of editors for Stampy, an interactive AGI safety FAQ in the making. It would greatly profit from more people adding questions, as well as from more people of all experience levels who write up answers to them.
Done! Thanks a lot for pointing it out.
The Conversations We Make Space For
An opportunity to practice your writing skills: There’s a practicum for learning how to distill AGI safety writing starting soon!
I’d like to have an inventory of EA inventories like this.
Here is the seed. Does anyone want to take ownership for maintaining it?
The Berlin Hub post-mortem
In April 2022, we announced our plan for The Berlin Hub, a longtermist/AI safety co-living and event space in Berlin. Aurea moved faster than us and has already opened the doors of another longtermist group house in Berlin. Though their theory of change is a bit different from ours, we think the expected counterfactual value of following through on the hub decreased so strongly with their launch that it makes sense to halt the project for now and wait for what might grow out of Aurea before starting other group houses in Berlin or elsewhere.
In addition, after the crypto crash earlier this year, our funding would only have sufficed for the less ambitious version of this project with about 8-10 bedrooms. That is one of the reasons why we delayed the launch in summer and planned to apply for more funding now. Given the FTX crash, we don’t think anymore that it would be an effective use of community resources to fund more ambitious projects rather than try and sustain what already exists.
While the Hub didn’t succeed, we did learn a wealthy amount of lessons on trying ambitious projects along the way. Here is some advice we’d give our past selves:
1. Stay lean.
Don’t waste time and money on more organizational overhead than is absolutely necessary.
Aurea didn’t strictly move faster than we did: The seed of the project already existed as a private flat when we started working on the hub. They moved in together, saw how that went, and decided to expand from there. We, however, started out with thinking about how to encourage a healthy house culture, mitigate downside risks, how to best set up an application process, research on which is the best organizational form for such a project, which skills I’d still need to build to fulfill the community manager role, et cetera et cetera. While EA tends to incentivize big-picture thinking, for new and ambitious projects with limited precedents like this, it appears to be more useful to set one foot in front of the other, decide only then where to go next, and only build additional infrastructure if it seems inevitable.
Instead, build lots of minimum viable products (MVPs), however bulletproof your Grand Plan looks.
People were impressed with the clarity and detail of our reasoning in the Hub announcement. In addition, because the reference class of co-living projects with the stated purpose of saving the world doesn’t look great, we created several pages of unpublished (and not yet comprehensive) writing on how to mitigate downside risks for such a project, how to create a healthy community, and other topics. We do think this upfront research was sensible. However, in hindsight, doing more small-scale trial-and-error alongside would have gone a long way: Starting with longer and longer incubator-style retreats as the first MVP, finding a core cohort to found a not-yet fully public shared flat with, and iterate and grow from there.
If the startup jargon of MVPs is new to you, here is a remarkably concise and informative writeup by Henrik Kniberg.
Start co-living spaces with a core cohort.
Our latest community plan for Ithaka involved building around a dedicated core cohort of 5-10 residents who sustain a consistent culture and reduce memetic loss through too much flowthrough. With that core group in place, we’d have wanted to invite short-term guests over to bring in new ideas, learn from the longer-term residents, and build their network. Collecting that core cohort through retreats and networking *before* going on the lookout for housing and funding would have made the whole project significantly easier. Here are some reasons:
With a group of people, we could have directly rented a flat together to start an informal group house, instead of going through the paperwork associated with setting up a charity in Germany.
This would have made us significantly less dependent on external funding, and more resilient to the crypto crash earlier this year that hit one of our seed funders hard.
When starting community spaces, work with the local community right from the start.
This is one of the things that are completely obvious in hindsight, but weren’t at the start. Work on the hub started almost a year ago at CEEALAR, a similar space in England. This made sense to me at the time: It gave me first-hand experience with how life in such a community might be, how the group dynamics work, and which routines and rituals may help make it go well.
This gave me the opportunity to learn a lot of non-obvious useful things about community dynamics. For example, in co-living spaces with continuous flowthrough, peoples’ social energy for relating to others and organizing events for the community seems to be highest at the start, and diminishes over time while the sparkle of novelty ceases, people develop their own routines, and become less open to form ever-new bonds with newcomers every other week. This is why we planned to have short-term visitors arrive in fixed three-week-long cohorts at the start of each month. While the long-term guests could have provided memetic and cultural stability, the short-term guests would have had the opportunity to share the sparkle of novelty with one another. And not only the sparkle of novelty: They could have settled into a more work-minded mode synchronously, until all of them leave before the end of the month and the core cohort has a week to fully focus on each other and their own projects. A pulsing motion of expansion and contraction.
At the same time, starting the ideation phase at CEEALAR meant that I couldn’t do any on-the-ground networking in Berlin before the start of the summer, when we moved over to start looking for houses and working on the charity paperwork with a local lawyer. This was a mistake: An outward-facing project this size can hardly be carried by two people. It needs a whole community to grow into and out of. It needs to understand the local needs and priorities, the existing community building endeavors and bottlenecks, etc. While we planned to build close ties to the local community after opening doors, it would have made sense to understand Berlin’s lively local EA community as crucially important stakeholders right from the start. Concretely, it would have made sense to build connections to as many Berlin-based community builders and longtermist-adjacent EAs as possible from the start. This could have left us with a decent core cohort already. In addition, a gears-level understanding of how the Berlin community works would have been useful evidence while thinking about the community plan for the house. At the early stages of the project, a solid local network could have come in handy during the location search: Many good options on the competitive Berlin housing market never make it into public announcements; relationships are everything. That may not be true for the most ambitious versions of this project, but it definitely is for an Aurea-style decentralized group house spread out over several flats.
Many people who filled expressions of interest were thrilled to help make the space happen, but with most tasks being rapidly changing desk work that seemed to need a complete overview of the project, I didn’t find ways to properly leverage the community energy through more delegation. Among others, because most of the interested people were not locals.
This is another thing Aurea seem to have done right: Already their opening party was a lively mix of local EAs, entrepreneurs, and neighbors. They built the community ties first, and the group house itself afterward.
A useful article in this context: Start with “who”.
2. Make extra space for building your co-founder relationship.
Founding a startup is like getting married: You have to talk about your shared vision for the future, figure out how to communicate well with one another, talk about commitments and responsibilities, finances, et cetera. While we as the Hub’s founding team had great chemistry at the start, we found that our styles of working and communication could have been a more perfect match. It would have made sense for us to buckle down and figure all of this out right away instead of over the course of our work together. You may want to have a thorough conversation right at the start of the project about how each of you works best. Identify your individual strengths, weaknesses, and quirks, as well as potential synergies and points of conflicts when they come together. We did this alongside starting out on the object-level work. Next time I’d start such an ambitious project with someone, I might want to go all-in on teambuilding and lock ourselves up in a cabin in the woods for at least a weekend, better a week.
First Round’s 50 questions to Explore with a Potential Co-Founder may be a good start for this. For bonus bulletproofness, finish off by applying CFAR’s murphyjitsu to your co-founder relationship.
Some potentially useful background models:
Google’s Project Aristotle-study on predictors of team performance. They found that the biggest predictor of team performance is whether or not the team members have a feeling of psychological safety, i.e. “an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.” As I consider this an undervalued key component of EA community building, I’ll write more EAF posts on it in the next months.
Bruce Tuckman’s four stages of group development. In 1965, Bruce Tuckman proposed that groups tend to go through four consecutive stages: Forming, storming, norming, and performing. The bottom line of this model, in one sentence: Instead of dreading and avoiding it, invite team conflict as an opportunity for growth, for developing psychological safety, and for finding effective ways for working together.
3. Funding: Don’t be over-invested in crypto.
This one is the hardest to give advice on. While it’s a fact that the crypto crash hit one of our seed funders and significantly reduced our start capital, it would have been hard for us to do anything different. Withdraw the crypto funding ASAP? That was not feasible without having the charity paperwork in order. Apply to more funding from different sources early in the year to be maximally safe? Definitely.
Our next step is to wait out how Aurea and the Berlin EA ecosystem in general evolve. Maybe it will make sense to pick this project up again a few years from now, maybe not.
Looking Back, Moving Forward: a cozy evening of reflection and planning [please RSVP]
Kick-off meeting: Doing Things Better—A course in the art of applied rationality
Note that we changed the location to teamwork!
Unfortunately not, the event depends on a lot on in-person interaction. The CFAR handbook is available online though, and there are at least two LessWrong sequences which try to teach the CFAR skills in a more interactive and practice-oriented manner than the handbook: Hammertime, Training Regime.
Agreed. There are some more arguments for Berlin:
- it has a local EA community whose member count may well be somewhere in the 100s
- it is one of Europe’s major startup hubs
- it already has a very large expat community and culture. Accordingly, you can manage most of everyday life from grocery shopping to socializing with non-EAs without knowing a word of German.
Regarding the plans for Berlin Longtermist Hub Chris mentioned: Here you can find our project outline. Note that it still is a work in progress and things will change over the next weeks and months.