#10: The Unconference to Community Pipeline

This is cross-posted from my “monthly” newsletter that I diligently update every quarter. I’m the founder of the Neighborhood, a one-square mile multigenerational campus made of coliving houses, coparenting villages, third spaces, and quarterly unconferences in the heart of SF. We’re now a 501c3! Check out past updates at jasonbenn.com.

In my last update, I described our first unconference. Well, three months later, we (myself and the dependable Kay Sorin) have just wrapped up our second! It was themed around aligned AGI and 100 people came, including some Very Important ones.¹

The reason I'm so into hosting unconferences these days is because it seems that a well-structured unconference can create enough momentum to materialize an inspiring new community in just 3-6 months. By the numbers:

  1. Califlorence Climate had 45 applicants that were at least 40% open to coliving. That’s produced a group that has been steadily meeting, bonding, and recruiting every week since April, and we’re on track to fill our 10BR house (14BR next year) on the Panhandle by September 1st. I’m super proud of this group. I think they’re at least as warm and inspiring as the Archive was when we started.
  2. Califlorence: Aligned AGI had 56 applicants that were at least 40% open to coliving. A group is just now starting to assemble. Their new 12BR (18BR next year) is scheduled to open October 1st (although it might be delayed because our renovation plans might get Discretionary Reviewed due to an ornery neighbor — welcome to real estate in San Francisco).

To me, this is a miraculous discovery. Last year I was struggling to piece together any community with my semi-monthly public meetups attended mostly by people that didn’t know each other, and now we’re materializing top-tier houses with arbitrary themes once per quarter.


What was cool about our unconference

The main constructive feedback we got last time was that 3 straight days of indoor large group conversations, while stimulating, leaves people feeling absolutely destroyed. I suspected that something should change when I had to wake up Christina Jenq for her own session. We ended up swapping another session out for Nap Time.

So we mixed up the format this time. The idea was to break people up into small groups for every meal and dispatch those groups to local cafes and restaurants within walking distance. Advantages:

  1. People are going on 5-20 minute walks with each other, in the sunshine, 4-6x/day
  2. It not-so-subtly gave people a taste of the Neighborhood lifestyle
  3. It massively simplified logistical complexity during the event. Last time, most organizer headaches were from coordinating food, staff, and chefs. By paying a one-time, up-front programming cost, we were able to outsource 75% of our meals
  4. As a result, we were able to reduce prices from $400 to $200
  5. It allows us to start building relationships with local businesses like Palmyra, The Mill, Dumpling House, Arbor, Lady Falcon, etc
  6. Most importantly, attendees would get uninterrupted, high-quality conversations in quiet settings throughout the weekend, making for a much more humane pace and allowing people to build real relationships with at least 20 other attendees each.

We could have matched people randomly and it probably still would’ve been an improvement, but I was really keen to make the groups feel like exactly the people you wanted to meet. I’m inspired by SwapCard, another conference app that allows you to request 30 minute meetings with any other attendee. The problem with SwapCard is that it only works if you take an hour to read everyone else’s bio, and we just knew that most people wouldn’t care enough.

The solution was to ask people what would make the conference great for them, and then use GPT-4 to predict who they’d want to meet.

Specifically, for every possible pair of attendees, we had a script compare Person A’s goals to Person B’s expertise (which we also gathered during onboarding), and asked GPT-4 to estimate the likelihood of them having a great conversation from 0-100%.

We also hacked together a janky website so that you could hand-request specific people, just like SwapCard. It was a big list of names, bios, and checkboxes, with the top 30% pre-selected for you. About 25% of attendees used it to tweak their matchmaking.

The last step was to take these preferences and produce a series of small groups for everyone, taking into account people’s availability.

I didn’t know how to do this, but apparently there’s a rich vein of literature about matching problems like this (one of which was awarded a Nobel in 2012). We settled on the Stable Roommates algorithm, found a nice simple implementation on GitHub, and ouallah, the groups were looking pretty great.

We also added a few finishing touches:

  • We’d downgrade mutual preferences by 30% after each match, so that everyone would get mostly new people each meal
  • We scripted the matches to roll out gradually throughout the weekend, so that people could modify their requests between meals
  • We sent emails to each group with the restaurant, time, each other’s bios, and each others goals. This also let them confirm and coordinate with each other
  • We sent multiple groups to each restaurant so that if one group disintegrated, any orphans could just join another group
  • We only matched people that opted in (we had separate calendar invites for every meal), so that people could participate as much or as little as they wished
  • And we cross-posted every group and their locations to the event’s Discord so that latecomers could crash other groups.

The feedback was very positive, with several people congratulating us on our conference innovation and one attendee tearfully saying it would be “difficult to improve” (!). I disagree but it was charming to hear :)

I’d love to see more event organizers copy this idea. From the organizer perspective, it’s very cool to have a script running in the background and to feel like your event is running somewhat automatically. And as an attendee, I really did feel like I got to develop actual relationships with most of the people I was excited to meet.

Between events like these, my Explorer’s Clubs, T-Groups, Jeffersonian Dinners, etc, I’m consistently struck by how LARGE the space of possibilities is for conversation formats, and how little of it we consistently explore. While the existing literature on collective intelligence is frankly disappointing, I think AIs are actually quite well-suited for various types of coordination and matchmaking and so I feel very fortunate that I get to explore this space for my job. It’s amazing how much energy and creativity you unlock when you feel internally aligned.

What’s next for the Neighborhood

  • We bought out a theater to watch Oppenheimer next month! We’ll have 159 seats in total. Michael Nielsen is going to speak for 20 minutes before showtime to explain why the Manhattan Project is relevant to our current moment in AI. You can join us here.
  • Next quarter’s unconference, Califlorence Village, is going to be September 15-18 and is for folks on similar parenting timelines and that want to build a coliving village like Radish or Noasis (2-8 adjacent homes with a big joint backyard). This is the last big piece of the Neighborhood vision to de-risk: we’ve now executed on quarterly unconferences, coliving houses, and third spaces. The main challenge will be to figure out how to rearrange friends and their kids into neighboring houses. Phil Levin and I are collaborating and have put together some initial thoughts on how to acquire adjacent real estate here, feedback welcome. The retreat itself is all-inclusive, on 21 acres near Yosemite, we’ll have a 50 person bus to shuttle everyone to and from SF, kid-friendly and includes nanny care, and we’ve got professional chefs serving farm-to-table feasts for every meal. This first coliving village will be like the Tesla Roadster, and once we know how to pull this off at all we can reduce costs and broaden access later.
  • For fun, we’re also hosting a Future Storytelling Workshop in October. It’ll be 60% sci-fi authors and visual storytellers and 40% folks building our sci-fi future, like nuclear fusion founders, AI researchers, VR designers, and brain-computer interface engineers. We’ll take the Amtrak to a nearby summer camp and the builders will give talks about their predictions for the future and collaborate with the storytellers on realistic and positive visions of the future.
  • If you’re interested in climate change, consider applying to Treehouse! We’re renovating the house to double the size of the common space and add a bedroom and coworking space and I genuinely think it’s going to be one of the coolest communities in San Francisco when it opens September 1st. Read about them and apply here.
  • If you’re interested in coliving generally, consider applying to the Oak St house! If you ever knew Genesis before they shut down, it’s the blue house (811-815 Oak), except we’re going to make the downstairs space an actually viable common space by merging it with the adjacent bedroom, adding windows and a door into the backyard, and adding a communal kitchen with 35+ cubic feet of fridge space. 6BRs will open September 1st, 6BRs will open October 1st, and the last 6BRs will open sometime next year. It won’t be explicitly themed but many people will be working on AI.
    • Update 2023-10-24: one of my two houses was foreclosed because the owner didn’t get the permits for the renovations he was doing, the city noticed and issued a stop work order, and so the bank repossessed the house. Short of a coliving house, I gave this opportunity to Treehouse and I postponed the new AI community. Damn.
  • Casey Caruso and friends from Califlorence: Aligned AGI are hosting the “largest AI womxn hackathon” in the next few months. OpenAI will be providing credits and mentorship and Vercel and Replit are sponsoring. To apply (or sponsor), check out hackhers.ai or email info@hackhers.ai.
  • On my mind: where can work-from-home Neighbors have shared lunches? Does anyone want to collaborate on opening a cafeteria with a meal plan?
  • The next thing to improve in our unconferences is better guidance for session facilitators. There wasn’t much good advice out there, so Devon Zuegel and I co-wrote this list of tactics.

Thanks, as always, for reading.


— Jason

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  1. Attendees this time included governance experts like State Senator Scott Wiener, who’s currently drafting AI legislation for CA; Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins, a State Senator with experience overseeing Alaska’s quasi-UBI; and researchers like Richard Ngo; alignment experts like Jan Leike, the co-lead of superalignment at OpenAI; AGI builders including leadership and technical staff building AGI at OpenAI, DeepMind, Anthropic; the authors of many of our favorite papers; and chipmaking founders; forecasters like Danny Hernandez of Anthropic and many Scaling Laws papers; labor impacts specialists like Zack Exley, who ran Bernie’s fundraising in 2016 and coauthored the Green New Deal; open-source advocates like Ben Brooks, head of policy at Stability AI, who did an admirable job staying cool under the withering pressure of the Califlorence Inquisition; funders of the next wave of AGIs, including a member of the PayPal Mafia; and lots more, including folks working on ARC Evals, AI for science, geopolitics, and mitigating harms.
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