Tl;dr: Following the example of the EA Hotel, The Berlin Hub will be a co-living and event space hosting people who are interested in contributing to humanity’s long-term future. Features include a visiting scholars program, as well as stipends for selected early-stage researchers and mentors.
If you want to get involved, you can express your interest , or join our Discord .
We halted work on this project for now. Our post-mortem is in this comment.
Why we think this is needed
A growing number of people want to do longtermist direct work. We have mostly focused on AI alignment when assessing the demand for the hub, but already have several expressions of interest from individuals working on other causes as well.
Despite there being a significant number of people who want to work on alignment in Europe, there is a mainland Europe-shaped hole in the alignment organization landscape. This makes the on-ramp for people aspiring to do direct work challenging: It is hard for individuals to convince funders, find collaborators and mentors, deal with the unusual tax situation that comes with independent research, and sustain motivation to study and work without a knowledgeable and supportive social environment. Our preliminary research leaves us convinced that there would be sufficient demand for this in the AI alignment community alone to warrant starting this project.
What we offer
We aim to enable longtermists to fulfill their potential by converting a full hotel or similar building into a co-living space. We will offer food and accommodation at no or low cost both for long- and short-term guests. In addition, we strive to create an atmosphere and supporting structures that take care of peoples’ basic needs. We plan to help them skill up via mentorship, resources, cohorts, talks, and workshops so that they can successfully take on projects which shift the needle on making the future good. Once things are up and running, we will also welcome individuals who fit our values and culture and decide to live nearby to use our shared spaces, e.g. for co-working.
We strive to become a center for the exchange of ideas instead of cultivating an intellectual monoculture. Our plans for achieving that include contacting potential visiting scholars and offering them an engaged audience, hosting (un)conferences, and setting up exchange programs with adjacent organizations, hubs, and group houses. Once the exchange program is operational, people staying with us could swap places with people from different EA-adjacent projects and communities, granting us helpful memetic exchange.
In addition, we are building partnerships with established researchers. These will help us assess applications, allow us to offer mentorship to the residents we selected, and may provide further room for synergy through the possibility of incubating new research groups and longtermist startups. An excellent example of the kind of project we would be enthusiastic to provide ops and infrastructure support to is Adam Shimi’s proposal to scale conceptual alignment research (which also has a well thought-out argument for why having an on-ramp in the Schengen Area would be valuable). He is considering us as a place to host a future version of this.
Community health is a central focus. Some projects and interventions we are exploring to ensure it include:
- Encouraging interactions with the wider EA Berlin community, e.g. through open-to-public events at the hub
- Setting things up so all residents have an easy way out if they want to leave (e.g. a fund for temporary external accommodation, encouraging everyone to come up with backup plans, and normalizing taking regular time away.)
- Thinking carefully about how to avoid death spirals (and having that as required reading for staff)
- Not focusing the culture heavily on psychological interventions but instead on research and projects, as well as fostering connections with external coaches and therapists
- Having an external person visit to interview people and review how we’re doing at least annually
- Learning from successful projects and people with relevant experience
We are very open to adding suggestions to this list.
We will have a low bar to entry for short-term (<1 month) visits, but will be more selective for long-term residents, especially for free or subsidized living. We will likely rely on a mix of expert advisors and resident voters to decide who gets the free spaces, based on perceived benefit to the applicant, the hub’s goals, and the internal health of the community (details to be determined and open to advice).
Plans for the location
As an MVP, we plan to rent a 15-25 bedroom hotel or similar space in Berlin for 2-3 years, ideally in the Wedding district in proximity to the EA co-working space TEAMWORK. Depending on how well our ongoing hotel search and the first grant application rounds go, we would scale back to one year runtime for the proof of concept, 10-15 bedrooms, and being within one hour travel distance by public transport from TEAMWORK.
Our reasoning behind aiming this high right away instead of building an actually minimal MVP is the following: Several features of the hub need a significant runtime or a significant number of iterations before delivering results telling enough that they can inform our longer-term plans. Some examples of these are:
- Building a community of varying levels of seniority and varying lengths of stay,
- developing a cultural framework for having visiting scholars over,
- setting up exchange programs with other co-living projects,
- creating a nudge for longtermists to settle in the Berlin area long-term.
Whether or not these features work out as we hope is our key uncertainty. The more fundamental proof of concept of whether or not an impact-focused, partially subsidized co-living space like this makes sense has already been successfully delivered by CEEALAR (formerly EA Hotel). Not only has CEEALAR’s hotel successfully been running for almost four years by now. In addition, they were facing significant hurdles we don’t expect to impinge on our own project: They were the first project of its kind, located in a significantly less attractive place, and went through Brexit. But first and foremost: They had to cope with the onset of the COVID pandemic and the ongoing restrictions for travel and socializing for more than half of their runtime. Despite all of that, they managed to maintain an overall functional and supportive community.
Who we are
Founder and CEO: Severin T. Seehrich
Severin T. Seehrich has several years of experience as a community organizer and facilitator. His last major project was to help organize CHERI's 2021 summer research program on global catastrophic risks. For the hub, his responsibilities will include project and team management, fostering and maintaining connections with external researchers and other communities, and designing the hub's program and culture.
Operations Lead: Laura Cerisier
Laura Cerisier has been involved in multiple operations gigs over the past few years and has also gained community management experience at CEEALAR. She will take care of setting up the legal, financial and general admin systems. She will also perform the location search as well as recruit and manage volunteers.
Our technical advisors will help us improve our institutional design with respect to causing people to produce good work, assessing how promising applicants' research abilities are, and giving us feedback on the quality of our technical outputs.
Robert Miles is an AI alignment public communicator with over 100,000 YouTube subscribers. He has a strong network and a reputation for producing accurate and accessible introductory material.
JJ Hepburn is the co-founder and CEO of AI Safety Support, and has a great deal of experience guiding new people into productive roles in AI safety.
Adam Shimi is a leading independent conceptual alignment researcher originally from mainland Europe. He has thought and written extensively about improving the on-ramp for new researchers.
Our community advisors will help us learn how to encourage a vibrant and healthy culture to form.
Sara Ness is the founder and CEO of Authentic Revolution. Her publications - including The Authentic Relating Games Manual, the core text of the Authentic Relating field - have helped seed 100+ communities across the world.
Manuel Allgaier is the director of EA Germany. As their key organizer, he has a thorough overview of Berlin’s EA community. In addition, he brings extensive experience in strategy planning, event organization, leading volunteer teams, and fundraising.
Anne Wissemann is an experienced community builder and life coach based in Berlin. She trained with CFAR, and has a keen interest in community health.
Our organizational advisors share their expertise in bringing projects into existence, so we will be more prepared for the challenges ahead.
Greg Colbourn is the founder of CEEALAR, which is possibly the best long-running example of productive EA co-living at hotel scale.
Dr. Inga Grossmann was a professor of psychology, guided several innovative startups for many years and is working towards shaping mental health as a cause area in EA.
Our funding situation
- 120,000€ seed funding from a private donor
- 40,000€ annual funding loosely committed by another private donor
January-June 2022: Severin stays at CEEALAR to learn from their experience, and has calls with various advisors and people who might want to visit or join. Severin and advisors work on plans and documents and get an estimate of the likely burn rate of the organization. Add an operations manager to the team. Set up legal structure. Create a website. Explore options for securing additional funding for the first year. Build a volunteer team and search for hotels/other buildings in the Berlin area. Connect with people who can help us find people who might be able to contribute. Select initial cohort.
Summer-Autumn 2022: We hope to visit the Bay area to learn from the community there, especially CFAR and Lightcone. Then we will rent a location, set up for initial guests, hire practical ops people (cooking, cleaning).
Late 2022-early 2023: The initial cohort lives in the hub for ~1-3 months (tbd) without us yet adding any new medium- or long-term residents. The initial cohort creates and iterates on norms, policies, and values, and builds a supportive and durable culture that can provide a welcoming space for new guests. We explore how to create an ongoing exchange between the hub and the local EA as well as non-EA community, e.g. through open-to-public events and group excursions.
Early 2023 onwards: The hub is fully operational, adding more and more guests, looking towards creating secondary EU hubs (Canary Islands? Portugal? Prague?) as and when we approach capacity. We set up exchange programs, build connections with relevant groups and individuals, and host visiting scholars.
At least 42 people for just AI alignment research, according to a spreadsheet collected by JJ from AI Safety Support, and 500+ globally in the current AGI Safety Fundamentals course.
So far, we have a “yes” from CEEALAR (formerly “EA Hotel”) and two other potential projects.
While our focus is on AI alignment for now, we are also looking for advisors from other longtermist causes.
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:
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:
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.
Wow! So hyped to see more infrastructure in mainland Europe! Hope I can live there one day
Very excited for this!
This sounds super cool! Reading the full post, I got the (maybe unqualified) impression that a lot of thought went into making this robust and making it work well.
Reading this makes me optimistic about both the future of CEEALAR's hotel and also the Berlin hub. But I also wonder whether there're factors / hurdles that CEEALAR hasn't faced that you expect the Berlin hub might face.. What do you think?
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?
Oh wow, thank you for this elaborate response!
FWIW, I don't think nr 2 is a big negative, if it's a net negative at all.
Yes, it answers my question. And no, it didn't raise more, at least for the moment.
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.
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:
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.
the direct Discord invite link is no longer valid for me.
Could you please update it to the same one that is in the Google Form?
Done! Thanks a lot for pointing it out.
I find the focus on longtermism a bit strange.
Because of short timelines and strong constraints on human capital, people in AI alignment / governance / etc. are of course the priority for this kind of spending.
However, other than that, I don't see a reason to distinguish much between cause areas. "The Berlin Hub will be a co-living and event space hosting people who are interested in contributing to humanity’s long-term future" Why say "humanity’s long-term future" instead of "improving the world as effectively as possible "? It's excluding some people (non-longtermist charity entrepreneurship comes to mind, maybe also various policy causes), and I don't see the reason for it. "Too many people/not enough capacity" doesn't hold up, that's just about choosing admissions, not the framing of the whole facility.
Anyway, do you have a reason for framing this as a long-termist hub in particular? If it's "that's who we want to hang out with" I personally think that's a totally fine reason. If that's not the reason, then given recent discussion around community norms, I think we should default to something like "including all EAs, then disagreeing on the details/beliefs." Here that means encouraging everyone to apply, but being honest about why you are accepting people, and being open to accepting some non-longtermist people.
Also, it could be that I'm way off here so please tell me.
Having spent time at the EA hotel, there isn't as much collaboration there as you might expect or hope for. I think it is worthwhile at least trying the experiment to see if this results in improved collaboration. Beyond this, there is a fundamental split between long-termismism and near-termism, in that near-termist spending on these kinds of projects directly trades off against donating to the Against Malaria foundation, while there isn't a similar comparable option in terms of long-termism (ie. long-termism is less funding constrained).
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.
Yeah, that's satisfying to me. I think it's honest and clear. I thought it was worth asking though, in case the framing wasn't deliberate, or you hadn't thought about it.
I can see you put a lot of effort into this reply - thanks!