Ecosystems vs Projects in EA Movement Building

by DavidNash4 min read8th Feb 202111 comments

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Summary 

People should be aware that as well as starting projects solving a specific problem they could start/support ecosystems that allow many more projects to be created.

 

Ecosystems

What I mean by ecosystem is an organisation or project that supports a network of people to connect with other people/ideas/resources and potentially act as an incubator for other organisations and projects in that field. In the context of this post I mean EA related ecosystems.

Examples include:

And within EA:

I think there are often more attempts at starting specific projects in an area before there is an ecosystem set up to support projects. For example, there have been multiple AI safety related projects but there isn’t a central coordinating organisation for the various people/orgs involved. There is no CEA for people working on AI safety, that creates websites, discussion platforms, conferences, connects mentors, surveys members etc. There is a newsletter, forum and FB groups but they have mainly been set up as separate projects rather than as part of an organisation focused on building up an ecosystem to support the whole network.

I think even when there are (research) organisations in a space, the work of coordinating the wider network isn’t prioritised and falls between the gaps or people may assume that one of the larger organisations is doing that work already.


Benefits

I’ll outline what I think are some benefits of ecosystems, although I suspect most of the benefit will come from projects supported by the ecosystem than anything that directly happens.

Benefits of building ecosystems:

  • Acts as a contact point for people looking to hire/find info/find collaborators
  • Could provide a high value entry point for people in that field already
  • Could provide stronger reasons to stay engaged with EA, staying up to date with a group you’re interested in can be more motivating than multiple stop start projects
  • Creates connections between people with similar experiences
  • Provides feedback, resources and ideas for other projects

 

Supporting an ecosystem

To give a sense of what building an ecosystem might entail I’ll highlight some examples here (Mainly from this post):

  • Introductory space - website, Slack workspace, Facebook group, Google doc
  • Newsletters, podcasts
  • Member directories, mentorship/coaching schemes
  • Events - conferences, discussions, social
  • Discussion space - Forum, Slack, Facebook group
  • Research, job boards

One benefit of thinking in terms of building an ecosystem is that you can start to look for gaps in the landscape that are not being provided and potentially build them years before it otherwise would have been created.

 

Counter arguments

Potential reasons not to:

  • Sometimes there are really good projects out there that would do more good than focusing on building an ecosystem for the wider area, potentially they create more momentum or raise more awareness
  • Some people may be really good at executing certain projects and less good at ecosystem creation/support. This may be especially true in more established areas where you may need to get organisations and the community to buy into your vision of the wider ecosystem. If you don’t get a good sense of the community landscape, it is very likely that trying to create an ecosystem will fail
  • For some areas, it may reduce awareness if it was separated out from the wider community. For example, if there was an effective animal advocacy forum, would that mean less relevant content shared on the EA forum?

 

Missing Gaps

Here are some areas that I think currently lack a coordination organisation, or potentially even a go to person. If you know of an organisation/project or person who is doing this work let me know.

  • Global development
  • Longtermism
  • Existential risks
  • Emerging technology
  • Animal welfare
  • Policy/Civil Service (globally)
  • Academia (and subfields within academia)
  • Researchers
  • Journalists/media
  • Lawyers (Legal Priorities Project seems to be more of a research organisation)
  • Finance (globally)
  • Software/tech (globally)
  • Religious groups (I’m aware of people working on EA for Christians and also early work on Judaism and EA.

 

Thinking bigger

This is less related to the main argument but another consideration when thinking about creating an ecosystem is how encompassing you want to make it. By this I mean that you could create a space for people in London, UK, Europe or globally. I generally suggest for people to think globally if an organisation/person isn’t already in that space. For example if you want to make a group for people who want to discuss longtermism, it may not make sense to create one for each city before having a global space to have those conversations. It’s usually better to reach all the people who are interested in an idea rather than those that just happen to be in the locations where someone is an organiser. If you start globally it may then also be easier to set up local groups when there is a critical mass of people in one area that have been connected to each other via the global network.

 

Conclusion

I wrote this post not because I think everyone should work on ecosystem creation but because I think it should at least be considered as an option when people are thinking about what projects to get involved in, especially as it potentially leads to many more projects coming out of a well supported ecosystem.

If anyone is interested in setting up networks/communities in these spaces I’m always happy to chat in more detail about possible ways of doing that.

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This sounds just like what we are doing at AI Safety Support
 

We (AI Safety Support) are literally doing all these things

There is no CEA for people working on AI safety, that creates websites, discussion platforms, conferences, connects mentors, surveys members etc.


I don't blame DavidNash for not knowing about us. I did not know about EA Consultancy Network. So maybe what we need is a meta ecosystem for ecosystems? There is a slack group for local group organizer, and a local group directory at EA Hub. Similarly, it would be nice to have a dedicated chat some for ecosystem organizer, and a public directory somewhere.

CEA has said that they are currently not focusing on supporting this type of projects (source: privet conversation). So if someone want to set it up, just go for it! And let me know if I can help.

from 'Things CEA is not doing' forum post https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/72Ba7FfGju5PdbP8d/things-cea-is-not-doing 

We are not actively focusing on:

...

  • Cause-specific work (such as community building specifically for effective animal advocacy, AI safety, biosecurity, etc.)

Thanks for the much improved source!

would be nice to have a dedicated chat some for ecosystem organizer

Do you think the EA group organiser slack could be that? In a sense, we're all organising a groups (whether it's a local group or a cause or career group). If you feel like the existing channels there are insufficient one could add a channel for cause or career groups/ecosystems. 

 I've been told a few time that I belong in the group organizers slack, but never actually felt at home there, because I feel like I'm doing something very different from most group organizers. 

The main requirement of such a chat is that it attracts other ecosystem organizers, which is a marketing problem more than a logistical problem. There are lots of platforms that would be adequate.

Making a separate ecosystem slack channel in the group organizer slack, and marketing it here, may work (30% chance of success), and since it is low effort, it seems worth a try.

A some what higher effort, but also higher expected payoff, would be to find all ecosystem organizers, contact them personally and invite them to a group call. Or invite them to fill in a when2meet for deciding when to have said group call. 

Both the call and a channel in the EA groups slack seem valuable, and if you actually get people together for a call you could use that as opportunity to ask whether they'd be interested in such an EA groups slack channel or another platform. 

Do you want to do this? Or someone else here? David Nash? 
(I currently lack time to organise things myself, but I'd probably join if someone else organised it)

I'm not going to lead this, but would be happy to join.

Good thinking! I think I have intuitively been trying to do this for the German EA community, and this post helped me become more clear about it, so thanks for writing it up! 

> Animal welfare

As I understand, Animal Advocacy Careers is trying to support the ecosystem of people working in that field (together with Animal Charity Evaluators and maybe Good Food Institute for alternative protein sources). Where do you see the gap there?

I think the Charter Cities Institute is as an example of an ecosystem coordinator — they really seem to be the go to people for the area.

Thanks David -  this is all very useful!