Why the time for isolation is over: introducing the collective genius

Many brilliant things are the outcome of like-minded people coming together to elevate each other - the SheBuilds Collective is one such (online) meeting place. 

Time to celebrate collective geniuses? Image credit: Tina Gunnarsson
Time to celebrate collective geniuses? Image credit: Tina Gunnarsson

Have you ever worked on a project, taken a step back, and thought: “Wow, I helped build that.”

It’s what draws many of us into construction in the first place - pointing to the skyline, crossing a bridge, walking across a road or entering a station with family or friends, and being able to say: ‘I built that’. A day job where you provide clean water, sustainable energy, green transportation and safe housing to millions of people.

The opportunity to be part of something bigger, that you never would be able to achieve on your own.

Teamwork is often considered a key attribute for engineers, alongside problem solving, analytics and good technical skills. And it’s true - we all know that it takes hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people to bring a project from design to reality.

Yet - when we think of engineering role models - we think of lone geniuses

Talented visionaries who lead construction of projects the way a ruler leads their nation or a conductor directs their orchestra. Entire infrastructure projects are attributed to a single individual.

Gustave Eiffel leading construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1889. Isambard Kingdom Brunel single-handedly engineering the Great Western Railway. Ove Arup sketching the Sydney Opera House.

While it’s difficult (though not impossible) to attribute all 300 individuals who constructed the Eiffel Tower, or the thousands of people who built Crossrail, it’s not just in the field of engineering. Darwin, Beethoven, Da Vinci and Galileo are all frequent role models in the ‘Great White Man’ theory of history.

There’s good news for the rest of us. Geniuses don’t just pop up. Good work isn’t only done in isolation. And the biggest misconception - there isn’t only room for one at the top.

Introducing Scenius: the Collective Genius

Many brilliant things are the outcome of like-minded people coming together to elevate each other. The Inklings, an informal literary discussion group based primarily at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, were the first times J R R Tolkien shared The Lord of the Rings, and C S Lewis shared The Chronicles of Narnia.

At a party in London in the 1830s, polymath Mary Somerville invites her student Ada Lovelace along, introducing her to Charles Babbage and his Analytical Engine (now credited as the world’s first computer) and Charles Dickens’ writing. Ada combines language and analytics to form what she called ‘poetical science’ and what we today consider the world’s first programming language.

It’s possible for many successful individuals to emerge from the same scene, elevating each other to perform better. Brian Eno, pioneer of ambient music, termed this observation ‘Scenius’ - a collective of people exchanging ideas, tools and techniques. A fellowship where quirks, unconventional and revolutionary ideas are not just tolerated but encouraged, inspiration is shared and successes are celebrated. A group where great people make things even better.

Modern examples of scenius are all around us.

Silicon Valley is home to thousands of tech start-ups. One of my recent favourite films is Hidden Figures, which tells the story of four mathematicians - Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Christine Darden and Mary Jackson - and their contributions to NASA’s achievements during the post-Cold War space race.

In an industry slightly closer to home, something is happening over at Kendal Coffee House in London. It’s 1818 and a small group of eight young engineers, aged between 19 and 32, meet over coffee and go on to found the Institution of Civil Engineers, the world’s first professional engineering body. Some 203 years and 95,000 engineering professionals later, the laws of probability means there are sceniuses working among us right now.

We need as many sceniuses as we can cultivate

Construction is facing big sustainability challenges to achieve net zero by 2050 and we need passionate people who think differently, and are prepared to work hard to make impactful changes. Designers who redesign for net-zero carbon, engineering entrepreneurs who devise low impact methodologies, technicians who successfully trial new sustainable materials, and committees who evolve construction codes for a sustainable future.

In the pandemic era of self-isolation, where people work in silos and new digital ways of working are rapidly developed - two engineers decided to start a scene. A scene inspired by the achievements of a group of Women in Construction and Engineering (WICE) award nominees. An inclusive community where ideas for creating change are shared, successes are celebrated and diversity is allowed to flourish. A scene to remind us that great ideas originate in coffee shops and over small conversations that are put into action.

We invite you to the SheBuilds Collective, a meeting place for engineers who want to change the world.

We feature inspiring everyday engineers and non-engineers in STEM. Across the span of a week, a different person takes over the account, and you get a glimpse into their life - at work, and outside work. Remoulding a more inclusive engineering stereotype - to show that engineers can do yoga, go hiking, have social media accounts and fuel interests and hobbies - and still be amazing engineers. Sharing motivation, inspiration and sparking ideas for improvement.

We hope to provide a space that inspires everyone to go beyond to do their best, and that over time it will organically grow into something bigger. Hopefully members can help elevate the collective and each other to bring about real change. Perhaps we can even inspire a few sceniuses.

For now, you can find us on Instagram as @shebuilds.collective.

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