FastCompany: The Next Genius Idea Is Creating Global Empathy

The 92nd Street Y's annual 7 Days of Genius festival wants to dismantle the idea that "genius" comes from hubs like Silicon Valley, and show that it really happens when people work together.

At the end of the long hallway that bisects New Lab—a tech and manufacturing coworking space that opened in an old industrial building in the Brooklyn Navy Yard last September—a crowd gathers outside a gold shipping container, waiting for their turn to walk inside. The shipping container is a Portal: an immersive space equipped with a camera and a human-scale screen that enables anyone who walks in to have what feels like a face-to-face conversation with anyone, anywhere in the world.

The people milling about New Lab work in fields like robotics and design; inside the Portal, they wave at two people on the screen who work in microfinance, and are seated in the Impact Hub in Kigali, Rwanda. Everyone who walks out of the shipping container after speaking with them has the same reaction: "This is surreal."

But in a way, it’s also banal: It’s just two groups of people in different places, from different backgrounds, coming together to talk. The event is part of the 92nd Street Y’s 7 Days of Genius Festival, which for the past three years has activated conversations around the globe about, broadly, how to make the world a better place. The Portal spanned the coworking spaces in Kigali and Brooklyn to show what empathy could look like now.

Portals—originally developed by the collective Shared_Studios as an art installation two years ago—are, in many ways, empathy infrastructure: The shipping containers have been set up in over 20 locations across the world, where they’ve facilitated conversations between an American drone pilot and an Afghan man, and a Washington, D.C. woman who left Cuba as a child and someone who lived on her old street in Havana. Between Brooklyn and Kigali, the Portal broke down preconceptions: When the Americans thought of Rwanda, their minds immediately went to the 1994 genocide that resulted in the deaths of nearly one million Tutsis. Nancy, one of the Rwandan entrepreneurs, wants to talk about what the country is like now. "It’s a very organized country, it’s very clean, and the people are very welcoming," she says. "People aren’t stressed out here." The people in Brooklyn, she adds, were welcome to visit at any time.

Using Portals to create global empathy is just one aspect of the 7 Days of Genius Festival, which runs from March 5 through March 11. The weeklong event is organized by the Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact at the 92nd St Y, and it’s part of that organization’s effort to "pioneer a new distributed model of programming where we introduce a broad framework for discussion around a pretty big idea," Asha Curran, director of the Belfer Center, tells Co.Exist. The Genius festival, Curran adds, "is a global conversation about genius in the spirit of inquiry, meaning we’re not prescriptive about what genius is or whether it’s a person or a concept. We’re just putting the question out there and asking people to engage with it in a way that feels meaningful to them."

The conversation around "genius" has existed for a long time, but "it’s been confined to a smoky room, figuratively, that’s largely the academy," Curran says. Culturally, we associate genius with companies like Apple and pioneers like Bill Gates. The 92nd Street Y wants to break down that notion, and get people to see that genius can lie in forging new paths to empathy, in discussing new ways to create healthy communities, and finding ways to support the arts. Though technologies like Portals facilitate a lot of these conversations, "in the end, technology is just a tool," Curran says. "The real question is: What do you do with it? How do you leverage technology to re-imagine what community means in the 21st century?"

That’s a question that one of the 7 Days of Genius event organizers, Elias Messinas, has taken on directly. Messinas is the founding chairman of Ecoweek, a series of events in cities around the world that engage students and young professionals in thinking about designing for sustainability and social impact. This year, nine different cities, from Bucharest to Mumbai, are hosting Ecoweeks as part of the Genius festival. The point of the initiative is to bring young people together to design and implement improvements to public spaces in the various cities, Messinas tells Co.Exist. That can mean creating healing gardens in a public hospital in Bucharest, or re-imagining housing for children and seniors in Athens—both projects proposed this year by coalitions of designers that will continue to undertake small-scale interventions after the festival ends. "It’s all about identifying and responding to need within each context" and demonstrating the impact of these small developments, Messina says.

This year, Ecoweek events in India and Israel were live-streamed; the students presenting their ideas were just in a classroom, "but they felt like the whole world was watching," Messinas says. "Your issues are also issues of the world, and the world can learn from how you deal with them."

For Curran, that’s the heart of the Genius festival—and a way of thinking that could guide conversation and development in larger contexts. "The world is facing enormous challenges now, on many fronts," Curran says. "We have to learn how to communicate on a large scale, and the fact is, you’re just as likely to find a genius idea in Guatemala or Nairobi as you are in Silicon Valley or New York. We need to create a framework to bring as many voices as possible into the conversation."