Burning Questions. Why I’m researching festivals and innovation.

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By Grant Hall

Regular readers of my blog (www.wherewordsfailblog.com) will know that I have an obsession with the power of culture and the arts to bring about positive change in individuals, organisations and communities. I’ve written about how engagement in arts activities can contribute to mental health, about how music performances can aid international diplomacy efforts, and of how sport and arts activities can help to build more peaceful communities – as just a few examples. This obsession, which has become my life’s work through League Cultural Diplomacy, has led me to undertake a research project exploring how festivals can contribute to innovation.

Many cities and states around the world, such as my home city of Adelaide in South Australia, are implementing innovation centred strategies and initiatives designed to emulate the economic success of Silicon Valley. Whilst the merits in doing so can be debated, anyone who has read much about Silicon Valley would appreciate that the vibrant arts scene in San Francisco and the Burning Man festival (held in Nevada since 1990 but heavily attended by Silicon Valley workers), are crucial to Silicon Valley’s innovative culture. Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, for example, discusses the influence of the arts on Jobs’ innovative capacities and his interactions with the San Francisco arts scene, whilst Elon Musk is reported as saying that ‘Burning Man is Silicon Valley’. Yet despite the importance of the arts and culture to Silicon Valley in regard to building an innovation economy, the role of culture and the arts in developing an innovative economy is not always acknowledged by governments seeking to emulate some of Silicon Valley’s success, apart from notions around using arts and cultural activities to attract the so-called ‘creative class’.

Many Burners besides Elon Musk have discussed how their Burning Man experience has positively impacted on their creativity and innovative capacities. What’s the link? How does going to a festival help someone become more innovative? How does it benefit the companies they work for, or their governments which seek to capitalise on an innovation based economies? It’s these burning questions that I’m trying to answer through my research project.

The topic of my research project is How do transformational festivals support innovation processes? Transformational festivals are an emerging type of festival which have been described as ‘counterculture events, alluding both personal and cultural transformation through self-realization and an ethos of sustainability, sharing, co-creation, creative expression and community-building’ [1]. Typically, transformational festivals involve camping in a remote natural location, often for up to a week[2]. Artistically, they provide an environment where ‘varied forms of expression can flourish’[3], and characteristically feature ‘a bewildering variety of animated and inanimate creations’[4], ‘dazzling light shows and spectacular installation art’[5] along with ceremonies and rituals[6]. Whilst Burning Man, which attracts some 70,000 attendees each year, is regarded as the ‘prototypical’ transformational festival, numerous others take place each year around the world, such as Boom in Portugal and Rainbow Serpent in Australia. I’ve chosen to focus my research on transformational festivals, because when online discussions occur about the links between festivals and innovation, it seems there is something about transformational festivals, and Burning Man in particular, that make them especially conducive to supporting the creative and innovative capacities of individuals. I want to find out why this is so, and I intend to do so by surveying and interviewing people who have attended one or more transformational festivals.

I hope that what the research project reveals will be useful for festival organisers, innovative companies and governments around the world. For festival organisers, the research will shed some light on the links between festivals and innovation. For innovative companies, the research it’s likely to provide details about the benefits they might obtain when employees attend festivals. For governments, it will reveal more about the role that festivals can play within the development of innovation systems within a state and increasing overall productivity.

Perhaps most importantly, I hope that the information gleaned from the research will help people who are actively seeking to develop their creativity and innovative capacities.

I’m undertaking this research project as part of a Masters by Research program at the University of South Australia, and I’m supported by a great team. Further support has been provided through scholarships awarded by my university and the Australian Commonwealth Government who granted me a Research Training Program Scholarship. This website has been established to support the project and invite discussions about innovation and festivals.

I’m really excited about this project and I hope you’ll join me on the journey by visiting the webpage, subscribing to the blog, commenting on the blog posts, or keeping up with progress through my Facebook group, Culture for business, governments and life. If you’re aged 20 or older and have attended at least one transformational festival, please come and take a short survey, or if you have any friends or colleagues who fit the bill, please share the survey with them.

What do you think? Do you have any thoughts on the links between festivals and innovation? What are your experiences? Have you attended Burning Man or any other transformational festivals? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Endnotes, sources and photo credits are listed on the next page.

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