What I learned from researching Burning Man and innovation

By Grant Hall

I’ve just earned some new post-nominals, adding a second masters to the list, this time a Master of Business (Research). I gained this through conducting a research project and writing a thesis which explored the links between innovation processes and the experiences of the innovators themselves who attend Burning Man. I chose Burning Man as the case study event, because I’ve long been interested in understanding the transformational effects of arts and cultural events, having worked on many transformational events throughout my career, and when I googled things like “transformation”, “innovation” and “festivals”, Burning Man – even though it’s not a festival in the conventional sense – was the most prominent search result.

You can read the thesis by clicking here.

To inform the research, I interviewed innovators who have attended Burning Man, some of whom are regular attendees. The three main things that I learned and discussed in the thesis are; 

  1. that innovators who attend Burning Man characteristically go through some sort of transformational experience associated with their participation in the Burning Man event, and that these transformational experiences can catalyse innovation processes;
  2. that Burning Man experiences habituate people to highly innovative behaviours that they subsequently maintain in their professional roles thereafter; and
  3. engagement with artistic and cocreation initiatives can precipitate innovation processes and infuse them with resources — such as ideas, people and time — above and beyond those resources accessed through formalised work roles.   

These findings have both academic and practical ramifications.

Academically, the research demonstrates how the artistic and cocreation activities at the heart of Burning Man experiences can lead to profound personal change through as transformative learning, and how transformative learning can subsequently catalyse innovation processes.

The role of transformative learning within innovation processes had received relatively scant attention prior to my thesis. Some existing research into innovation processes has found that various types of learning, such as trial-by-error, explorative or experiential learning play an important role within overarching innovation processes, and some explored the links between arts and cocreation activities and transformative learning, while others looked into the links between transformative learning and innovation. My research, however, demonstrates how arts and cocreation activities catalyse innovation processes through the transformative learning that stems from those activities.

Practically speaking, the research indicates that “transformational” experiences can aid individuals or organisations in improving their innovative capacities, and that such transformational experiences can occur through engagement with arts or cocreation activities such as those at Burning Man. This suggests that people should be encouraged to seek out transformational experiences to become more innovative, whether for their own benefit or for that of their workplace.

Any 4-paragraph summary of a 200-page thesis is an oversimplification. In the thesis, I go deep into detail about the reading I undertook, the theoretical models my research is built upon, the methodologies I employed, and I provide visual representations explaining the theories I’ve developed, all of which you can read about in the thesis by clicking here.

Whilst I am sure that many people will find my research findings to be interesting and valuable, I’m perhaps even more enthusiastic about the stuff that got left on the cutting room floor. As a result, I plan to write more academic articles based on this research project over the coming year or so. An example of something that isn’t really discussed in the thesis is how the research has revealed a great deal about design elements and approaches that an individual or an organisation might build into initiatives designed to drive sustainable positive change, such as peace-building projects, health promotions, organisational change strategies, education programs and diplomacy efforts. As a result, I’ve developed a series of workshops to help individuals and organisations understand how to apply these ‘transformational design elements’  to events, projects or initiatives they are managing, in order to drive transformational change or increase innovative capacity.  These workshops are built upon my research about Burning Man and innovation, along with my professional experience of working on dozens of transformational arts and cultural initiatives around the world including peace initiatives in Northern Ireland, Indigenous arts projects in Australia and educational activities in Vietnam and Canada.

You can find out more about these workshops by clicking here.

For me, what I learned through undertaking the research project was profound and included far more than the academic contributions and the practical applications discussed above. Unexpectedly, I found that talking to innovative burners about their transformational experiences at Burning Man was a transformational experience for me! I felt personally inspired by each of the interviewees as they told me about their lives and work and there were a number of characteristics that the interviewees all seemed to share such as self-confidence, a passion for what they do professionally, high levels of creativity and a dedication to working collaboratively to make the world a better place. A lot of this has rubbed off on me, and whilst I’m yet to make it to Burning Man myself (thanks, Covid…) I like to think that I approach my work in a kind of “burnery” way. I’m extremely grateful to each of the interviewees, not only for their willingness to share their time and thoughts, but also for helping me to transform many aspects of how I work, live and think.

So where is this leading?

The research has been well received, and my research project has helped me to make a small name for myself within certain academic and professional circles. Last year I introduced my research plans and early findings at professional and academic conferences and universities in Australia, Cyprus and Italy, most notably at the prestigious International Association of Arts and Cultural Management Conference (AIMAC) in Venice. Some of my writings are now being read in books published by Routledge (UK) and Springer (USA), and I will continue to write and build upon my research. I passed my Masters program at UniSA and the thesis examiners, from the University of Ottawa and the University of Queensland, had a lot of kind words to say about my “valuable conclusions” and “interesting contribution”. I was getting a lot of amazing conference invitations before Covid wiped them all out. This has all led to more university teaching and research opportunities and to being accepted into UniSA’s PhD program where I’ll continue to research the transformational power of the arts – with a couple of generous scholarships to help me along. I want to incorporate some Burning Man principles into how I undertake my PhD, including “radical inclusion” which means, as long as my Uni agrees, that I’ll welcome anyone onto my supervisory team who wants to join in on the fun! (Get in touch with me if that’s you!).

For my PhD, I plan to research case studies of where arts and cultural activities have catalysed sustainable positive change within individuals, groups or communities. These could include sports activities in conflict zones, arts activities in businesses, public art in community redevelopment projects and poetry classes in prisons. I’m especially interested in aspects of international diplomacy and initiatives that seek to solve some of the biggest problems we face such as global warming, armed conflict and racism. I’d like to invoke the Burning Man ethos of “no spectators” and partner with an organisation to deliver an initiative whilst researching its operations and outcomes. Please get in touch with me if you are involved in any project designed to drive change that incorporates artistic or cultural activities and might be able to help me out.

Professionally, as I do my PhD over the next few years, I will be delivering workshops, teaching, writing, consulting and speaking at conferences. If you’ve followed my blog at all you’d know I love to collaborate so please PM me if there is anything we can work together on!

Thank you

I’d like to thank you for your interest in my research and work – I assume that if you’ve read to here you have at least some interest, for which I’m grateful! Actually many people have reached out to me over the past few years to tell me how interested they are in my work and ask if they can read my thesis and how to stay up-to-date with what I’m doing – so thanks everyone, your interest has really encouraged me to keep going. I’ve thanked many people in my thesis, but would really like to extend my thanks here to my supervisory team, the inspirational interviewees, the kind folk of the Burning Man Organisation, UniSA colleagues and my family. I also acknowledge and thank my funders; the Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship; the University of South Australia; and The Honourable Steven Marshall MP, Premier of South Australia, who provided me with the cash to go to Venice.

Keep in touch

Don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re interested in what I do or have ideas for how we might work together. Or you can follow me on the socials below:

Publications that stemmed from this research project.

Hall, G 2020, ‘Transformational festival experiences and innovation processes: A case study’, Masters by Research thesis, University of South Australia, Adelaide.

Hall, G, Voranau, R & Rentschler, R 2020, ‘When digital workers meet art’ in Marta Massi and Marilena Vecco (Eds.) (in press ) Research in Creative and Cultural Industries Management, Oxon Routledge.

Hall, G, Sigala, M, Rentschler, R & Boyle, S 2019, ‘Motivations, Mobility and Work Practices; The Conceptual Realities of Digital Nomads’ in J Personen and J Neidhardt (eds.), Information and Communications Technologies in Tourism 2019 Proceedings of the 26th Annual e-Tourism Conference, Nicosia, Cyprus, 30 January  – February 2019, pp. 437-449.

Hall, G 2019, ‘Transformations at Burning Man’, in G Brown (ed), Eventscapes: Transforming Place, Space and Experiences, Routledge, New York, New York, pp. 195-197.

Hall, G, Rentschler, R, Boyle, S & Sigala, M 2019, ‘Digital nomads as an audience segment; the implications for arts organisations.’, Proceedings of the 15th International Conference on Arts and Cultural Management (AIMAC), University Ca’ Foscari, Venice, Italy, 23 – 26 June 2019.

Hall, G, Rentschler, R, Boyle, S & Sigala, M 2019, ‘How do transformational festival experiences support the innovation processes of participants? A case study of Burning Man.’, Proceedings of the 15th International Conference on Arts and Cultural Management (AIMAC), University Ca’ Foscari, Venice, Italy, 23 – 26 June 2019.

photo credit (image at top of page):
Tall Bike Land, Burning Man 2010
via photopin (license)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s