Artists, Burning Man and innovation. Exploring the links.

By Grant Hall

I’ve been researching the links between Burning Man and innovation for the past two years. My research aim is to characterise innovation processes that incorporate Burning Man experiences, and over the past couple of months, I’ve interviewed 10 burners working in innovative roles or industries to learn from their experiences.  It’s been inspiring to chat with the interviewees, and the experiences they have recounted have been absurdly funny, profound and eye-opening. Furthermore, they have helped me to develop a deeper understanding of how Burning Man experiences can contribute to innovation processes (you can click here to read a little about some of the themes that are emerging from the interviews).

So far, almost all of the people I have interviewed work primarily in the business sector. In the interviews, they have discussed how artistic and other creative experiences at Burning Man have contributed to their innovation processes. Interviewees have discussed, sometimes in great detail, how they have learned from, been inspired (or even transformed) by encounters they had with artists and artworks at Burning Man. Yet despite the centrality of art to Burning Man, and that through the creative process artists are continually innovating, I’m yet to interview an artist/burner about the links between their Burning Man experience and innovation within their creative practice.

As such, I’m inviting full-time artists of all genres (for example, musicians, visual artists, poets, dancers), who have been to Burning Man at least once, to be interviewed about their Burning Man experience and how it links to their professional creative practice. If this is you, and you are interested in being interviewed about your experiences, please help me out by either, dropping me an email (click here), or by taking the festivals and innovation survey to get the process in motion (click here). With your help, I hope to be able to trace the ripple effects of Burning Man within the default world, and subsequently across the planet!

To learn more about the research project, click here.

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photo credit: Trey Ratcliff A Crystalline Hug via photopin (license)

Burning Man and innovation; 3 emerging themes

By Grant Hall

I’ve been researching the links between Burning Man and innovation for the past two years. Through my research, I aim to characterise the innovation processes that incorporate Burning Man experiences, and trace the ripple effects of Burning Man within the default business world, and subsequently across the planet. Over the past couple of months, I’ve interviewed 10 burners working in innovative roles or industries to learn from their experiences.  It’s been inspiring to chat with the interviewees, and the experiences they have recounted have been absurdly funny, profound and eye-opening. Furthermore, they have helped me to develop a deeper understanding of how Burning Man experiences can contribute to innovation processes.  As a small taster, here are a few of themes that have emerged so far.

  1. Innovative burners are changed by their Burning Man experience

“Burning Man changed my life”, or variations thereof, is a sentence that was repeated by different interviewees. It’s very clear that the interviewees were changed by their Burning Man experience. Generally, the interviewees have gone to Burning Man in search of transformational life experiences. Their Burning Man experience changed the way they think about themselves and humanity, changed their mindsets and belief systems, and changed their patterns of behaviour. Among the key emerging themes, interviewees reported how through their Burning Man experience, they have grown in self-confidence and developed a deeper appreciation for the ‘potential of humanity (particularly about our capacity to work together). Their Burning Man experience has inspired them to be more active and more community minded in their endeavours. Burning Man has been labelled as a ‘transformational festival’, and after interviewing burner innovators, it’s easy to understand why.

Interviewee: “There is a freshness to Burning Man. To me, every burn is the beginning of the New Year, like the man burning is a much bigger New Year celebration for me than January 1. It’s kind of like a marker to check in and see how far I’ve come and how much I’ve developed. Also, it allows me to really come back to my work with a renewed sense of optimism, and a strong feeling that I am the kind of person who can create ripple effects in the world. Because Burning Man has this participation element, it’s incumbent upon every burner to give and contribute and add to the community, and so when you’re practising living that every single day, it’s hard not to come back into the default world, which is what we call the world outside of Burning Man, without kind of bringing some of that with you. And so, the way that I envision myself after Burning Man is far more as a doer and a giver and a leader and a participator…  If you’re not going to step up and contribute then you’re not doing your part at Burning Man, which is kind of like, I think, the same ethos that causes people to do innovation and create innovative technologies”. 

The Burning Man experience appears to present opportunities for what the academic literature refers to as ‘transformative learning’. Scholars in the field, such as Jack Mezirow and Edward W. Taylor have characterised the outcomes for people who have experienced a transformational process as being positive for the learner, who, Janet Moore argued, might benefit from ‘an increase in self-confidence in new roles and relationships, feelings of greater personal power and spiritual growth, increased compassion for others’, and, critical to my research, ‘increased creativity’.

  1. The Burning Man experience generates outside-the-box thinking

Speaking of creativity, the quote presented below from an interviewee reflects some of the emerging themes of the research in regards to creativity:

Interviewee: “I think that innovation is about thinking of possibilities outside of the norm, right? It is to be able to envision what lives on the adjacent possible, meaning, the limit of possibilities about the technologies that we have available today, which are advancing very fast, and what can be done with them, especially when you combine them together. But especially to be able to think outside of the box, the typical cliché phrase. Burning man is literally outside of the box, you know, you are for eight days totally outside the box, from any perspective that you can think of, you know, society, societal rules, time and space, like the streets have the name of the hours, like the city’s designed like a clock, so there’s confusion about time and space and people get confused. And everything is just so bizarre and so, so crazy that for the first few days it’s all shining lights, but after a few days, you are literally dislocated from the possible, from the normal normality. You are literally pushed out of the box and you are able to see things differently. Psychedelics are another element there, you know, it’s a very safe place to do psychedelics and psychedelics are another tool that expands your perspectives, brings new perspectives, perspective shifts and perspective expansion, and I think that helps a lot too. And then there is so much art, so much creativity that in a way, inspires you to say, “Okay, I can also do creative things, right? Anybody can”.

When considered in light of existing academic research Burning Man appears to present a theoretically textbook environment in which creativity can flourish. For example, in a book chapter titled ‘Thinking Creatively’, Stephen D. Brookfield cites many academic sources to suggest that to be creative, one should be open to new experiences, new ways of seeing, new ideas, unfamiliar concepts and engage with reasonable risk-taking and nonconformity, all of which the interviewees report being exposed to whilst at Burning Man.

  1. Burning Man experiences impact default world innovation processes

A number of interviewees discussed how their Burning Man experiences have had an impact on their “default world” innovation processes. To start with, about half of the interviewees started businesses or initiated new business ventures that they directly link to their Burning Man experience. Examples include the interviewee who linked the founding of his environmental orientated tech company to his Burning Man experience of taking a flight over the event site (an experience that was gifted to him by other burners), and another, who having developed an enthusiasm for geodesic domes at Burning Man, subsequently built a giant one that he now rents out to others as a fun (and profitable) side-project. Other interviewees purposefully tested their products and services at Burning Man; for example, one tested a publicity stunt at Burning Man that was later used in a product launch for a company, whilst another tested elements of a personal development framework on other burners. An enlightening experience was recalled by one interviewee, who told a story of how a funny encounter at Burning Man influenced how his communications company seeks to drive engagement:

Interviewee: “Our experience at Burning Man did influence kind of our discussions terms of what was going to be engaging and effective back in the real world. As you know, out there you’ve got, you know, someone half naked in an s&m clown suit, going on about cake porn or something, and it’s in of itself is highly entertaining, because it’s so bizarre, but like, what can we do when we go back to the real world that could have that same level of engagement? And I think what we nutted out was, it can’t come from shock, it just has to come from deep authenticity and, you know, the aspects that we saw at Burning Man could still work in the real world of deep authenticity and provocation”.

The recounted experience of the interviewees reminded me of something I came across in the innovation literature called a Novelty Bundling Market (or NBM). Jason Potts wrote about NBM’s, and how they provide an experience where professional consumers don’t necessarily know what they’re looking for, but where they might find things that may help them in their professional or personal capacities, such as ideas, contacts, information or learning. It appears to me that innovators go to Burning Man knowing that doing so can benefit them in a wide variety of ways, without necessarily knowing in advance what they will find or experience there.

Where to next?

I’m hoping to interview more innovative burners by Skype in the coming month or so. I’m especially keen to interview some artists, architects, people working in large tech companies, and, because almost all of the interviewees so far have been white men, some people who aren’t white men! But essentially, if you are working in an innovation intensive role or industry, and have been to Burning Man, I’d love to interview you. The confidential interviews will inform a Master’s thesis titled ‘How transformational festivals support innovation processes? A case study of Burning Man’, which should be completed next year.

Links:

If you’d like to be interviewed about your Burning Man experience, please click here to complete a 2-minute survey to get the process in action.

If you’d like to learn more about the project, please click here.

References and image credit is listed on the next page.

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Digital nomads, innovation and Burning Man. What’s the story?

By Grant Hall

I’ve lived a fairly nomadic life since 2003, when I packed my bags and headed to Europe seeking personal fulfillment through travel and work. In 2014 I became a digital nomad (DN), whereby modern technologies enabled me to work for myself rather than others, at times and in places of my own choosing, and on projects that interested me.

In the course of my travels, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with fellow DNs, and among the discussions about DN hotspots, negotiating airport customs procedures, and where one can find decent wi-fi on the Cambodian coast, we’ve also talked about what festivals we’ve been to, or plan to go to. This isn’t surprising, as DNs are characteristically motivated to become DNs so that they can enjoy more lifestyle pleasures, such as travelling to festivals.

Burning Man is particularly popular with DNs. For many DNs, being ‘a burner’ is a badge of honor, whilst for many others, it sits high on the desires list. Many entrepreneurs, DN and non-DN alike, have benefited from attending Burning Man.  As Cynthia Johnson explained in her article for Entrepreneur Asia Pacific titled Radical Inclusion: How Burning Man is Helping Create a New Breed of Entrepreneurs“entrepreneurs and others are taking what they learn at Burning Man and applying it to other situations”, before proposing that Burning Man is potentially creating a more “inclusive, community-building” kind of entrepreneur. Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Tony Hsieh, Mark Zuckerberg, Alexis Ohanian, Jeff Bezos, Drew Houston and Elon Musk (who is quoted as saying “Burning Man is Silicon Valley”) are among some of the more well-known entrepreneurs who have attended Burning Man. There are many articles and blog posts written by entrepreneurs and digital nomads, who discuss how their Burning Man experience has contributed to their professional aims. Conversations I’ve had with burners indicate that the Burning Man experience is characteristically a transformational and boundary expanding one, which can subsequently support the development of an individuals creative and innovative capacities.

I find it intriguing that a festival can act as a fertile ground for innovation and as such, I want to find out how and why this is so.

To do this, I’ve embarked on a research journey, and I’m inviting DN burners who work in innovation intensive roles or industries to contribute to the research. If this is you, and you are interested in being interviewed about your experience, please help me out by clicking here to complete a short survey (it will only take you two or three minutes). With your help, I hope to be able to trace the ripple effects of Burning Man within the default business world, and subsequently across the planet!

To learn more about the research project, click here.

To read an academic paper about DNs I recently had published, click here.

Image credit is listed on the next page.

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Entrepreneurs, innovation and Burning Man. Connecting the dots.

By Grant Hall

In her article for Entrepreneur Asia Pacific titled Radical Inclusion: How Burning Man is Helping Create a New Breed of Entrepreneur, Cynthia Johnson explained how “entrepreneurs and others are taking what they learn at Burning Man and applying it to other situations”, before proposing that Burning Man is potentially creating a more “inclusive, community-building” kind of entrepreneur. As explained on the Burning Man website, “members of our community were early pioneers of the Internet and more and more technology entrepreneurs and industry leaders are joining our ranks as Burning Man culture spreads around the world”. Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Tony Hsieh, Mark Zuckerberg, Alexis Ohanian, Jeff Bezos, Drew Houston and Elon Musk (who is quoted as saying “Burning Man is Silicon Valley”) are among some of the more well-known entrepreneurs who have attended Burning Man. There are many articles written by entrepreneurs who discuss how their Burning Man experience has contributed to their professional aims, and conversations I’ve had with burners indicate that the Burning Man experience is characteristically a transformational and boundary expanding one, which can subsequently support the creative and innovative capacities of entrepreneurs.

I find it intriguing that a festival can act as a fertile ground for innovation and as such, I want to find out how and why this is so.

To do this, I’ve embarked on a research journey, and I’m inviting burners who work in innovation intensive roles or industries to contribute to the research. If this is you, and you are interested in being interviewed about your experience, please help me out by clicking here to complete a short survey (it will only take you two or three minutes). With your help, I hope to be able to trace the ripple effects of Burning Man within the default business world, and subsequently across the planet!

To learn more about the research project, click here.

Image credit is listed on the next page.

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Burning Man and innovation; what are the links?

By Grant Hall

Burning Man and innovation are often mentioned in the same breath.

In an article for The Conversation titled Why Burning Man is Silicon ValleySimon Willmetts wrote that world leading innovators attend and are often regulars at Burning Man. Apparently, Google’s founders chose their CEO ‘because he was the only candidate for the job who had been a burner’, and Elon Musk is reported as saying that “Burning Man is Silicon Valley”. I recently read an academic journal article which explained how within innovation intensive professional communities, in places like San Francisco and New York City, going to Burning Man is sometimes viewed as a ‘sanctioned form of professional development’, which ‘often appears on resumes’. But it’s not just the famous ones who are illuminating the links between Burning Man and innovation. Architects and other innovators use Burning Man as a testing ground for their innovations, and there are many blog posts written by burners who discuss how their Burning Man experience has supported their own innovation processes. Conversations that I’ve had with burners seem to indicate that the Burning Man experience can be a transformational and boundary expanding one,  which subsequently supports the creative and innovative capacities of individuals.

I find it intriguing that a festival can act as a fertile ground for innovation and as such, I want to find out how and why this is so.

To do this, I’m embarking on a research journey, and inviting burners who work in innovation intensive roles or industries to contribute to my research. If this is you, please help me out by clicking here to complete a short survey (it will only take you two or three minutes). With your help, I hope to be able to trace the ripple effects of Burning Man within the default business world, and subsequently across the planet!

To learn more about the research project, click here.

Image credit is listed on the next page.

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Erica Blair joins the Arts, Festivals and Innovation team

Erica Blair

Erica Blair

Erica Blair has joined the Arts, Festivals & Innovation project as an ‘Industry Adviser’, where she will help the team to find out more about the links between transformational festivals and innovation.

Erica is a Consultant and Adviser to tech founders and blockchain projects. She decided to found her own branding consultancy whilst at Burning Man in 2014, a business she continues to manage today. She has also attended and worked at numerous festivals around the world.

Links:

www.ericablair.io
www.linkedin.com/in/ericablairlive

This research project investigates how transformational festivals, such as Burning Man (USA) or Boom (Portugal), support innovation processes. The project will be informed by surveying and interviewing people who have attended one or more transformational festivals. If you would like to do the survey, click here.

To stay up-to-date with news and information about the project, please subscribe to the project’s blog by entering your details in the box towards the bottom of your screen, or by joining in the conversation in the Facebook group, Culture for business, governments and life.

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Exploring festivals and innovation. New Industry Adviser: Thomas Hajdu

Thomas Hajdu has joined the Arts, Festivals & Innovation project as an ‘Industry Adviser’, where he will help the team to find out more about the links between transformational festivals and innovation.

Tom’s career connects leadership, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Tom is CEO of Disrupter, his US-based innovation company. Over several years, this company has developed a way to create deeper and more creative strategic technologies. This year Disrupter is launching uNET, a next generation network company.

Tom is Professor and Chair of Creative Technologies at the University of Adelaide where he is Director of the Sia Furler Institute advocating innovation and entrepreneurship in the Faculty of Arts.

He received a Distinguished Talent Visa from the Australian Federal Government and in his first 18 months as a resident, Tom led a key initiative that was adopted by the South Australian Government, which saw Adelaide become Australia’s first gigabit city. The South Australian Government appointed Tom to the role of Chief Innovator of South Australia from 2017 to 2018.

Tom co-founded tomandandy, in 1990, reshaping the role of music in film, television and advertising industries by introducing a new process that lowered music production costs to a fraction of previous levels while improving creative quality. Over the next decade, tomandandy became one of the largest music production companies in the world. He has collaborated with Oliver Stone, U2 and Lou Reed to name a few, he has worked with top brands such as Microsoft and Ford, as well as in film and TV Studios and best of breed advertising agencies worldwide.

Tom has sat on award juries and has spoken, chaired or given keynote speeches at the original TED Conference, CalTech/MIT Forum, DisruptSydney, Pepperdine University’s first Disruption Conference as well as several universities worldwide about strategic innovation and is a member of Sydney University’s Digital Disruption Research Group.

He received a PhD and MFA degree from Princeton University and Presidential MBA from Pepperdine University.

Links: Tom’s profile on LinkedIn.

This research project investigates how transformational festivals, such as Burning Man (USA) or Boom (Portugal), support innovation processes. The project will be informed by surveying and interviewing people who have attended one or more transformational festivals. If you would like to do the survey, click here.

To stay up-to-date with news and information about the project, please subscribe to the project’s blog by entering your details in the box towards the bottom of your screen, or by joining in the conversation in the Facebook group, Culture for business, governments and life.

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

family at womad

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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Have you experienced a transformational festival such as Burning Man or Boom? We want to hear from you!

family at womad

By Grant Hall

Transformational festivals are changing the lives of individuals, and influencing society in a broad range of ways, including environmental consciousness, social organisation, and the way people create things or do business.

Transformational festivals are ‘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]. Festivals which have been categorised as transformational festivals include Burning Man (USA), Boom (Portugal) and Rainbow Serpent (Australia).

As a worker in the events, arts, cultural and festivals sectors, I have long been interested in how arts and cultural initiatives, such as festivals, can bring about positive change within individuals, communities and organisations. One thing I have found very interesting in my reading about festivals, is how many people, including some world leading innovators, have discussed how their transformational festival experience has had an impact on their working-life innovation processes.

My interest in this topic has developed into a research project, which will allow me to learn more about how transformational festivals support innovation processes, and subsequently share this information with others. You can click here to read more about my motivations for starting this project.

This research project will be informed by surveying and interviewing people who have attended one or more transformational festivals. As such, I am putting a call out for people (20 years of age or older), who have attended at least one transformational festival, to complete a short survey. Subsequently, I will also be inviting some survey participants to be interviewed about their transformational festival experience.

To do the survey, click here

The terms and conditions for the survey can be accessed here, and you can read more about the research project by clicking here.

Do you have any thoughts on the links between innovation and transformational festivals? What are your experiences? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Do you have any friends who have attended a transformational festival, such as Burning Man or Boom? If so, please share this call-out with them – the project team and I would love to hear from them.

To stay up-to-date with news and information about the project, please subscribe to the project’s blog by entering your details in the box towards the bottom of your screen, or by joining in the conversation in my Facebook group, Culture for business, governments and life.

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