Burning Man and Innovation - What's the connection?

What is Burning Man? 

Some call it the biggest party on the planet. Wikipedia mentions that it is described as an experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance. The Burning Man website says that trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular colour looks like to someone who is blind.

It's linked to startup culture, since Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google was hired by Sergey Brin, and Larry Page in 2001, partly because "He was the only candidate who had been to Burning Man". I remember spending 2 days during 2012 at an unconference in Google's Mountain View headquarters. In one of the buildings, I noticed many photographs of Burning Man plastered over multiple walls. One of my hosts told me, he takes his entire team from Google to Burning Man each year. 

I heard that many startups are created during those 8 days in the dusty Nevada desert each year. If you stand up at many tech events in Silicon Valley and ask the 'burners' in the room to put their hands up, a lot of hands go up! ['Burner' is the term used to describe people that have attended] Whatever your opinion, it's most definitely a unique experience. Trying to reach many of my friends in Silicon Valley when Burning Man occurs is usually tough, as many are at Black Rock City.

Why did I attend? 

I tracked down one of the motorised cupcakes the next morning.

I tracked down one of the motorised cupcakes the next morning.

It was 2010, I was on my 6 month round the world trip. I had no plans to visit the USA during my journey, but a very good friend who had been to Burning Man in 2009, insisted that I needed to go. He told me that this would change my life. Nothing would prepare me for what I was going to experience. He was right as I'm still digesting the experience of attending Burning Man, 4 years later! 

The experience

It's simply staggering, how 50,000 strangers come together and build a city in the desert, including streets!  How do you describe riding a bike at 2am in the desert, and hearing a stranger call out, "Dude, you're awesome!"? Zooming alongside me, was a guy driving a motorised cupcake, decorated with flashing lights.

One of the 10 principles of Burning Man, is gifting. I will never forget walking down one of the main streets on an extremely hot day, and seeing a queue of people. Someone was gifting ice cream! Another principle is radical inclusion. There was an amazing atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance. Nobody was judging you. I recall walking down the street, and a guy in a yellow alien outfit needed help finding the toilets. His costume didn't fit very well, and he couldn't see out of it easily. As I helped him to his destination, we chatted. It turns out his was a high flying corporate lawyer from Washington, DC. Yes, there were quite a few naked people wandering around as well, including some very beautiful women! At first, it was really bizarre. After a couple of days, you just got used to another of those 10 principles, Radical Self-expression. 


I'll never forget meeting a chap called 'Mitch' one day, who was from Montana. He was mid 50s, and his wife had just left him. Instead of lounging in self-pity, he packed a small backpack, grabbed his bicycle and cycled alone 800 miles south to take part in Burning Man. Mitch had run out of food & water after 3 days in his tent. So I invited him to our 'camp' to have dinner with us, and we learned more about his life story. Another one of the principles, is Radical Self-reliance. 

How did it impact my approach to innovation? 

It definitely impacted my creative approach to problem solving. When solving problems at work, you go through many ideas. The level of creativity expressed at Burning Man was simply exceptional [and that's over and above my experience of working in an advertising agency]. I believe many of the innovative projects I've delivered in the last few years are inspired by what I saw and heard on the 'playa'

The concept of gifting, without expecting anything in return really inspired me. When I was at GSK, I spent lunchtimes working on organising events to bring different people from the company together to network and exchange ideas. It wasn't part of my job description, and it wouldn't lead to a bigger bonus or increase in pay. Some colleagues asked me, Why are you doing this? I also founded Health 2.0 London based upon the principle of gifting. I do my best to curate each event like a mini TED conference, and my time was not paid, and there was no charge for attendance. Again, people kept asking me, What do you get out of this? You could be using your time on paid projects. 

The other principle I experienced was participation.  Taken from the website,

"We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play."

The view of the street from our camp

The view of the street from our camp

So, whether I'm inviting people to a Health 2.0 London event, or working with one of my clients, I do my best to include people in the work I'm looking to do, and despite wearing different 'hats' we all have a contribution to make. I remember writing an email at GSK to one of the senior leaders in R&D suggesting he fine tune his future messages when delivering global webcasts to employees. To ask everyone to participate in the journey of making a medicine, from the janitors to the most senior leaders.

In the emerging area of Digital Health, I believe we need everyone to participate in innovation, not just startups, but healthcare professionals, government, corporations and academia too! 

It's also strengthened my links with that hotbed of innovation, Silicon Valley, as many of the 'burners' I have come to know work out there. I consider myself extremely privileged to have been able to participate in Burning Man, and the personal and professional growth as a result.

Critics of Burning Man argue that despite it's counterculture origins, it's become an elitist and pretentious event, attended mostly by wealthy corporate folks from California and Oregon. There is also the fact that you don't see that many people of colour there. The experience can be so bizarre, your mind has such a problem adjusting after the event concludes, that you have to 'decompress'. It's definitely not everyone's cup of tea. 

Even if you choose that Burning Man isn't for you, I just have one thing to say to you, "You're awesome, dude!".

Cycling was the best way of getting around the community

Cycling was the best way of getting around the community

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