On Burning Man – European vs American models of innovation

I recently had this conversation with two friends in Melbourne, both involved in ‘innovation circles’. They were talking about the ‘Burning Man festival’ in the US – ‘It’s fantastic, they build a city from nothing in the middle of nowhere in, like, a week.’ – ‘It’s a fantastic experience,’ commented the other, ‘it’s very free.’

I asked, playing a naive European – ‘What exactly is burning man?’ and they explained – surprised but tolerant of my apparent ignorance. Burning man is an American Festival held in the desert, consisting of parties, concerts, art exhibitions, etc – it lasts for a week, and people build an entire city for the occasion – including a complete airfield – then leave nothing behind. The culmination is the burning of a large wooden sculpture, hence the name ‘burning man’.

To them, this festival embodies the essence of innovation: do something new and radical; occupy a new space, and create something where nothing was. To me, it evoked memories of a friend from the Cevennes, a quiet mountain area where the tour de France passes every year. ‘We hate it,’ she said, ‘people come from the city, they’ve got no idea how village life works. We’ve had people camp on our lawn, and break a full branch off our cherry tree – to them, it’s nature, they can do that. They’ve got no idea it’s our garden, and we’re taking care of it.’

I shared this story with my Melbourne friends, and for the first time, articulated this idea: that our understanding of innovation is largely informed by an American experience of space – as open land, free for the taking, offered as a blank page to the pioneering spirit. But to continental Europeans like me – and probably Chinese people for that matter – space is never blank, it is already inhabited by old cultures, groups, communities tending it in multiple and sometimes conflictual ways. Innovation is not about ‘setting up a city in the desert’, but bringing together these disparate, misaligned individuals, for some temporary work of collaboration

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