• innovation Lab at Burning Man

Innovation Lab @ Burning Man

ILab Notes
Greetings from the world’s largest MVP

By: JC Velten, Mads Thimmer and Tristan Thimmer

Every year, a city of 70,000 people rises out of nothing for a one-week existance. Then it disappears again. We’re very happy to be part of it, greetings from our most feeble of locations for Innovation Lab:

       Innovation Lab Nevada

       3 & Explanade

       Black Rock City, Nevada 89412


We do not recommend coming by to visit between September 5 and August 25 - as our office staff, along the entire city, is gone to what people here at Burning Man call “decompression,” a 51-week-long period when the 70,000 citizens suffer "post-burn blues," coping as best as we can in what we call the “default world” to alleviate the feelings of loneliness and separation from our beloved desert city. 

A massive MVP

On the surface, this is no ordinary place, you know that. Underneath, it is even more extraordinary, which you definitely don’t know if you haven’t been here. Just having been was the defining factor for Eric Schmidt as he landed the job as Google CEO because the founders are avid Burners, keen participants of the Black Rock City experiment. This is where you could ride self driving cars - five years ago. And see dwarves juggling pancakes at 7 in the morning as the most natural thing. Some call it a trip into a Dali painting, some say it is a prolonged and weird dream made real. Burners think the surrounding world is the dream and the Playa, the ancient beach or former sea bed that now provides the sandy basis for the Burn, is the only unveiled and true place. The typical BRC greeting is “welcome home”. 

Burning Man is a massive MVP (Minimum Viable Product, for the non-techie). Burning Man is an experimental city, whose infrastructure - including streets and an electrical grid - is built in the desert out of nothing, every year for more than 25 years, and taken down leaving no trace. Burning Man is also an experimental economy, based on “gifting” where money or trade is not allowed, yet goods and services exchange hands without friction for the benefit of all. Burning Man is an experimental society with rules that work quite harmoniously based on 10 principles that every citizen takes quite seriously. 

Innovation Lab @ Burning Man

We transform the inspiration we get from this massive MVP called Black Rock City into ideas and concepts for innovation. Here are some of the highlights of creative stimulus this transformative spot on our planet has to offer to the rest of us this year:

Morphing skull - “C-FIVE” by Laberge, Prismaticamp

A projection mapping art piece meets you in the dark desert night with a spectacle of changing colors, adornments, and effects. From Hamlet’s Yorick address to Damien Hirst’s diamond studded versions, the ultimate symbol of mortality has had pivotal meaning for humans. Here, death is turning into sheer and playful beauty that stuns you image after image as it morphs to the blasting beats.

Digital Yggdrasil

What more appropriate than to make a full size oak with thousands of LED leaves that change with the music and draw crowds to cuddle up or relax in the antishade of the soft colors against the dark velvet canopy if night. This epic village center apparently still manages to draw contemplative humans to its root base.

Live helium ballooned dancing light wire

Often times the most stunning Playa art is the most strikingly simple. At previous Burns it has been a row of helium balloons pitched against a sunrise, visible for miles around, that has had Burners flabbergasted. In 2017, what looks like a giant light snake lures playa people to its base at what must be the most simply yet effective piece of playa art yet. The allured mob then shakes the LED infested tail base and the effect ripples upwards, causing the ligth wire to dance like a hip swinging sick figure to the pounding beats of general playa blasts.

Flying desert eagle

From afar it looks like a giant eagle swooshes across the desert landscape, flapping its wing ends almost to touch the desert sands. Upon inspection, a rope at its center invites participants to pull it and set the wings in motion as it vividly mimics the natural movements of the majestic bird of prey. Again a piece of extremely impressive art that is lifeless and unimpressive until participation brings it to life. Perhaps a principle of all art but here so much more evident. 


The artful experiments at Burning Man go far beyond actual sculptures and installation pieces. From the candidly ridiculous like a class that teaches you effective techniques for yelling at your neighbors to solo weddings that offer you a chance to love till death for certain or workshops like you have never heard workshops before flying banner titles such as  Crotch Puppets, Narwhals:Unicorns of the sea, Free lasik laser eye surgery or simply Best butt Olympiad.

But workshops are not just a competition in the ridiculous. The cultural links to Silicon Valley forefront culture is clear. You can learn tricks to startup success, the latest in Blockchain progress or how to unleash creativity in your (working) life from true creatives. All is based on more than one way lecturing. Participation is key. Body and mind coherence is key. A workshop on creative writing attended by several Innovation Lab agents started off with a body dance. Awkwardness overcome, it was an ingenious way to invoke natural participation and paved way for open and well received criticism when participants shared their work 

What to take away

In essence, Burning Man is a melting pot of the surreal but also the extremely real, promoting a soon to be rare art of presence. Here, experimentation occurs on all levels and unlimited curiosity is given a free spin. The process procedees in a rare worship of way over destination as most is burned in the end anyway. A middle finger in the otherwise widespread face of goalmindedness, product focus and result hypnosis. The fantastic conclusion is a side effect to a fantastic cooperative effort. Success is a result of presence, devotion, discipline, co-creation and curiosity. It is not the result of a premeditated adherence to plan. 

So what to take away from a beach party gone mad for almost 3 decades? In a time of automation and the opportunity to outsource mechanical functions to machines and algorithms, we need to reinvent our own roles as humans. Creativity becomes key, and it will be the new prime parameter for continued relevance. The difficulty is of course, how to be creative, how to innovate? And in the vamped up race for upping creativity, how to be creative amongst the supercreative. Here, you need to train your creative muscles and no better place for that exists in the mind expanding, playful real life experiment called Burning Man. Because it is not just about adding skills, it is about transformation, about acquiring new priorities, about changing as a human and about expanding the capabilities of your personality.

Cover photo courtesy of Crhistopher Michel

Greetings from our 2017 Black Rock City Innovation Lab staff