By Erica Frye
The most interesting story about innovation and social entrepreneurship I found at West Coast Green was not in a scheduled program, but a side conversation with James Hanusa of Burning Man. Not being a Burner, I was unaware of the social initiatives generated by the Burning Man organization and community, and it didn’t take long to spot the potential they hold.
In its early years, Burning Man was an intimate social and artistic celebration, first held at the beach and later in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. In its second phase, the event had grown dramatically, accompanied by criticisms that the event had sold out and would be destroyed by its own popularity. Outsiders commonly think of it as nothing more than a weeklong binge of hedonism and debauchery. (Mind you, many attendees I know would agree with that characterization, if only it didn’t include the qualifier “nothing more than.”)
From our conversation, it seemed Burning Man could be poised for its third era of social innovation. Due to the immense scale of the event and the core value of “radical self-reliance,” this community has long been inventing creative, cost-effective solutions that have the potential to scale to meet global needs.
If that sounds unlikely, think of it this way: Black Rock City, the Burning Man site, is a pop-up community of 50,000 residents, its infrastructure assembled and dismantled in a matter of days. Imagine how this operational expertise in bringing housing, power, water, and communications to a remote location could be applied worldwide. A perfect example: a cell phone system tested this year could save the world.
Burners have already embraced this third era, extending their ideals and community organization to needs beyond the playa. The organization itself is changing from LLC to non-profit status and looking to create an urban community center on the 6th street corridor. Other social initiatives include:
- Black Rock Solar is possibly the best model so far of Burning Man-inspired social entrepreneurship, operating as a hybrid non-profit venture*. Based on their experiences bringing power to Burning Man, they now install low-cost solar arrays in under-served communities that would be unable to afford solar otherwise. They provide energy self-sufficiency while educating communities, improving local economies, and creating green jobs.
- Hexayurt is an innovation in shelter, an inexpensive design that can be assembled from 12 sheets of plywood or many other materials. The creators have made the Hexayurt public domain so that anyone can benefit, and they are on the ground in zones like Haiti.
- Burners without Borders is engaged in disaster relief efforts and participant-driven projects to improve local communities. Their members have held earthquake preparedness workshops, worked to bring gardens to Africa, and brought mobile hot spots to disaster victims in the Gulf Coast.
Non-profits are a natural fit for the Burning Man ethos, especially its gift economy, but I hope to see more hybrids like Black Rock Solar and for-benefit businesses emerge where appropriate. Perhaps new models, like the B Corp, will make it more viable to fully protect the social mission and values while becoming self-sustaining financially. While some might be uncomfortable with the tension between these ventures and the gift economy ideal, the value created by financial sustainability — for the workers, community, and company — would be the ultimate in radical self-reliance.
* A hybrid non-profit venture has a social-good mission and receives outside funding from donors and partners, but is able to recover some of its costs through sales of goods and services. This is based on the models defined by Elkington and Hartigan in The Power of Unreasonable People.
Erica Frye is a strategist dedicated to building brands driven by culture, mission, and sustainability, and a recent graduate of the Design Strategy MBA program at California College of the Arts. You can read more from her at www.ericafrye.com.