In the Midst of a Paradigm Shift: What Can Burning Man Teach Us About Prototyping a New Society?

Join us as Kairos Future's future strategist Åsa Jonsson explores how Burning Man can be a cradle for the new society. Burning Man is a context where new ideas can be developed, the project as a whole is a prototype for an alternative system of meaning and provides conditions for individuals and collectives to practice dealing with complexity.

Burning Man is a global community that since 1986 has come together several times a year in different locations around the world to co-create so called burns. The original and largest event is called Burning Man and consists of the creation, experience and deconstruction of a city of 70 000 inhabitants in the Nevada desert in the United States. In the media, Burning Man is sometimes portrayed as being mostly about the dopamine rush of rich tech entrepreneurs. But from a futures research perspective, there is reason to nuance the picture of the gathering. It seems that Burning Man and similar projects play an important role in the time we live in today – a societal winter.

We are in a time of upheaval. Interpreted through Kairos Future’s wheel of seasons, we are currently experiencing a societal winter. The wheel of seasons is an integration of several schools of thought on long economic waves and their importance for cultural and institutional change. It represents cycles of about 80-100 years and illustrates patterns in the development of modern Western society. During winters, like now, society has been shaken to its foundations by wars, financial crises, and doubts about leadership and basic institutions. Right now, for example, we can see how democracy is failing in many countries, the financial system is being challenged, and people are experiencing increasing levels of mental illness. And put that in the context of tangible climate change. These are uncertain and challenging times. But out of the winters new institutions emerge, and those institutions will be the foundation of the next economic cycle.

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Creating Prototypes of the New Society
Right now, the challenge of building the new that will propel us into the future can seem impossible. It is difficult to set a direction when everything is in flux. According to paradigm theory, we are in a shift from industrial society to something new. And that's why the boat is rocking so hard – we are in a borderland where our old ways do not work anymore, but the new normal has not yet taken shape. We need to invent new kinds of wheels that run well in the era we are heading towards. But how? The fruitful ways forward will certainly not come from the same paradigm that created today's problems. 

Anyone who has ever taken an initiative from idea to manifestation in the world knows that the most effective way to create something that works is through trial and error. Small experiments and adjustments in between. But creating something that tackles challenges in an entirely new way requires something more. At a societal level, we must break free from outdated patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior, and courageously embrace the uncharted territory ahead. 

In her book The Nordic Secret, futurist and political thinker Lene Rachel Andersson describes how what later becomes socially accepted practices, i.e. a new paradigm, starts in small communities of practice.  In the shift to the new paradigm, these smaller contexts test and prototype new ways of doing things, which are then scaled up and become the norm. 

So, to create the new foundations of the upcoming spring, it appears beneficial to immerse ourselves in contexts that encourage a shift in perspectives and foster experimentation to discover effective solutions

Burning Man – A Place Where the New Is Created?​
Burning Man is an experience that transports individuals beyond their everyday contexts, offering a unique opportunity for the establishment of experimental communities of practice. In essence, Burning Man comprises a global community that collaborates digitally and convenes multiple times a year in diverse locations worldwide to collectively craft physical events. The flagship event, known as Burning Man, epitomizes this concept, involving the construction, immersion, and eventual deconstruction of a vibrant town inhabited by 70,000 people in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. These burns are collaboratively built, with every participant contributing to the event's content. Unlike conventional gatherings, there is no central organizer responsible for ticket sales or the provision of entertainment and supplies to attendees.

There are ten principles that guide all burns: Radical inclusion (an open attitude to meeting everyone, even the unknown person), gifting (at Burning Man there is no money or bartering, but giving and receiving gifts is welcome), decommodification (no commercial funders or advertising), radical self-reliance (each person is responsible for having what they need during the week, both internal resources and equipment), radical self-expression (each individual's unique expression is valuable), communal effort (the collective helps each other), civic responsibility (participants in burns take responsibility for having a neutral or positive impact on the world. Laws should be followed, etc.), leaving no trace (leaving no or a positive footprint on physical locations where the events are held), participation (the assumption that positive change in individuals and society comes from active participation. Everyone is invited to play and work), immediacy (focus on being with what is present in the moment, around us, in relationships and in the inner world).

Stepping into the environment defined by Burning Man's ten principles represents a significant shift in context for the majority of individuals. In this collaborative space, where all participants are co-creators, there exists an open invitation for individuals to manifest precisely what they aspire to contribute to the world or want to personally experience. Consequently, this setting fosters abundant opportunities for the establishment of experimental communities of practice.

The Author’s Experience
As someone who has actively participated in numerous burn events, I would like to complement the article's abstract analysis with my hands-on experience. Within the framework of the ten principles, I have witnessed individuals becoming truly immersed in the process of turning their dreams into reality, and I have observed the birth of projects that have not only thrived during the event but also endured long after its conclusion.

This summer at a Nordic burn event, I participated in an intriguing experiment aimed at creating a camp, a communal space, and a workshop schedule centered around the both wild and nurturing essences of femininity. Recognizing that many societal contexts prioritize masculine norms and values, our intention was to deliberately explore an alternative framework founded on cyclical life principles, with the feminine life force as the foundational wellspring of creative energy (for an in-depth understanding of the feminine, a separate article would be necessary, so you will have to do without definition for now). A crucial component of this initiative involved the development and testing of a project management model. This model helped our project team maintain a deep connection with the feminine aspects within ourselves throughout the entire journey — from the initial planning stages of the burn to the final dismantling of our tents.

 Our approach emphasized integrating practices that encouraged a connection with our bodies, moving beyond mere intellectual engagement to access a deeper wisdom and authentic power. We held meetings where we danced and engaged in reflections on the sources of our joy and pleasure. Simultaneously, we recognized the need for well-defined structures within our work processes, which allowed us to relax into a state of playfulness, creativity, and connection.

The lessons I have taken away from this experiment have shifted my perspectives on how I can project manage to invite more perspectives and ways of being, and I have already used several of the approaches in my professional life. What a small experimental community of practice experimented with during a burn is now affecting the world in other contexts.   

Environments like Burning Man, which facilitate shifts in perspective and provide ample room for experimentation, can play a pivotal role in catalyzing the onset of a new era or 'spring' in the wheel of seasons. They serve as fertile ground for the prototyping of fresh ideas and innovative approaches. However, there is an additional dimension of Burning Man as a phenomenon that warrants special attention.

It Is about Meaning Too​
Earlier this year, Kairos Future presented data indicating that 24 percent of Swedes now view life as lacking in meaning, a notable increase compared to the 6 percent reported two decades ago. These figures have generated interest in the Swedish public discourse, l with follow-up questions about why this is the case and what it means.

Neuroanthropologist Jamie Wheal, in his book "Recapture the Rapture - Rethinking God, Sex, and Death in a World That's Lost Its Mind," offers insights into what he sees as a widespread crisis of meaning in our society. He traces the evolution of our search for meaning, starting with what he calls Meaning 1.0, rooted in organized religion, where hope and security were sought. This was followed by a society characterized by Meaning 2.0, marked by the belief that classical liberalism, secularization, and principles like free markets, democracy, and human rights would enable people to lead fulfilling lives.

However, Wheal suggests that the relentless pursuit of 'value creation' without a clear direction and thoughtless consumerism have undermined Meaning 2.0, resulting in a pervasive sense of meaninglessness in our collective subconscious. The subconscious sense of meaninglessness comes to the surface and manifests itself as nihilism and fundamentalism. To move forward - to initiate the next spring - Wheal advocates for the development of Meaning 3.0.

After extensive research, he concludes that a potent meaning system for the future contains the three components ecstasis (ecstasy, inspiration, transcendence, flow), catharsis (purification, healing, facing darkness) and communitas (togetherness, equality, shared experiences). Simply put, these three components would be enablers for people to feel good and motivated to do good things for the world. 

Within the realm of Burning Man, these three components often find expression. There appears to be a synergy between the ten principles and the tradition of crafting burn events that empowers participants to collectively foster experiences rooted in ecstasis, catharsis, and communitas. For instance, these gatherings frequently offer ample opportunities for moments of ecstasy—be it through energetic dance floors, mindfulness practices such as breathing exercises and meditation, intellectual exploration, or the freedom to follow the flow of one's own impulses unrestricted by time constraints. There are also often opportunities for catharsis. Each burn culminates in the symbolic act of burning something, a ritual many attendees interpret as a means of personal purification and a fresh start. Finally, as previously mentioned, burn events are collaboratively designed by and for the participants. This shared engagement, combined with the backdrop of shared ecstatic and cathartic experiences, fosters a sense of communitas.

In this light, Burning Man as a whole can be viewed as a prototype of a future comprehensive system of meaning. It is not perfect and there are challenges in its implementation: Wheal insightfully states that "We need to have ecstasis without addiction, catharsis without navel-gazing self-help, and communitas without cultishness". Burning Man certainly struggles with this balancing act, but is nonetheless a brave example of doing something radically different from Meaning 2.0, and that is valuable given the winter and crisis of meaning that we find ourselves in.

Non-dogmatic Contexts Teach Us to Live With Complexity​
Another feature that Wheal believes should characterize the meaning system of the future is that it should be non-dogmatic. The brilliance of Burning Man as a context is how vague and contradictory the ten principles are. Take, for example, communal effort and radical self-reliance. Participants should both help each other and be self-sufficient. Interpreted literally, this may sound contradictory. But it is here, in the balancing of paradoxes, that the magic happens. The ten principles create a framework, but at the same time require participants to actively reflect on their being and doing and create ways forward based on both individual reflection and collective discussion. It trains participants as individuals and collectives to face complexity, diverging from the model of cults that spoon-feed participants a singular 'truth.' It embodies communitas without cultishness.

This training in facing complexity and dealing with paradox is one of the best preparations for the future. Because if there is one thing that seems unstoppable, it is the ever-increasing complexity of our human lives. 

Towards the Future
Burning Man is thus a project that can help initiate the new spring and the creation of the systems that will build the next social paradigm, by enabling experimental communities of practice to prototype new ways of doing things. The context as a whole is also a prototype for the future system of meaning that we need to create, in that it enables people to achieve ecstasis, catharsis and communitas.  Moreover, through its non-dogmatic principles, Burning Man is a school that teaches people tools to deal with complexity – a crucial skill to live artfully in the world of today and tomorrow. The Burning Man concept can thus give us much inspiration on how and what we can create for the future. 

Consequently, it is worth considering how we can create more contexts akin to Burning Man that can attract even those who may not be inclined to spend a week in the desert. How can we, within organizations and society at large, establish safe spaces where innovative prototypes can be nurtured and explored without hindrance? How can we create contexts for people to experience ecstasis, catharsis and communitas? And what can we do to practice being in the world in all its complexity, without fleeing to dogmatic principles?

To initiate the next spring in the wheel of seasons, it is crucial that we as a society explore the answers to the above questions. We at Kairos Future would like to make our large toolbox of methods available for that purpose. We believe that the more people and organizations that actively take responsibility for their own future, the greater the chance that we together create a future world that is good for more people. Feel free to contact us for support in exploring and strategizing how you can become an active participant in shaping the next paradigm.