A Study of Human-Centered Design Off Screen - Burning Man Festival

February 13, 2023
A Study of Human-Centered Design Off Screen - Burning Man Festival

A Fes¬≠ti¬≠val for the Human Cen¬≠tered Soul

Two men by the names of Lar¬≠ry Har¬≠vey and Jer¬≠ry James for¬≠aged onto Bak¬≠er beach in San Fran¬≠cis¬≠co to cel¬≠e¬≠brate the sum¬≠mer sol¬≠stice by burn¬≠ing a wood¬≠en sculp¬≠ture of a man into the night and camp¬≠ing out with a group of friends. After mak¬≠ing this an annu¬≠al rit¬≠u¬≠al, more and more friends and onlook¬≠ers start¬≠ed to show up and join the two every year. By 1991, Lar¬≠ry Har¬≠vey and Jer¬≠ry James had grown quite the fol¬≠low¬≠ing, with crowds of almost 300 every year. Thus, ‚Äč‚ÄúBurn¬≠ing Man‚ÄĚ was born. 

In 1997, Har¬≠vey and James moved the event far from San Fran¬≠sis¬≠co, to Black Rock Desert in Neva¬≠da. Here, they had more space, and could avoid com¬≠pli¬≠ca¬≠tions with law enforce¬≠ment over the grow¬≠ing crowd and haz¬≠ard threat. Fast for¬≠ward to the ear¬≠ly 2000s, and Burn¬≠ing Man had become a large-scale cul¬≠tur¬≠al fes¬≠ti¬≠val with a fifty foot sculp¬≠ture of a wood¬≠en man, over 25,000 atten¬≠dees, musi¬≠cal per¬≠for¬≠mances, themed events, and an estab¬≠lished art scene. It was around this time, that par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pants of Burn¬≠ing Man had quite lit¬≠er¬≠al¬≠ly begun build¬≠ing an entire com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty around the dura¬≠tion of fes¬≠ti¬≠val, com¬≠plete with street ven¬≠dors, ‚Äč‚Äėneigh¬≠bor¬≠hoods,‚ÄĚ ser¬≠vice camps for the sick or injured, and even street names. With so many atten¬≠dees, and the lev¬≠el of infra¬≠struc¬≠ture being built for the event year after year, Black Rock Desert became Black Rock City in Per¬≠sh¬≠ing coun¬≠ty Neva¬≠da in 1999.

A core set of prin¬≠ci¬≠ples to live by while at the event were also cre¬≠at¬≠ed, as a ‚Äč‚Äúreflec¬≠tion of the community‚Äôs ethos and cul¬≠ture as it had organ¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly devel¬≠oped since the event‚Äôs incep¬≠tion.‚ÄĚ And ‚Äú‚Ķ not as a dic¬≠tate of how peo¬≠ple should be and act.‚ÄĚ Those prin¬≠ci¬≠ples are as follows:

  1. Rad¬≠i¬≠cal Inclusion Any¬≠one may be a part of Burn¬≠ing Man. We wel¬≠come and respect the stranger. No pre¬≠req¬≠ui¬≠sites exist for par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠tion in our community.

  2. Gift¬≠ing Burn¬≠ing Man is devot¬≠ed to acts of gift giv¬≠ing. The val¬≠ue of a gift is uncon¬≠di¬≠tion¬≠al. Gift¬≠ing does not con¬≠tem¬≠plate a return or an exchange for some¬≠thing of equal value.

  3. Decom­mod­i­fi­ca­tion In order to pre­serve the spir­it of gift­ing, our com­mu­ni­ty seeks to cre­ate social envi­ron­ments that are unmedi­at­ed by com­mer­cial spon­sor­ships, trans­ac­tions, or adver­tis­ing. We stand ready to pro­tect our cul­ture from such exploita­tion. We resist the sub­sti­tu­tion of con­sump­tion for par­tic­i­pa­to­ry experience.

  4. Rad­i­cal Self-reliance Burn­ing Man encour­ages the indi­vid­ual to dis­cov­er, exer­cise and rely on their inner resources.

  5. Rad¬≠i¬≠cal Self-expression Rad¬≠i¬≠cal self-expres¬≠sion aris¬≠es from the unique gifts of the indi¬≠vid¬≠ual. No one oth¬≠er than the indi¬≠vid¬≠ual or a col¬≠lab¬≠o¬≠rat¬≠ing group can deter¬≠mine its con¬≠tent. It is offered as a gift to oth¬≠ers. In this spir¬≠it, the giv¬≠er should respect the rights and lib¬≠er¬≠ties of the recipient.

  6. Com­mu­nal Effort Our com­mu­ni­ty val­ues cre­ative coop­er­a­tion and col­lab­o­ra­tion. We strive to pro­duce, pro­mote and pro­tect social net­works, pub­lic spaces, works of art, and meth­ods of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that sup­port such interaction.

  7. Civic Respon¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty We val¬≠ue civ¬≠il soci¬≠ety. Com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty mem¬≠bers who orga¬≠nize events should assume respon¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty for pub¬≠lic wel¬≠fare and endeav¬≠or to com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠cate civic respon¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ties to par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pants. They must also assume respon¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty for con¬≠duct¬≠ing events in accor¬≠dance with local, state and fed¬≠er¬≠al laws.

  8. Leav¬≠ing No Trace Our com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty respects the envi¬≠ron¬≠ment. We are com¬≠mit¬≠ted to leav¬≠ing no phys¬≠i¬≠cal trace of our activ¬≠i¬≠ties wher¬≠ev¬≠er we gath¬≠er. We clean up after our¬≠selves and endeav¬≠or, when¬≠ev¬≠er pos¬≠si¬≠ble, to leave such places in a bet¬≠ter state than when we found them.

  9. Par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠tion Our com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty is com¬≠mit¬≠ted to a rad¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠to¬≠ry eth¬≠ic. We believe that trans¬≠for¬≠ma¬≠tive change, whether in the indi¬≠vid¬≠ual or in soci¬≠ety, can occur only through the medi¬≠um of deeply per¬≠son¬≠al par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠tion. We achieve being through doing. Every¬≠one is invit¬≠ed to work. Every¬≠one is invit¬≠ed to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

  10. Imme¬≠di¬≠a¬≠cy Imme¬≠di¬≠ate expe¬≠ri¬≠ence is, in many ways, the most impor¬≠tant touch¬≠stone of val¬≠ue in our cul¬≠ture. We seek to over¬≠come bar¬≠ri¬≠ers that stand between us and a recog¬≠ni¬≠tion of our inner selves, the real¬≠i¬≠ty of those around us, par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠tion in soci¬≠ety, and con¬≠tact with a nat¬≠ur¬≠al world exceed¬≠ing human pow¬≠ers. No idea can sub¬≠sti¬≠tute for this experience.

So essen¬≠tial¬≠ly, Burn¬≠ing Man had become a place where once a year, thou¬≠sands of peo¬≠ple would gath¬≠er in the mid¬≠dle of the desert for a week, bring¬≠ing what¬≠ev¬≠er sup¬≠plies they felt they need¬≠ed to sur¬≠vive, plen¬≠ty of sup¬≠plies to ‚Äč‚Äútrade‚ÄĚ while there, and the will¬≠ing¬≠ness to not only live in, but par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pate in a soci¬≠ety who‚Äôs goal is to place expe¬≠ri¬≠ence before the¬≠o¬≠ry, moral rela¬≠tion¬≠ships before pol¬≠i¬≠tics, sur¬≠vival before ser¬≠vices, roles before jobs, and embod¬≠ied sup¬≠port before spon¬≠sor¬≠ship‚Ķ And then watch a wood¬≠en sculp¬≠ture burn to the ground and tear every¬≠thing down around it with¬≠out leav¬≠ing a trace‚Ķ

But what exact­ly makes such an event an inter­est­ing case for human-cen­tered design?

A 10 Year Iteration

For starters, Black Rock Desert is home to one of the harsh¬≠est desert cli¬≠mates in the world. The con¬≠straints of the cli¬≠mate cou¬≠pled with the ever-chang¬≠ing needs of those in atten¬≠dance to not only sur¬≠vive in such con¬≠di¬≠tions, but also com¬≠fort¬≠ably par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pate in the com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty and have an enjoy¬≠able fes¬≠ti¬≠val expe¬≠ri¬≠ence as well, meant that Burn¬≠ing Man would have to under¬≠go sev¬≠er¬≠al iter¬≠a¬≠tions to suc¬≠cess¬≠ful¬≠ly accom¬≠mo¬≠date their audi¬≠ence. In the ear¬≠ly years, this was achieved large¬≠ly by tri¬≠al and error, but the rapid growth did ampli¬≠fy prob¬≠lems with safe¬≠ty, staffing, and inter-com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty squab¬≠ble. Har¬≠vey and James found that the major¬≠i¬≠ty of these issues could be attrib¬≠uted to the feel¬≠ing of alien¬≠ation at the fes¬≠ti¬≠val, lead¬≠ing to a loss of human connection.

In order increase the lev¬≠el of human con¬≠nec¬≠tion, future fes¬≠ti¬≠vals became vehi¬≠cle restrict¬≠ed (aside from approved art vehi¬≠cles), and suc¬≠cess¬≠ful efforts were made to make Black Rock city more walk¬≠a¬≠ble. The lay¬≠out of the fes¬≠ti¬≠val was changed from a cir¬≠cu¬≠lar sprawl, to a semi-cir¬≠cle shape with the wood¬≠en man sculp¬≠ture in the mid¬≠dle, fac¬≠ing the city so that all could see. Themed camps were dis¬≠trib¬≠uted through¬≠out the fes¬≠ti¬≠val (as opposed to being locat¬≠ed in a sin¬≠gu¬≠lar sec¬≠tion), and zon¬≠ing restric¬≠tions were imple¬≠ment¬≠ed to avoid clash¬≠ing among theme camps through¬≠out the city. All of these changes required a lot more gran¬≠u¬≠lar plan¬≠ning from every¬≠one involved, espe¬≠cial¬≠ly con¬≠sid¬≠er¬≠ing that one of the core prin¬≠ci¬≠ples of Burn¬≠ing Man is ‚Äč‚Äúrad¬≠i¬≠cal inclu¬≠sion.‚ÄĚ It is this prin¬≠ci¬≠ple that enforces some of the strictest city-wide infra¬≠struc¬≠ture acces¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty reg¬≠u¬≠la¬≠tions, thus mak¬≠ing burn¬≠ing man very ‚Äč‚ÄúADA cen¬≠tric.‚ÄĚ I wouldn‚Äôt go as far as to say Burn¬≠ing Man is ADA com¬≠pli¬≠ant, con¬≠sid¬≠er¬≠ing the mas¬≠sive dust storms, flash floods, and extreme tem¬≠per¬≠a¬≠tures, but acces¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty is def¬≠i¬≠nite¬≠ly at the cen¬≠ter of what Burn¬≠ing Man does. All of the rules, reg¬≠u¬≠la¬≠tions, and aids regard¬≠ing acces¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty at Burn¬≠ing Man is the result of a need being met with the sup¬≠plies avail¬≠able, and then find¬≠ing ways to improve it the next year. 

The fes¬≠ti¬≠val has had a ‚Äč‚Äúmobil¬≠i¬≠ty camp‚ÄĚ for twen¬≠ty years, where more expe¬≠ri¬≠enced (many times dis¬≠abled) burn¬≠ers will lend extra wheel¬≠chairs, scoot¬≠ers, and/‚Äčor crutch¬≠es to any¬≠one that needs them. They also run a trail¬≠er sys¬≠tem through the city that will trans¬≠port any¬≠one strug¬≠gling with the long dis¬≠tances. Thou¬≠sands of dis¬≠abled burn¬≠ers attend every year, and some have even high¬≠light¬≠ed how the fes¬≠ti¬≠val frees them from only being seen for their dis¬≠abil¬≠i¬≠ty, or being seen as ‚Äč‚Äúhelp¬≠less‚ÄĚ or ‚Äč‚Äúless-than.‚ÄĚ Charis Hill, a chron¬≠ic dis¬≠ease advo¬≠cate who attend¬≠ed her fourth Burn¬≠ing Man in 2019 said ‚Äč‚ÄúI need Burn¬≠ing Man for that reminder that I am still a valid, whole human while I‚Äôm bro¬≠ken.‚ÄĚ All Burn¬≠ers leave with the same qual¬≠i¬≠ty expe¬≠ri¬≠ence of con¬≠nect¬≠ing to your cre¬≠ative pow¬≠ers, par¬≠tic¬≠i¬≠pa¬≠tion in com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty, con¬≠tribut¬≠ing to the larg¬≠er realm of civic life, and to the even greater world of nature that exists beyond soci¬≠ety that is Burn¬≠ing Man.

The Take­away

Burn¬≠ing Man has evolved to sup¬≠port its cur¬≠rent crowds of up to 80,000. Black Rock City now has its own air¬≠port, radio sta¬≠tion, grid sys¬≠tem, a six¬≠ty foot tall wood¬≠en man, and over 400 art instal¬≠la¬≠tions spread through¬≠out the city every year. Reflect¬≠ing on the his¬≠to¬≠ry of Burn¬≠ing Man does serve as a great reminder of our respon¬≠si¬≠bil¬≠i¬≠ty as design¬≠ers to rep¬≠re¬≠sent and adapt to the audi¬≠ences we design for. How¬≠ev¬≠er, an even big¬≠ger take away worth not¬≠ing‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČespe¬≠cial¬≠ly amidst the cur¬≠rent fourth indus¬≠tri¬≠al rev¬≠o¬≠lu¬≠tion‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČis that at the end of the day, humans need each oth¬≠er. No mat¬≠ter how much the algo¬≠rithms, arti¬≠fi¬≠cial intel¬≠li¬≠gence, and altered real¬≠i¬≠ties become ingrained in our dai¬≠ly lives, loss of human con¬≠nec¬≠tion has proven to yield chaos in our soci¬≠ety. So whether that means you begin to change how you design, what you design, or how you look at design, I think it‚Äôs impor¬≠tant to start to con¬≠sid¬≠er how human con¬≠nec¬≠tion plays a role in the future the design of technology.


Burn­ing Man website

How this EVENT became a CITY (BURN¬≠ING MAN)‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČYouTube

What is the Fourth Indus¬≠tri¬≠al Rev¬≠o¬≠lu¬≠tion‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČYouTube

Lar¬≠ry Har¬≠vey on how Burn¬≠ing Man Fes¬≠ti¬≠val cre¬≠at¬≠ed art with a social pur¬≠pose‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČYouTube

Burn¬≠ing Man can be doable for peo¬≠ple with dis¬≠abil¬≠i¬≠ties‚ÄČ‚ÄĒ‚ÄČLA Times

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