When an economist goes to Burning Man

A Nobel prize winning economist, an urban planner named Coyote, and a New York Times reporter venture into the desert…

No, it’s not the setup to a joke. On the contrary, it’s the framing for an interesting profile of Paul Romer, 2018 winner of the Nobel prize in economics, in yesterday’s Times, who is attending this year’s Burning Man to, of all things, study the festival’s urban planning.

Romer’s work is focused on the generation of ideas, which has led him and others to study the special role of cities as hives of innovation. But for cities to play this role, they have to work for the people in them, which means they require a certain degree of structure. Innovators can’t find one another if they’re stuck in traffic or if there are no central gathering points. Likewise, if a city is too structured, it may not enable the organic interactions that lead to breakthrough ideas. If everything caters to a single economic class, for example, or if structures are overly separated by function, like Le Corbusier’s towers in the park, you may not get the cross-pollination that leads to scalable creativity. 

This conundrum is part is what drew Romer to Burning Man. Since the modern festival’s birth in 1996, organizers have evolved a system of urban planning designed to create sufficient structure for creativity to flourish. After realizing that the festival’s early embrace of creative anarchy was leading individuals to get hurt, organizers began introducing a simple street grid — which functions as a lattice for creativity to bloom.

This might not seem like a big deal. Of course you need some organization for large gatherings of people, you might think. But with a sizable share of humanity poised to move into developing country cities over the next 30 years, organization is often the last thing on political leaders’ agenda — which is a major concern for Romer. As this migration happens, will it give rise to cities characterized by inescapable slums that doom denizens to poverty and despair? Or will they be more thoughtfully designed to foster social mobility and economic growth?

Part of the lesson of Burning Man, argues Romer, is how much creativity can come from even minimal planning. Each year, Burning Man’s urban planner-in-chief, a man named Coyote, works for a week with 20 surveyors to plant red flags in the Nevada sand. When the festival begins and 70,000 converge, these flags will become the organizing structure for the roads, meeting points, sanitation, and medical areas, that enable the celebrants to safely create. Romer’s point is it doesn’t take much.

Burning Man street grid (2017). This level of organization and complexity only takes a week of surveying work, and arises from red flags planted in the sand. Source: BurningMan.org

His other point is what this implies about the functioning of markets: markets work best when they operate within structures designed to advance a community’s values and goals. Zero structure in the early days of Burning Man gave rise to a dangerous environment that inhibited creativity. Today, the festival’s longevity and success is arguably a consequence of the fact that minimal structure has enabled Burning Man’s creative market to work. It’s a subtle but important point for those otherwise content to think that markets always lead to socially optimal outcomes. They can — but only if they operate within structures designed to secure that goal. 

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