Global Experience
Case Studies: Burning Man

Reimagining a Coworking Space with Burning Man

The Burning Man festival, organized by the nonprofit Burning Man Project, has garnered worldwide recognition as a distinctive cultural experience and a hub for creative expression. Since its start in 1986, when a group of friends gathered on San Francisco’s Baker Beach to burn a 9-foot (2.7-meter) wooden man in celebration of the summer solstice, Burning Man has grown into a multi-week mega-event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

Each year, more than 70,000 attendees come together to create a temporary metropolis with its own rules and culture. The civilization, which is built up and torn down in the space of several months, comprises a community, founded on principles like “radical self-expression,” “civic responsibility,” and “communal effort” that fosters an array of impressive, large-scale contemporary art installations which contrast the desolate desert setting. With this context in mind, a team of students in the Class of 2020 collaborated with the Burning Man Project to identify a use for a warehouse it owned located in San Francisco’s Mission District. The goal was to use the space as a bridge between two often disparate sectors: art and technology.

Burning Man

Minerva students explore the Burning Man headquarters in San Francisco, California. 

Exploring Spaces for Harmonious Collaboration

San Francisco has experienced many changes since Burning Man was founded in the mid-eighties — perhaps most notably when, in the late 1990s, waves of entrepreneurs and software professionals settled in the city during the infamous “dot-com boom.” This influx of people led to mass gentrification of neighborhoods, where local artists and creative professionals lived. Unable to afford the rising rent costs and overall cost of living, these residents were forced out of the city in droves, causing social tension that still exists today. Aiming to deliver a blueprint for an ideal coworking space that would bring artists and technology workers together, the student team began by conducting field research on coworking spaces in San Francisco. They also investigated similar spaces around the world that were designed to foster a fusion of creativity, collaboration, and community.

An Emphasis on Creation

From their research, the team observed that coworking spaces in San Francisco are typically akin to libraries with added amenities; for many patrons, they act as second offices rather than genuinely collaborative environments. Students also found that the exclusivity of many of these spaces — a consequence of high membership fees — often led to a lack of diversity. Though advertised as spaces that bring together community members from a variety of backgrounds, the research showed that actual collaboration generally occurs only between individuals in the same, or similar industries, if it occurs at all. Ultimately, the spaces the team visited did more to help inform what they wanted to exclude from their blueprint for the Burning Man space. In a word, they sought to eliminate homogeneity.

The student team submitted a comprehensive report to Burning Man detailing their initial research and their articulated goals, which were grounded in the organization’s principles, including self-expression and communal effort

  • Bridge the gap between art and technology by creating space for people from different industries and backgrounds to collaborate

  • Design a space where creativity and innovation could thrive

  • Democratize membership

Inspired by a work scheme made famous by technology giant Google, which allows its employees to spend 20 percent of their time working on passion projects, the team decided — in true Burning Man style — to propose a radical policy: 80 percent of members’ time would be spent on passion projects. The idea was to “challenge routine thinking and allow members to apply their skills in previously unexplored territories. We want it to be a place not solely about work, but where civic life occurs. We can do this by challenging the conventional standards we associate with a third workspace,” the team stated.

Members of this proposed communal space, dubbed PLACEº3, would be urged to refrain from making connections solely for business gain, but to instead use the space to create.

Strategies for Bridging Differences

In the final section of their report, “Spatial Research & Implementation,” the student team outlined a number of ways in which Burning Man could accomplish the goal of bringing technology and the arts together in a communal space. The team drew from their first-year curriculum to develop a set of design principles that would nudge PLACE°3 members to apply creative heuristics to their thinking and actions. The proposal specifies principles that fall under three distinct categories: sharing, movement, and diversity.

For the first, the team proposed practical design elements to help facilitate the sharing of work. For example, because specific hues have been shown to foster creativity, they suggested that color be used intentionally throughout the space. Also, by thinking carefully about furniture and its placement, they designed hubs to promote collaboration rather than isolated work. Multiple project boards would act as informal congregation points, critique walls, and large-scale sketch pads. Additionally, they suggested organizing regular presentations to elicit feedback from other members.

In their fieldwork, the students had observed that “frequent movement is conducive to creativity, as people get new inspiration from new environments. It is also essential for collaboration, [since] it continuously allows people to interact with new individuals.” To encourage movement, they proposed that PLACE°3 not have designated seating, so members would be forced to forge new connections and a stronger, more unified community. They also planned to eliminate physical barriers between sections, further enhancing flow throughout the space. Eventually, they hypothesized, a culture based in movement would develop, inspiring divergent thinking, creative friction, and novel ideas.

Finally, to encourage a broad diversity of both members and activities, the team proposed creating a skills sharing board — a place for members to trade skills and expertise. For example, a technologist might trade a coding tutorial for a painting workshop run by a fine artist. By encouraging members to seek out skills different from their own, the team hypothesized, members would not only interact with people different from themselves, but also diversify their own skillsets.

Through these interactions with diverse individuals, movement through intentionally-designed environments, and ample opportunities to share work and ideas, members would be prompted to make novel associations and, therefore, more creative work. The team’s proposal has since been submitted to Burning Man to be used as a blueprint when renovating its warehouse in the Mission District.