Mike Zuckerman: Culture Hacking and Gonzo Humanitarianism
Operating far outside the lines of what he calls the “humanitarian-industrial complex,” freelance culture hacker and FreeSpace founder Mike Zuckerman goes into refugee settlements around the world, and works with their citizens to create spaces that better serve their communities.
While the NGOs wrung their hands over how to deliver aid in the COVID-19 pandemic, Zuck spent most of 2020 on the ground in Uganda, with the people of Nakivale, a refugee settlement of 120,000 near the Tanzanian border.
Together they built civic spaces including an amphitheater, a library, a radio station, and a Virtual Reality room in a shipping container, which they used to connect Nakivale to the Burning Man online multiverse.
Zuck brings lessons from Black Rock City to other temporary spaces around the world, helping displaced persons overcome “agency deprivation disorder” and reclaim their innate powers of self-reliance and self-expression.
Mike Zuckerman has been referred to as a culture hacker, space activator, applied geographer, creative activist, tactical urbanist, and a new humanitarian. Like his intellectual hero Buckminster Fuller, he aspires to be a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist turning his attention to the growing challenge of displaced peoples.
STUART: I’m really psyched about our guest today. He is a long-time member of the Burning Man community. He is an activist. He is a culture hacker and a self-described Gonzo humanitarian
Everybody, welcome Mike Zuckerman.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Hey, great to be here, Stuart. Thank you.
STUART: So glad you could join us. This is so cool. Let’s start with Gonzo Humanitarianism. I love those two words together, but I’m not sure exactly what it means. What does that mean to you?
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Well, Gonzo, obviously it was a Hunter S Thompson and he was a journalist, but he didn’t just go and write about things in a traditional sense of journalism.
He actually went and immersed himself in it and experienced it. And that’s really what I’ve tried to do with humanitarian causes and post natural disasters all around the world. See it on the news, see that it seems to be a significant thing that’s happening. And instead of just reading about it, going, finding out what’s happening there, showing up without waiting to get hired, to go, just show up and see who’s there. Talk to the people it’s affecting and try and make my own course of action based on that.
The biggest thing is just seeing where the crises are and showing up.
Bangladesh, I saw what was going on there on the news, and heard about this bizarre place called Cox’s Bazar, and went and met people and learned about what was happening and by not being part of an organization I was able to spend a day with the New York times, and then another day with UNICEF and then another day with the Bangladesh department of forestry that was checking on the…displaced people displaced the elephants and they were trampling the farms.
And so I went out looking for elephants. So, it’s this, just this methodology really trusting of leading with culture, getting people to show up, putting up a beacon using culture. So like in the Philippines, we did karaoke bars and then we had nuns showing up and borrowing chainsaws to cut down trees after the cyclone there.
And in Uganda we used the World Cup and, you know, football.
STUART: Now, couldn’t you just write a check to an NGO and be done with it? Seriously. As a freelancer, what is your relationship to the big aid organizations who go into disaster areas?
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Well, it’s evolved over time.
I’ve gone. It’s a love-hate relationship into a respect into anger, into love again. So, but one of the terms that I use is the humanitarian industrial complex. That there’s no secret even inside of the humanitarian world, that it’s completely broken and not built to deal with the complexity and scale of displacement and other disasters that we’re seeing in today’s society.
So a part of the problem is that there’s a dependency model that is financially incentivized for the humanitarian organizations. If they go in somewhere and solve everything, then they’re not needed anymore. Then they’re not receiving their funding. So that’s really one of the main things I’m trying to do is to learn these dependency cycles and break them by switching things up instead of top down and go bottom up, instead of dependency, create the conditions for self-sufficiency.
And I’d say that’s, as I get more and more experience, I learn how little I know. And also I learned that the people on the ground know the most, those are the true experts, not the PhDs, they’re the refugees themselves and the locals themselves.
STUART: That sounds so Burning Man to activate other people and encourage them to do it rather than doing it for them.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: There’s so many similarities. Everyone always says Burning Man looks like a refugee camp. It’s true in many ways. And it is, you know, it’s a 70,000 person settlement.
STUART: An intentional disaster zone for first-world problems, self-inflicted first-world problems. I want to come back to Burning Man, but I’m really fascinated.
You spent most of last year outside of the United States in Uganda. Tell us about what you were doing there and how that came to be and what the outcomes have been for you.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Yeah. So I went to Uganda. I arrived in one of my favorite cities in the world, Nakivali, refugee settlement in Southwest Uganda on February 14th, appropriate that that was my Valentine and I was there to observe and help out a bit with a mass displacement event that happened in democratic Republic of Congo.
About 20,000 Congolese arrived. And what I was really doing was witnessing the welcome process, the registration, and then the resettlement that happened right in February, March, and then the whole world shut down.
And Uganda closed its borders. And I decided to stay. I was working with a group called a former American refugee committee (which is Alight, and to.org) and kind of talked with them and they said, Hey, we’d love for you to stay where we’re down to support you in this.
And it wound up being a really transformative time to get to witness what happens to a place when all the internationals leave. And there’s still a lot of work to be done.
STUART: So when the NGOs left, you were probably encouraged to leave as well. Were you not?
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: I was, but at the time San Francisco, which is my home, was the worst place in the world.
And Uganda had zero cases at the time and there was all people saying, “Oh, well maybe there’s no testing” or all that, but really, Uganda and a lot of countries in Africa have been dealing with Ebola and the AIDS epidemic, and they had a lot of infrastructure in place for dealing with this.
And the other thing that happened is as soon as there was one case that was detected at the airport, they locked the whole country down for three months. They didn’t even allow people to drive in private vehicles. So they really stopped the community spread to the point where even now they still have under 400 COVID related deaths.
STUART: That’s amazing. And I know that in other places of the world with different policies that refugee camps have been hotbeds of the disease, haven’t they?
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: There was a very, oh, it was very scary. I mean, the largest refugee camp in the world is named Kutupalong. And it’s in Bangladesh filled with Rohingya refugees, asylum-seekers from Myanmar.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: That place is a closed camp. It’s a detention center. And we are really worried about, especially when we didn’t know much about COVID. And so surprisingly – not to say we’ve come through unscathed. There’ve been many horrific things that have happened in these years, but fortunately at least in Uganda where I have experience, we’ve so far not gotten to disastrous places yet. One of the reasons is in these settlements, most of the interaction and most of the people’s time is happening outdoors, which seems to be a much safer interaction.
STUART: No, still you weren’t allowed to actually stay in the camp you had to commute in. Is that right?
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Yeah, well. I stayed there until the first case was detected and they locked the country down. And then I was told I had to leave the refugee settlement and I went on safari. I’ve been to Africa about 20 times, and I’d never been on safari before. And that seemed like a good idea. There was a safari, a national park, really close to the Nakivale refugee settlement.
And I just got a lodge. And figured there wouldn’t be a lot of people around. And I was right. I was the only guest and stayed there for about three months, which was a really amazing experience to be outdoors and set up whiteboards and had full internet and VR and everything from this platform in the middle of a national park with zebras and baboons and giraffes and everything all around.
STUART: I noticed the difference in terminology that you call it a refugee “settlement” rather than refugee “camp,” which gets to, to me, the interesting idea of permanence versus impermanence. Some of these settlements have been in place for generations, right? They turn into multi-generational things and yet they’re treated as if they were temporary.
How does that complicate the issue of trying to try to do good work?
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Yeah. Well, Uganda has a policy of refugee settlements, not refugee camps. The camp that I’m referring to mostly is called Nakivale refugee settlement, which is actually 63 years old this year. It was the home as a child to Paul Kagame, who is now the president of Rwanda.
So it has a very long history. I’ve been to just under a hundred refugee camps around the world. And I would say all of the best ones I’ve been to are in Uganda because of this policy of Uganda, acknowledging that these are not temporary settlements. In Europe people are essentially put in more like what is detention centers.
And there’s almost these intentionally bad conditions in order to deter more people from coming. It’s really hard. And I guess that that’s again, why I’ve chosen to focus on Uganda. For my global human displacement efforts is because Uganda has an open door policy, they have a right to work and they have a right to move without the right to work.
It’s really impossible to ever become self-sufficient because you’re just sitting there with your handout, waiting for food, waiting for clothes, waiting for everything to be given to you, which is very, very expensive. I liken it to a prison or a nursing home. It’s very expensive per person to run those things.
So what Uganda is doing, and what I’m really advocating for more in a global method of dealing with displaced people, is more of a property management role where you still have a centralized authority – you may have to fix a lock or a window or a bathroom or something – but people are free to come and go and earn their own money, bring their own food home cook.
What’s interesting. And culturally relevant to them. And that’s really agency. Agency is that one of the biggest things, and that’s another term: agency deprivation disorder. That’s one of the biggest problems that is mindset that people don’t have the ability to handle their own affairs and really who knows better than yourself to do things? you don’t want someone else telling you what to do. And it’s the same for a refugee.
STUART: They’re deprived of their right of Radical Self-reliance.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Yeah. And expression, and everything. The funding is not enough for what’s currently going on. And that’s, what’s so interesting about removing the barriers to agency.
You don’t even necessarily have to increase funding. You can unleash abundance. By removing some of these barriers to entry, which is easier than trying to fundraise or, you know, get more people to care about people that aren’t right in front of them.
STUART: Yeah. Tell us about some of the work that was unleashed there that you and your community friends that got done.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: A lot of what’s going on became around the COVID response. And again, everything was very new and we weren’t sure what was going on and everyone left. In everything that I advocate for in all of my projects is about user generated, about like turning over the responsibility to whoever is there.
One of the commonalities in all of my projects is locally led governance. And in the case of COVID, when everyone left, the only ones that were left were the refugees themselves. Supply chains were disrupted. And so it was really interesting to see how the refugees already have their networks of how to get things.
An example is a colleague of mine, Patrick Muvunga Who has been living in Nakivale for 10 years, originally from Congo. He designed these hands free hand washing stations that he was able to weld from local materials that were available in the camp. He was able to build hand-washing stations when even the UN wasn’t able to do that because of the supply chains being cut off.
And there were contracts that the NGOs started to buy these from Patrick at $100 a pop to put at the entrance to the camp at the police checkpoints at the health centers at the government offices. And so it was really beautiful to see that when these other means are cut off that the people who were there were able to step in.
And I really hope that that continues because I really think that that’s the future. How do we empower locals to be able to take things, take things over? And that’s another term I’ve heard is not only capacity building, but capacity recognition. There are a ton of capabilities that local organizations have that outsiders don’t. it’s not only about us coming in. Like people always say, Oh, your work sounds like “Teach a man to fish…” and sure, there’s an aspect to that. But really people know how to fish. They’ve known how to fish for generations, but their waters have been overfished, and there’s all these other factors.
So, it’s not necessarily just our role to go in and teach people what to do. Cause often they already know.
STUART: Right. That idea of treating it as a longer-term settlement rather than as a temporary camp, it brings up all kinds of interesting possibilities. The camps are notoriously short on public spaces.
And I know that some of the projects that you were involved in there were on building some public spaces, if I’m not incorrect, in the tradition of the Ancient Greeks.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Yeah, well, so my first foray into the refugee world was in Greece in 2016, I was invited by a philanthropist to build an alternative version of a refugee camp.
We rented an abandoned warehouse and we let the refugees themselves and volunteers from all over Europe and the world to build their own version of what a refugee camp should be. That was really how I got into this work and have not been able to leave because we were able to do such a more efficient, more dignified and cost-effective way of people living than the governments, than the NGOs.
It really is just the simple matter of asking people what they need and putting the resources in their hands. So in my travels around Turkey, Greece, New Macedonia, I was witnessing these terrible conditions. And one of the places I went to visit when I was looking at the migrant route from Syria into Europe, was an ancient city called Ephesus in modern day Turkey.
It’s an ancient Greek city. And one of the things that really struck me after coming from these refugee camps that had horrific conditions with sanitation and waste management not even happening, and seeing this Ephesus city that was over 2000 years old, that had toilets that went all the way out in, through pipes, into the ocean, a couple of miles away.
And here we are in 2016 and don’t even have that dignity for humans. It really kind of stuck with me to say, okay, all of these wonderful innovations that came out of ancient Greece around philosophy and democracy, all of these different things really was created in many ways and enabled by ancient Greek urban planning, which consisted of the Agora, the Polis, the amphitheater, the library.
And that was the thinking is how, what if these. Urban planning aspects could be imprinted on a greenfield, a blank canvas where people are getting resettled instead of just doing survival instead of only shelter and only toilets and only food lines. What if you’re able to create these public spaces where people can interact with each other and then figure out what it is that their current situation would manifest best by all of their input.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Another thing when you’re looking at a camp of Nakivale, for example, is around 130,000 people. There’s a whole sector dedicated just to distribution. It’s very difficult. Even if you want it to give everyone a toothpick, there’s a lot of logistics and operations that go into that. So that was part of the thinking of creating public spaces as well, that instead of giving something directly to a family or to an individual, if you create a public space, it’s something that everyone has access to.
So really inspired by a combination of Ancient Greece and the playa, working together with a group called Opportunigee – opportunity plus refugee – and its leader Patrick Muvunga, we created what’s called Uhuru Land. And it is, it’s really a fusion of Ancient Greece and of the playa and what’s needed in modern day and Ugandan refugees context.
STUART: Walk me through Uhuru Land. If I were taking the tour or what would I see?
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: First of all, Uhuru is the Swahili word for freedom. And the first thing that you would see is an amphitheater. And again, that’s part of this notion of a refugee camp versus a refugee settlement. We built this amphitheater out of stone and rocks that’s going to last for decades if not centuries. It has a capacity of over a thousand. You’ll also see a library that’s called the Promise Hub that’s a structure built out of about 30,000 plastic bottles filled with sand that serves as the modern day interpretation of a library. A learning environment also see a shadow man van, an ice cream van that has been made into a radio station like a kind of BMIR that can blast information out and health information to Nakivale. Then you also have a recording studio that is made out of a geodesic dome created with fabric and trash and chicken wire and cement. It’s a super interesting design. You’ll also see what’s called The Portal Project by Shared Studios which is a telepresence room.
It’s basically a shipping container that has a screen in half of it. And you close the doors and it’s pitch black, and there’s a camera right in the middle of the screen that’s connected to another shipping container and another place in the world. So it’s a kind of this box that you can go in and have a shared experience with other people around the world.
STUART: Was that the facility that you used to participate in the multiverses experience this summer?
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Absolutely. Well, to finish a little bit of the tour, when Uhuru Land is ready to be opened, there will be a centerpiece art piece that Patrick has designed that is funded by the global Burning Man Arts Grant.
It’s his interpretation of a physical representation of freedom. And it’s going to be a 10 meter or like 33 foot tall open. Doorway like a, a threshold with an open doorway that has footprints walking through it. And so all the Playa and the man in the center, this will be the Uhuru sculpture will be right in the center.
Part of the idea of creating these public spaces inside of the camp that are beautifully designed and have lots of color. There’s also Shrine, an artist who has created the temple one year at Burning Man, Basura Sagrada, sacred trash. He’s also made some sculptures that are on a Uhuru Land.
STUART: Right on.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Brent Spears. And he’s come out with me to Uganda and several other countries. I love working with him because he’s an upcycle master, and all sorts of things.
STUART: Very cool.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: The other really interesting thing about a Uhuru Land, this year was that we participated in the multiverse by scanning who land and putting it into BRC VR on Altspace.
You take a bunch of drones or you take a drone and you take a bunch of photos and it creates a photo realistic rendering of what this land looked like. And one of the really cool things that we did during the multiverse was we would put the refugees, the residents of Nakivale, who built and live and work on a Uhuru Land inside of the VR headset.
And we would have them wait where people spawned kind of right at, around center camp, and they’d say, “Hey, do you want to go on a playa adventure?” And most people would say yes, and they’d get a group of people and say, “Follow me.” And they’d bring them to Uhuru Land and explain what the place is and say “Yes, and I actually spend my time here,” and it was a really great experience for both the visitors and also for the residents of Nakivale.
That was definitely a highlight of being still locked down and Uganda, which closed its borders for eight months, something like that, to be able to still participate in the multiverse and to bring people to where we were. It was a really fabulous experience and can’t wait to do more of that.
STUART: Amazing. So what’s your Burner story? How’d you get to Burning Man in the first place?
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Well, I go back to my San Francisco days. Temple Nightclub. I was the Director of Sustainability there, to bring about sustainability in a cultural way, in a, in a cool way. And that’s where I was introduced to Blue, who runs Recycle Camp, when you guys used to have your offices down on Third Street.
Yeah, that was kind of how I was first introduced to the Burning Man Organization. And it was actually 10 years ago this month that Tom Price saw what we were doing at Temple Nightclub and invited the BlackRock Arts Foundation to have their board meeting there.
We got to present “Here’s what we’re doing here at Temple Nightclub and we love what you guys are doing.” And that was kind of how I first wound up on the playa.
My second year at Burning Man, I was invited to give a talk, and my talk was really about how amazing Burning Man was, but how we needed to take these innovations and bring them into the real world.
And there was a journalist who was in the audience and he said, “I have to go take you to meet someone.” And he brought me from that talk directly to the Media Mecca, where he introduced me to Tom LaPorte.
STUART: Tom LaPorte.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Ugh. The late Tom LaPorte was a truly inspiring figure who embodied this link of Burning Man and its importance and relevance to municipal affairs. He worked for the Chicago Water Board and worked on many different initiatives, but really saw that link and the importance of Burning Man, not only being, you know, that thing in the desert, but beyond the festival.
STUART: Tom was such a mensch. He was a kind of somewhere between a pied Piper and a Tom Sawyer for Burning Man culture.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: And so that really started my relationship with the Burning Man organization. And now what I consider myself an official member of an unofficial department of the other 51 weeks, which is a part of the Burning Man organization that doesn’t exist. But that is very, very real.
STUART: What is it that you think that the world can learn from the way that the city gets built out there?
I mean, what are, what are some of those lessons that export and apply to people facing urban design challenges or resettlement issues or whatever? What are some of the things that you’ve observed there?
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: So much! That can be the whole conversation.
STUART: We’ve seen that city officials and urban planners and people from all over the world are starting to study Black Rock City as a sort of innovation hub for how to build better public spaces and better cities.
What lessons do you think people have to learn from the way that Black Rock City gets built every year?
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: My goodness. So many. As someone who’s put my attention to global human displacement, I think it’s very imperative that we start to prototype these developments, these 50,000-, 70,000-person settlements developments, where displaced people can be resettled in a way that is dignified and they’re set up for self-sufficiency.
And really who else besides the crew at Burning Man has experience with setting these things up rapidly to the same scale? I’ve always been interested in The Golden Spike and then going from there and doing the same thing. It’s exactly the context that I’m seeing. When there’s 5,000 people a day arriving from South Sudan into Northern Uganda.
Everyone needs a place to sleep. Everyone needs a place to use the bathroom. Everyone needs a place to eat. I am so excited to be able to eventually deploy with a group that knows how to do the surveying and to lay the groundwork for an incremental development. I’ve always been inspired by Elinor Ostrom’s work around the commons and how we can own things together.
And then more recently Paul Romer, and this article in the New York Times, “Nobel Prize Economist Goes to Burning Man.”
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: This is fundamental. We need to be prototyping this. And, you know, and Paul’s concept is around incremental development. So if you can lay out the grid and allow people to develop what they can, when they can, and over time increase it, you’re going to wind up in a much better urban context than you usually get with informal settlements of urban slums, refugee camps, where you just kind of have things stacked on top of each other, that don’t allow for the infrastructure to be laid in. And also don’t allow for the incremental increase of quality.
So for me, it goes all the way down to the mobility and the bike culture and everything that you see at Burning Man, all the way to the master plan.
Right now there’s about 80 million displaced people in the world. Some of the predictions are as high as 1.2 billion by 2050. This isn’t just that we need to make an eco-city or something like that. Masdar and the UAE costs 50 billion dollars to house 50,000 people. That’s not the city of the future. Refugee camps are the cities of the future.
And I think there’s ways that we can set up. There’s a concept called sustainable development zones or refugee cities that is very much in line with Paul Romer’s philosophy that you can set up a, an incremental development for around 50,000 people for only about $10 million. And so, again, We don’t need one of these.
If you do the math, up to 1.2 billion, we’re going to need hundreds, thousands of these over the coming decades. And that’s why I think it’s imperative that in this decade, in the 2020s, that we start to pilot these, learn what works. Maybe you put a Makerspace in the middle and let it go from there.
Maybe you do the Burning Man methodology of: lay out the roads, put in center camp and, some public spaces and then let people fill it in. And maybe you throw a big concert. Yeah. And instead of Leave No Trace, you leave a trace and you set up the housing for people to move into. And then instead of taking it down, you just leave it there, and migrants can inhabit that.
I don’t have the answer, but I think we need to learn by doing, and that’s what’s so wonderful about the Burning Man experience is that you guys have done it for 20, 30 years and you’ve learned and gotten better at it over time. And I think that that knowledge needs to be transferred to the humanitarian sector and to the post-natural-disaster sector.
And again, this isn’t only for Africa; Californians, Oregonians, Louisiana. I mean, Americans are being displaced by natural disasters and we’re going to see more of that.
STUART: Climate change and sea level rise. Yep.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Absolutely. So. Yeah. I could go on and on and on and on and on about what lessons can be learned, but, I’ve just seen so much efficiency, so much agency, so much civic engagement, and beauty and sparkle come from watching the city grow over a week or so.
And I’ve also seen the same old method since the World Wars that’s still being used for displaced people around the world. Ugh. It’s desperately needed. Everyone knows it’s needed. I just hope to be one of the vehicles that’s able to create those bridges for that to be able to be possible.
STUART: Yeah, it kind of goes back in my mind to that issue of permanence versus impermanence. If you look at the refugee settlement as a problem that needs to be resolved, then that’s gotta be a blocker to actually doing anything good and creating a good usable space there.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: This is a little bit of a homage to a story I heard Larry tell once that was about amateurs.
That amateurs have a bad rap. That people think amateur is the same as poor quality or not good at it, but really it comes from the Latin root of amore. That’s what he saw Burning Man as almost this whole city.
Stuart:: Love, baby, love. Built on love.
The whole city was built by love, right? And also by people who had no business doing what they were doing and trying to build structures that could survive wind storms.
And that’s really what I also see as the humanitarian sector, the professionals – I’m air quoting here. The people with degrees, lots of experience. I’m not convinced that there are any better than the refugees themselves who are amateurs, but they’re actually doing it because they love it, because they’re looking out for themselves and their family.
That’s another lesson to be able to take, that if someone’s doing a hammer wrong and they’re making all the nails crooked, if you just grab the hammer and do it for them, they’re not going to learn. Then you need to hammer in some crooked nails to learn how to eventually make straight nails.
That’s the same analogy that I’d like to see with setting up these refugee settlements. If you do it for them, you’re going to have to keep doing it for them. That’s just another example of something to take away from the burner culture that people who have never swung a hammer before have to take a shift, have to be there for build week and doing a breakdown in any, and you learn, even if you’re not the best at it, you get better and that’s the case. And that’s how we learn as humans.
STUART: Beautiful. I believe you and I met back in the context of your work with Freespace. Could you tell us a little bit about The Freespace Project?
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Yeah. So Freespace was a project that we started in San Francisco on June 1st, 2013. It was part of the National Day of Civic Hacking, which was a hackathon that was arranged with NASA, the white house and 33 other government agencies to take a weekend hackathon around civic engagement. However, if you really want to win a hackathon, the best thing to do is to ignore the rules.
And instead of doing National Day of Civic Hacking, we decided to do National Month of Civic Hacking. There was a building on seventh and mission that was on the market for $26,000 a month, that we were through some clever negotiating, able to get it for a dollar for the whole month of June. And we just invited the community in to say, this is yours.
What do you want to do with it? We just set up the rules of no ego, no logo, no money, everyone’s a participant (somewhat inspired by the 10 Principles). And through that, we were able to transform this kind of abandoned warehouse and an urban decay parking lot next to it, into this very vibrant artspace. It wound up doing 119 events in the first 30 days. We transformed it with murals. Every white space was covered and people just brought things for us. Furniture, recording equipment, soundboards, slides, we got a vehicle from Dlux, which is usually used during Burning Man as a perimeter vehicle. And we painted it, and we were going to paint FREE TRUCK on it, but we thought people might get the wrong idea and steal it.
But yeah, we just used that truck to go pick up stuff that people wanted to give to us. And we wound up filling this whole warehouse. We put in a garden and it was really just this amazing outpouring of engagement. That’s kind of how I got into this work was. People started saying, Hey, we want a Freespace in our city.
We wound up being one of the winners of the National Day of Civic Hacking. Our team got invited to the White House as champions of change. We started getting inquiries from all over the world saying “We want to do Freespaces in our community.” We wound up doing 14 countries, 26 iterations of Freespace. You know, there’s always available space. I mean, this is, we’ve done it in Tokyo and in Paris and Detroit where there is lots of space. All over. But it’s a really novel concept to just allow a space to – an indoor commons. There’s outdoor commons, there’s parks and there’s governance there.
You know, if you put a blanket down, that’s yours until the sun goes down and the same can be true for an indoor space.
And that’s really relevant here today in 2021, after the retail apocalypse and commercial real estate dying out that there’s even more space. So we’re really talking to a bunch of different communities and real estate companies of how to let the people have access to a space.
I mean, the biggest thing you have to solve for is insurance. But once you do that, you really can create engagement. If you just lead with culture, that’s really been the methodology that we used for Freespace. That’s the methodology we use, in creating engagement and refugee context.
And what I mean by that is whatever we’ll gather people. That’s what you do. And that’s also, it’s a Burning Man concept.
STUART: Like Larry used to say: “Come for the art and stay for the community,” right? The culture is the draw.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Exactly whatever is going to get, get people to show up. Once people are there, then you can just pose the question of what should we do now?
What are some challenges that we’re facing? Let’s try something, come back the next day, did that work? Should we do something different? You want to do that again, and really just kind of continuing through that process. And that’s the iterative community building that happens when you lead with culture.
STUART: Yeah, I hear you about the crash in commercial and retail real estate being a pretty unavoidable consequence of, of all of this COVID madness. What advice do you have for the amateurs out there who want to do something like Freespace? Or there are some, some guidelines, some inspiration.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN:35:48 Yeah. There is actually a toolkit online.
But the biggest thing is really just getting a community of like-minded people. And that’s what’s been so amazing about the global Burning Man Network. Whenever Freespace started in another city, I would always hit up Megs who headed up the global Regional Network and say, “Hey, who you got in Tokyo?” And then you get people who already are acculturated to the concept of free. It’s kind of a weird thing. I’ve listened to Kristen Berman on this podcast before talking about this experiment of trying to hand money out outside of a payday loans place. And people wouldn’t take it because there had to be a catch.
And so, there is a big acculturation that has to happen to make a Freespace work because people show up and say, what is this place? You’re like, well, what do you want it to be? It really was kind of an homage to another San Francisco crew called the Diggers who had, yeah. Yeah. The Diggers had the free store.
You’d walk through the frame of reference when you went in and they’d say, why is it free? And they said, because it’s yours or I want to talk to the manager who’s the manager here. And they say, you are. You’re asking, how to get something like this started. I think the first step is finding some like-minded people who are also passionate about trying to activate space because even in the.
Most expensive real estate markets at the top of the market, there’s always latent assets around. And so now the space part is going to be even easier. But the challenge is always about getting your community together, figure out what you want to do. There’s a number of different techniques of like open space technology or different facilitation methods to find out what the collective goals and aspirations are.
STUART: And then how you set up insurance and governance, I guess, are the two, two of the things that need to get worked out, right?
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Yes. But you can insure anything, there there’s certain people that are better at it than others, but yeah, that’s basically once you get that out of the way, watch out, you’re really going to unleash things.
And I think we’re going to see such a desire of people wanting to connect as well. We’ve done a lot of the zooms and the Multiverse is, but when things do, when the vaccine is out and people have a lot of pent up energy, we’re going to see some incredible explosions of creativity and, and joyous celebration that I think we’re all eagerly patient, but eagerly anticipating and wow.
I mean, and so to be able to put some frames and, and structure and support and scaffolding, To allow those things to happen and in a safe and really productive way is going to be such an exciting thing of the next few years.
STUART: Bring on those Roaring Twenties. I’m ready. I’m ready for us to think about being inside a building together again, that’s going to be awesome.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: I’m a bit of a contradiction. I’ve been the leader of a leaderless movement of Freespace. And I lived in a commune by myself, which was Temple nightclub and I’m kind of anti organization. However, I’m really a part of and affiliated with and supported by so many organizations,
I’m also affiliated with the Buckminster fuller Institute and his term for himself was comprehensive anticipatory design scientist. And so in that vein and trying to anticipate what’s coming around global human displacement, Ooh, some of the numbers… that’s kind of why I’ve chosen to dedicate my life to this work, because I do have some dystopian visions of the future where we just have these massive detention centers, which are barbed wire chain link fences and guard towers. Basically just keeping people alive. I know we can do better.
And that’s more of the idea of instead of these detention centers to set up these developments, these self-organized incremental developments that very much are modeled after the Playa, how you can for much lower costs than running prisons or nursing homes, where you have to do everything for everyone, you can set up a way where you can lay out the grid.
I love Burning Man and allow people to set up shop to have a plot of land. And that is what happens in Uganda. Every family that arrives gets a hundred foot by a hundred foot plot of land and some poles and a tarp and a Jerry can and a machete to kind of set up their infrastructure. And that’s why I work in Uganda because they do not have closed detention centers.
They have settlements, as I mentioned. So, yeah, I think there’s a tremendous amount that Burning Man burners, the camps can be unlocked and unleashed into dealing with a lot of the conflicts in the world. Of course, I love Burners Without Borders and I’m so excited by all of the work they’ve done. And we’re actually collaborating on a project on the border of Mexico with Burners Without Borders and Alight, which is the former American Refugee Committee, a bunch of nuns that call themselves bad-ass nuns and burners. So it’s like burners, nuns, and humanitarians hanging out on the border together. It’s a pretty cool collaboration. Also with Ron Rayel, who just won the design of the year award for his pink seesaws that he put on the Mexico/US border.
So that’s an example of a collaboration, but I still feel we’ve barely scratched the surface of the potential of the global Burning Man community. The camps. To be able to participate in a lot of these wicked problems that the world is facing.
I’m really encouraged to see all that has already happened, but I know we’re going to do more and governments and cities there. They’re going to be knocking on our door or knocking on your door. Our collective door as Burning Man to show up and to participate. This is happening all over the world.
There’s a group up in talent right now, Tyler Hanson and Kevin Rowel who got their chops in the festival world. They’re up there right now, trying to understand what’s happened to the town of talent that burned down. How do you rebuild better? Yeah. All of these things are really inspiring to me and I really enjoy Burning Man.
Some people will say it’s really hard out there. I go there to relax. I think it’s like some of the most chill, safe, relaxing places that I get to spend any of my time. And when the rest of the years when you really do that Gonzo Humanitarian thing and show up and really witness what’s going on.
I’ve been to almost a hundred refugee settlements, and that does make me experienced, but that does not make me have the answers because it’s a very complicated problem. And I’m certainly not the hero of this story.
Really, the heroes are the refugees that I’ve worked with, and this isn’t just a saying. The talent, the creativity, the, the solutions that the colleagues and I’ve worked with that just happened to be refugees over the years has completely blown away, blown me away. And it’s, you know, the phrase of talent is evenly distributed throughout the world, but opportunity is not, is so true.
And I think you’ll see that as we get to share more with the Burning Man community, what Patrick and opportunity have been working on with the global Burning Man arts grant and all of the work he’s been doing with architects and Patrick’s even giving lectures to the Berkeley architecture school.
So I just think that what people perceive as, as what a refugee camp looks like, or what people perceive as, as what a refugee is capable of, I think we’re going to smash those preconceived notions and we’re gonna lead to a. A better future than isn’t this dystopian one of detention centers, but really one that allows for people to have their own radical expression.
And that’s going to result in a much better outcome for, for all of us.
STUART: Amen. To a more Burnery world. Well, you may not be a hero, Zuck, but you are definitely an inspiration. And I got to thank you for joining us today. I really appreciate it.
MIKE ZUCKERMAN: Thank you so much. It’s been great to talk with you.
STUART: Alright, that’s our show for today. Thanks for joining us. Burning Man Live is a production of the Burning Man Project, a 501c3 nonprofit devoted to being a catalyst for creative culture in the world. I’m your host Stuart Mangrum. Thanks to everybody who helped put the show together. And of course, thanks, Larry.