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Ideate This: I'm Living at Burning Man's Tech Innovation Camp

"Open your mouth and have a Cheez-It."

Nellie Bowles

The procreate innovation center is a set of dust-covered mattresses in the back of a trailer.

In yet another “cuddle puddle” — a sort of non-sexual group snuggling that seems to be the favored daytime activity at Burning Man — entrepreneur Tim West explained to me the mission of the 200-person tech and innovation camp, Ideate. (I’m also camping here at the annual Nevada desert festival this week.)

“It’s about bringing tech people to Burning Man, and helping them understand it,” said West, who was wearing an Air Force jumpsuit and carrying a headless Barbie in his pocket. “And then bringing Burning Man back to the default world.”

The special relationship between Burning Man and Silicon Valley is not an accident — it’s by design. A group of young tech entrepreneurs created Ideate three years ago, in collaboration with the Burning Man founders, to support the concept.

Its members are meant to serve as liaisons and teachers to the flood of new tech workers — and tech money — coming into the festival. In some ways, the camp was born out of an anxiety: The Burning Man founders are aging, and they needed to find a core next-generation troupe and ideas for the weeklong event’s next chapter.

What’s perhaps most interesting is that they chose a group of young people who are explicitly focused on entrepreneurship.

“The most important piece of why Silicon Valley exists in the first place is Burning Man — this is a place people go to confront problems and make solutions and prototype,” West said. “Why is innovation happening here in Silicon Valley more than anywhere else in the world? Burning Man.”

“Derek, for instance,” West said, gesturing to someone in a cowboy hat. “He’s been a VC for 25 years. Ideate is a safe place for him to get perspective on what Burning Man is and what it means. You know what Burning Man teaches us most of all? Trust.”

As if on cue, an entrepreneur next to me pulled a cigarette butt out of my hair.

“Trust,” West repeated.

A few minutes later, a person who had been climbing over me stopped and said: “Open your mouth.” They fed me a Cheez-It.

“T.R.U.S.T.,” West said, spelling it out.

Mike “Doc North” North, who has a show on the Discovery Channel about Maker culture, climbed into the trailer with a bottle of nail polish, and painted some on my forehead. Another entrepreneur with a large electric razor entered and shouted, “Remember: Safety third.” Google X executive Dan Fredinburg grabbed some hooks and started climbing through the interior of the truck, dangling his legs over the puddle as he leaped about, until he accidentally poked a hole through the wood paneling on the truck walls. A fellow whose “playa name” is “Delicious” — in the other world, he runs strategy for Center for the Edge at Deloitte — leaned against the truck wall.

Later this week, the camp will host a speaker series featuring characters like Levi Felix, the founder of Digital Detox, and Congressman Dennis Kucinich (maybe to debate Grover Norquist).

I left the cuddle puddle and wandered across the muddy sand, past the Buddhist wood carvings, past the silver yurts and slightly superior “playa huts,” which come with a floor, and arrived at an old trailer with a tarp shade structure and some folding chairs.

Greg Delaune, the trailer’s owner, offered me a breakfast cookie and a cocktail. He and James “Biggie Stardust” Hanusa are the founders of UIX Global, an urban innovation consultancy that launches in a few weeks, and they’re working with San Leandro, Calif., on a new six-acre tech campus. The inspiration for their company came from watching one of Burning Man’s ceremonial large-fire events.

“I was at a temple burn and got this sense — like a direct download on a cellular level — that change is all there is, and that we needed to do this, take the innovation culture and build a bridge,” said Hanusa, who wore black glitter nail polish while drinking a Tecate and smoking Marlboros. “And take it back to the world — what if Berkeley was a shared vision city where everyone was down to solve for X? Ideate is where we can think of and test these ideas, and then bring them to the world. And people are ready for it.”

“Burning Man is not a subculture anymore,” Delaune said.

“It’s the dom culture,” Hanusa added.

Sandra Kwak, a young woman wearing large red antlers, arrived and sat in a folding chair next to us.

“Can I tell you about the country I’m founding?” said Kwak, who is one of the Ideate leaders. “A nation-state of mind. A non-geographical country with a values-based Internet superstructure of government. An individually representative meritocracy. I call it Nisica. You would be a Nisian citizen.”

Doc North took me on a tour of his workshop, and told me about the haircuts he’d been giving that morning.

“We had a big mirror and taped some clippers onto the shop vac,” he said, showing off his own new buzz cut. “It was a nice prototype.”

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