Paul Romer, the 63-year-old American economist who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2018, visited Burning Man for the first time this year, and he came away more fascinated and inspired than he expected to be.
Romer tells the New York Times that he's been pretty down on the situation in the world, not particularly interested in writing any new papers, but well aware that the world is waiting for him to say something new. Romer's work of the last thirty years has largely centered on the idea of the "knowledge economy," and how cities create a secret sauce that added to helped to grow the quantifiable things that macroeconomists had traditionally discussed — capital, labor, natural resources.
This work on the "economics of ideas" is what won Romer the Nobel Prize, but in recent years, his thinking has strayed toward concepts that center on cities — how they're built, what their rules are, and how this impacts the generation and trading of ideas. This is what led to his fascination — at first from afar — with Burning Man.
Reporter Emily Badger decided to take Romer to Burning Man for the Times story after hearing him speak about it as a model for spontaneous cities. Romer has in recent years "drifted" toward the discipline of urban planning as he suggests that we are in "a really unique moment in human history."
"We’re likely to decide in this time frame what people are going to live with forever," Romer told Badger last year, referring to his thinking around the developed and developing world, and the need for "charter cities" that are planned with the wisdom of successful cities in the makeshift spaces of the developing world.
Looking at how Burning man constructs a city for 80,000 people each each year, then disassembles it all and does it all over again the next year, Romer was uniquely inspired. “I think they have some experience in doing this that’s maybe unique in the world," he tells the Times.
He visited the playa twice this year — once to see the entire thing surveyed, and all the stakes placed for the roads in the semi-circular grid, as well as the pentagonal "trash fence" being installed, which he sees as akin to an urban growth boundary.
Per the Times:
Mr. Romer was beginning to incorporate these [Burning Man set-up] characters into his thinking. What they do here is a model for any place with few resources but just enough volunteers to survey new neighborhoods on the urban periphery. But on a grander scale, if he ever persuades someone to build a new city, maybe the people to call are at Burning Man.
He returned to see the actual festival in action three weeks later, and like any virgin on the playa, he was notably amazed and thrilled.
He's now on a mission to get someone to fund the first "charter city" — which was his goal in becoming chief economist for the World Bank from 2016 to 2018, though it ultimately demurred from the project.
His thinking is that the favelas and refugee camps of the world are bound to become the cities of the future, and once property lines are established, it becomes impossible to retroactively impose order on what's been built. At Burning Man, he observes, the organizers learned two decades ago that "anarchy doesn't scale," and in order for the semi-anarchic festival to thrive, you need excellent urban planning, and rules, and constraints.
As late Burning Man founder Larry Harvey once said, the original organizers "invented a sense of superordinate civic order — so there would be rules, and structure, and streets, and orienting spaces, and situations where people would feel a common purpose together; where people could become real to one another."
Romer hopes that a new urban paradigm can do the same.