The Ephemeral Engineering of Burning Man

Sometimes the infrastructure and technology you create to solve a problem can be short-lived… and that’s not always a bad thing.

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending Burning Man – an annual festival in Nevada celebrating human expression, artistry, and community. I was there to participate in the overall experience, but I also came to work.

As the Water Lead, I was in charge of critical water infrastructure for my 70-person camp. This involved coordination of fresh water delivery/gray water removal and also designing and maintaining the system of barrels, pumps and hoses that together would provide a continuous flow to and from the camp kitchen, camp shower, and wash station. The system looked more or less like this:

Fresh water comes in (left), gray water goes out (right). Simple enough. But Burning Man is an extreme environment with its own unique set of challenges:

  • Hostile: This festival is held in one of the most inhospitable environments you could imagine. In addition to extreme swings in temperature, there are 50 MPH winds, made worse by a fine alkaline dust that coats and destroys everything it touches.
  • Isolated: If the thread on your hose uses a GHT standard but your pump connector uses a NPT standard, well, you had better get creative with bubble gum. There is no Amazon delivery nor hardware store. What you brought is what you get, so better make sure it’s right …and always have a contingency.
  • Deranged: You should assume all the people using your kitchen and shower have been awake for three straight days and have long since lost their proverbial minds. Despite all your meticulous planning, they will invent ways to break your carefully crafted system in ways that will be both stupid and ingenious, and you won’t know which.

It can be overwhelming, until you remember it only needs to last for a week. The entire event, made of hundreds of camps, is an exercise in ephemeral engineering – designing systems that maintain a semblance of order until the dust and the wind and the chaos rend them asunder.

As a technologist and management consultant for my “real job,” it made me think about parallels to my work advising clients on how to build the right solutions for their problems. Would I ever advise them to do so much work that ultimately would be “throw away?”

In short, yes.

To be clear, it’s not something you want to get into the habit of doing. But there are a few scenarios where temporary technology makes a ton of sense:

  1. An immutable deadline compels you. This may be a regulatory deadline, where a governmental body has dictated action or else the company faces financial consequences. Or perhaps a vendor has pulled the plug on a contract, and you’re compelled to act quickly. In that case, design as best you can, then MacGyver the rest. Keep in mind: you are by definition creating “technical debt” that eventually has to be cleared. So go down this path with abundant caution… and don’t let anyone forget about it.  
  1. Innovation is the driver. Zuck may not be everyone’s technology idol these days, but his early motto of “move fast and break things” is usually spot-on when innovation is the goal. Now, what you don’t want is for something to go into production and fail there. This is therefore the place for early betas, user focus groups, and even MVP (Minimum Viable Product) launches, as long as all of those scenarios are combined with an “always delivering” methodology like Agile.
  1. The cost of permanence far outweighs a temporary solution. While the ivory tower can be a tempting place, reality dictates that we design pragmatic solutions for real-world needs, which are sometimes short-term by design. Like the Burning Man situation, it doesn’t make sense to invest in a ton of permanent infrastructure that is only used for ephemeral purposes.

In all of these cases, one of the most important keys to a successful outcome is expectations management. One must communicate that what’s being built is intentionally temporary, and that future investment, resources, and a lot of leadership “air cover” may be needed to harden any short-term solution. For that reason, none of these paths are without risk – especially of the political or reputational variety.

But sometimes it’s important to notch a win and celebrate …before you burn it all down.

Further Advisory advises clients on technology strategy in a way that explicitly ties solution design back to business objectives and customer needs, but we don’t stop there. We then help our clients craft pragmatic roadmaps that will bring that technology vision to life. From Strategy to Reality®

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From Strategy to Reality®

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