Sep 7, 2020 · 12 min read

The Power of Play & The Permission Zone

September has always felt like a new beginning for me. A new cycle - a hard reset to the natural order and - imagined possibilities. This time of the year is usually lined with a feeling of focus as the vibrant rituals of summer and holidays transition back to a more concentrated period of study or work.

In the past, as we’ve navigated the passage back from playa to public space, we’ve pondered what’s next, individually and culturally. While summer and Burning Man have historically invited personal exploration, September has brought these changes back into the collective, informing new ways to live, work, and play.

This year, we and our systems have been kickstarted in a very different way. The burner rituals of congregating, building, creating artistic expression, emotional release and committing to leaving no trace (save for new connections and expanded perspectives) have been disrupted by the global pandemic.

The jarring circumstances of the last six months and the cancellation of our yearly pilgrimage to the playa have inspired in me a deep examination of Burning Man’s great lessons. I’ve realized there’s a silver lining in imagining what a world of invention and play might mean for us post-COVID-19.

It’s incredible what humans can weather and adapt to…

After all that has transpired in the past six months, we are now between a turning point and its aftermath. The pandemic has highlighted the fragilities of our individual and collective systems, from an over-reliance on certain fragments of the economy to the under-resourcing of others.

The dynamic range of human experience became abruptly constrained. Things we took for granted - sharing hands, blowing out birthday candles with friends, offering a comforting hug — were suddenly life-threatening. We lost patterns and infrastructure we depended on, and the shared spaces that make cities great - museums, restaurants, concert halls, and more.

However, we’ve also seen waves of civic - led innovations and reinventions of social practices as traditional barriers to entry have been reduced. Digital tools have been leveraged to serve our social needs, new connections and structures have emerged. Rituals have been reinvented, interactions have been gamified as content and creativity has bloomed.

On an individual level, we’ve seen a resurgence in experiential- learning and the DIY spirit during isolation. Citizens worldwide have embraced creativity within their spaces and with each other. From cooking classes to costuming, van life and adventure, work spaces to living spaces to the kitchen and beyond.

On a societal level, innovations have come from all over the globe to support the medical community — from crisis response such as respirator hackathons, to citizen-led creations of 3D-printed valves, to corporations pivoting their resources towards solving shortages of personal protective equipment, thus underscoring the importance of creativity in their organizations. This is a moment in time that has shown us that there’s a new world emerging right before our very eyes, where we can seamlessly and naturally, interact with augmented and virtual reality. It’s a world where spaces and cities can become smarter and where we have endless possibilities to learn, co-create, and explore.

Burners, makers and creatives in particular have a knack for creating something meaningful by stepping into the unknown. With flexible and imaginative minds, they make do with what they have and creatively map out the new.

If COVID-19 has illuminated anything, it might be that this very mindset of permission to create space for what we don’t know we don’t know, when applied to the design of our cities, systems and shared culture, is both inevitable and necessary.

Throughout the course of history, artists and creatives have always invented new pathways through systemic roadblocks.

Just as the creativity of the Renaissance era following the bleak Middle Ages, the economic resurgence after the Plague, the scientific and technological advancements post-World War II, and the ingenuity born out of prohibition, we can again look to entrepreneurs and start-ups, makers and creatives alike as the artists of our economic and cultural landscapes.

How We Got Here: A Reflection of our Time Space & Perspective

To envision how we might reimagine and create our future, let’s first dive into the past to understand how we arrived at this turning point.

Since the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism, our time, space, and perspectives have been subjugated by the drive for perpetual economic growth. Linear progressions of society have historically limited our access to market opportunities and decision-making by overly prescribing roles and outcomes. Understandably, these systems have also limited our freedom to experiment.

Our ability to explore, to create — to prototype and play without expectation or fear of failure — has been devalued and greatly diminished.


Henry Ford, the father of mass production, predicted that machinery would increasingly take the load off man’s shoulders, giving each of us more time to do God’s will and to work towards a notion of higher collective progress.

Ford supposed that fewer work hours would give us time to cultivate the art of living, to better engage in the arts and, therefore, find comfort and satisfaction of the mind and spirit. But, as we now can see, our sense of time has been too acutely shaped by industry.

Born out of the fight for labour rights in the early 20th century, the weekend has come to define our concept of “free” time. With the rise of industry came the rise of capitalism, and now we’ve come to envision our free time solely as time away from work, instead of a pause with agency, with space for experimentation and personal development. We have internalized the values of optimal output; it has become the measurement of society’s values.

“Perhaps the deepest indication of our slavery is the monetization of time.” — Charles Eisenstein

Similarly, the ways in which we inhabit physical and psychological spaces are not working to our benefit. The brick and mortar economic model of our cities have pushed creatives and communities into segregated, siloed zones for living, working, and amusement.

Jane Jacobs would tell us that this has caused social division and displacement. If our urban infrastructures shape our mindset, then we must build spaces founded on innovation and play in order to free ourselves psychologically.

To change our ideas of time and space, our perspective must shift. Like adaptability, which can be a mechanism for change, a perspective that is too fixed can also be a mechanism for suppression. By becoming overly adaptive to our environments and accepting them without question, we risk not seeing the limitations of our very existence.

Our brains are wired to recognize and replicate patterns of thought and behaviour. If we don’t question or reinvent our environment, we don’t challenge these patterns or plant the seeds for new ones. Confronting ourselves with new experiences stoke the brain’s neuroplasticity, expanding the potential of our perception. As overly-prescribed structures grow around us, we often find ourselves paralyzed in the face of an economic, healthcare, social and cultural cataclysm.

Art movements following world wars and economic depression have historically demonstrated a post-crisis rejection of established forms of meaning and logic. There has been a characteristic post-crisis rejection of the linearity and prescriptions of broken systems. For example, the Dada artistic movement, developed in reaction to World War I, rejected the logic, reason and aestheticism of modern capitalist society. Instead, they expressed nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works.

Hannah Höch, Cut With the Kitchen Knife, 1919, Source

As in all other crises, we now have the opportunity to re-examine our systems and create lasting change. As the systems theorist, inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.” We are more than capable of remapping how we think and therefore how to exist in our physical and psychological spaces. We need not only to rebuild, but to reimagine our future. In placing value in experimentation over what we think we know, we can move into a freer, more sustainable and inclusive collective unknown. In a society seemingly lacking in the tools to overcome and rebuild, we must once again look to creators and makers as the key to innovative social change.

The Power of Play & The The Permission Zone

Makers and creatives have been, and will continue to be, the ones to ride the tide of change, the ones to lead us out of the dark and to imagine a new world of possibilities.

We have much to learn from this community and the maker mentality. They remind us that innovation, collaborative thinking, and the act of putting prototypes out into the world - driven by the learning process over the outcomes - is the path towards the untapped potential of a reimagined future.

We are already relearning what it means to be in proximity to others, the collective awe and inspiration that can be derived from interactions, the possibilities of a digital world and the possibilities of a shared economy.

There are hints of experimental spaces emerging all around us as we improvise our daily survival - pop-up spaces and businesses, for example, that have surged to adapt to new social distancing regulations. We’ve opened up and interacted with unfastened minds; we’ve committed to exploring new methods and formats from the comfort of our homes. We’re more globally connected than ever and, at the same time, our actions and response initiatives have seen a reinvestment in supporting the resilience of our immediate communities.

As we’re learning that the best achievement of business and the free market need not be based around perpetual growth, eternal job creation, and everlasting consumerism, we can start to see a new type of civilization in which how we live becomes more important than how we make a living.

A civilization that includes the essential ingredients of living that aren’t quantifiable - art, creativity, empathy, child-rearing, and the qualities embodied in collectively slowing down.

A full-bodied and full-spirited commitment is required to continue the fostering of these environments beyond the current pandemic. By intentionally embedding creative ritual into our newly-forming collective spaces, we can continue to create bottom-up and emergent local community models, networks and systems.

Play is a core ingredient of breaking through our structured patterns. Fittingly, the root of the word ‘company and the very definition of the birth of a business, comes from the Latin “cum panis” meaning “with bread”. The act of breaking bread with the ones we share our meals with, while inviting the imagination and creativity that lives in the kitchen, the trial and error of cooking and at our dinner table, is foundational in our economy.

In his book Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga talks of the idea of Man the Player. He suggests that play characteristics are intrinsic in the development of culture. He highlights the roles of the artist and maker, and the root of play in language and even the court of law.

The evolution of our capabilities, as currently reflected by society at large. Credited:

With the idea of suspending the rules of reality in order to envision and create a new one — the Mayans built cities, the World’s Fair brought inventions from across the globe, and events like Burning Man were created to upend the physical and psychological confines of our society.

We have the ability to create a future vision in the present moment.The human imagination is a gift of infinite variety and possibility. Comparatively, Nobel prize economist Paul Romer has been talking about the potential of imagination for years: ‘There is no roadblock other than a failure of imagination.”

Another way that humans have always put imagination to use is by stepping into a conjured space of permission known as the the Magic Circle. The Magic Circle has existed for centuries in various forms and is both a physical and psychological zone where freedom and connectivity guide decision making.

Most notably referenced by the video gaming industry, it is seen as a space where imaginary borders and laws define how and why players engage.

Physically, it is a “concentrated space” — neither home or office, dedicated to the unknown and free-play. Traditionally, we can retrace its steps from the Greek agora to the coffee shop, from the Italian piazza to the dinner table to multi-use community space. All these places are playgrounds in their own way, where inhabitants interact and flow through alternative behaviors.

Psychologically, it is a place that is not overly defined or prescribed. A place where nothing is scripted, where we allow connections to form, and freedom to guide our own decisions. The Magic Circle mindset means talking to a stranger, taking a different route home, doing a tarot reading. It is a blank canvas to be filled with spontaneity and improvisation.

Burning Man weaves in both of these applications, inviting its citizens to learn through doing and employ the pathway of experimentation towards knowledge. Founder, Larry Harvey saw Burning Man as a template for the next urban century. He recounted in an oral history how the initial plan “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.”

Through providing the permission for play - Burning Man has become a place where people escaping society experiment with things meant to change society: human-led innovation and co-creative ecosystems.

Credited: Croquet X Machina, 1987. Photo by Richard Misrach. Courtesy of The California Sunday Magazine.

Burning Man’s structure and ethos were built using play as a tool for reimagining. It started as a blank canvas, a step away from rigid social structures. In response to bottom-up needs, playful pranksters who sought autonomy merged their disciplinary perspectives and built an alternate society from the tips of their imagination. The very heart of the event embraces not knowing what comes next, conjuring new solutions out of challenges, leaning into make-believe, and learning from doing.

Shaped by everyone and for everyone, in response to the immediate needs of a community to both survive and thrive, a circularity of trust among the organization and its participants became foundational. The ecosystem of Burning Man’s Black Rock City, was carved by the permission to play, improvise, experiment and explore, and was thus coined by Tom Price as a “permission engine”. Of course permission, which is fortified through trust, exchange, and joyful expression, is driven by play.

Creating Permission Zones allows us to use freedom and connection to guide decisions, to create a physical space where random collisions of people and ideas can happen and to create occurrences and solutions spontaneously and collaboratively. Permission Zones engage individuals and collectives alike with agency around vulnerability and risk-taking.

This time of global upheaval has shone a spotlight on our individual vulnerability and the shared vulnerability of society. But as the researcher, professor, lecturer and author Brené Brown shows us being vulnerable is the precursor to risk-taking, which opens up a world of new possibilities.


Unlike the previous image, wherein knowing leads to our-ability to play, suppose instead that play is what allows us to know.

Pre-pandemic, we yearned to engage in a space where our identity was not defined by our environment. This yearning, now amplified, calls not only for a reimagined environment in which to exist, but for an entirely new system.

When, as individuals, we are engaged as players, makers and explorers, we are engaged as a collective. If we can bring permission and therefore play into our rituals, it becomes a shared culture in which we can cultivate the world we want to live in.

The global focus on COVID-19 has both a physical and psychological effect. It has forced us into a digital world, making resources more accessible than ever before. As we rebuild and reimagine, our entrepreneurialism and the allocation of these resources will strongly benefit from fostered connection, improvisation and imagination, through the permission to play and dream.

We are faced with the ultimate challenge of bringing the Burning Man mentality back into the collective, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Let us invite the “Permission Zone Mindset” into our everyday lives to stoke our capacity to adapt to problems as they emerge. To harness our brain elasticity towards creative solutions, especially in our current state. To foster incubator spaces and creative effusion.

We are in a phase of recalibration, where breaking patterns not only leads to growth and abundance, but towards an expansion of what we can imagine and create. We cannot step into innovation and re-invention without stepping into the unknown, especially when the state of the world finds itself in the unknown too.

What is offered here is not intended as a theory of that unlimited potential. It is meant to open up creative responses in the same way that a set of tools allows artists and craftsmen to engage creatively with their materials. Ultimately, this is about redefining our systems in a way that allows for cognitive psychological and physical creation of permission zones.

Playfulness might not come to mind as a crisis-solver - yet the qualities of play, a mechanism of our biological evolution, are essential developers of adaptable, inclusive and sustainable problem-solving.

Imagine what can happen when we allow ourselves to prototype instead of to prescribe - for ourselves, our communities, our organizations, our cities, and our world.

Beyond Burning Man

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