Skin In the Game

Skin In the Game

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Why do I pick up a piece of rubbish at Burning Man, when I would typically let if fly past me if I was at home?

This is the question I asked myself, as I compulsively ran off into the desert in the extreme heat of the day, chasing a bit of paper that flew past me….

Burning Man is the cleanest city on earth. In terms of litter, it  makes even a hygiene-draconian place like Singapore look dirty. And yet there is no civic body to police this, and no one  to keep the temporary city clean but the attendees.

Why do 65,000 people behave differently there, compared with how they behave in another place? If that question can be answered, we can truly start to transform the world.

All Burning Man has are guiding principles by which everyone abides, of their own free will. One of those principles is ‘Leave no trace’. At Burning Man, MOOP (or Matter Out of Place) is something of a festival obsession. All the attendees are responsible for their own rubbish, and develop their own systems for dealing with it. It is self-policed, and where accidents happen, other attendees feel compelled to fill the gaps.

It is astonishing to see this society in action. On day two of my recent visit there, I recall seeing a stranger close to tears as he tried to come to terms with the enormity of what he saw.

You see, Burning Man is the outlier of outliers. It challenges our belief of what is possible for society itself.

For me, Burning Man is the most democratic place on earth; yet there is no voting or representation. Rather than the hijacked version of democracy we experience today, true democracy is about participation. As occurs at Burning Man, if everyone participates in the building of a community, everyone is part of it. Everyone automatically has ‘skin in the game’, so there is no need for representation – they are already personally engaged.

And this is where many of our problems lie. Democratic representation was designed in an era when transport was by horse. It was impossible for everyone to participate, because of the time and distance involved. This is no longer the case; yet we still consider representation to be the only form of democracy.

The trouble with representation is the middle man. Whenever you put something in the way, the human connection is lost. The middle man dehumanises us. Whether in a bank or government, whenever we pass on responsibility to someone else, our humanity starts to disappear. When we stop representing ourselves, we stop being our best selves.The really good news is that the world is changing fast and our return to humanity comes from an unexpected source – technology. In many ways, technology is re-humanising us, one platform at a time.

Why do crowdfunding sites like Kiva have far higher repayment rates than banks? Because you actually see who lends you the money – and they see you. There is a more human connection, which causes significant behavioural change.

Why do people behave so much better in an Airbnb residence than in a typical hotel? Because you see who owns the place and they see who is staying there. There is a relationship.

Technology isn’t the only part of it, though. Why does the British department store John Lewis perform better than its rivals? Because it is owned by its employees.

For me, Government is the ultimate middle man. For all the right reasons, it has delivered the wrong result. We no longer take responsibility for our communities because we no longer have a meaningful day-to-day stake in how they are run. That cannot be good for anyone.

This is why The Dandelion Project is one of the most important projects in the world right now. Its sole mission is to reimagine and reinvent democracy itself. We are developing the environment, culture and technology for our population to directly participate in creating the community in which they can be their best selves. One in which they have skin in the game.

Community is actually Government 2.0. For one week of the year, Burning Man may have gone far further in achieving this new world view than anywhere else on earth. Somewhere, someday, other communities will start to understand what democracy really is. I sincerely hope it happens in the community where I live.

To participation!


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  1. “Why do crowdfunding sites like Kiva have far higher repayment rates than banks?”

    Source ?

    “Why do people behave so much better in an Airbnb residence than in a typical hotel?”

    I don’t have data, but anecdotal evidences suggests “because it’s cheaper, duh”.

    “This is why The Dandelion Project is one of the most important projects in the world right now.”

    Sorry, I quickly read the description, and all I could get was “raising money to try and create a perfect world in a notorious tax haven”. I really hope their first step is “letting corporation pay taxes, so that this ugly middle man that is the government can pay cops, doctors and people to clean up the real world litter.”

    That being said, I’m glad you’re having fun at Burning Man.

    • Hi PHT,

      Kiva repayment rates . Having lived in the developing world this is way way beyond what is achieved by banks.

      I did not mention cost with regard to Airbnb. I was talking about behaviour.

      Much like the mobile phone was paid for by the very wealthy and now that technology is doing more to lift people out of poverty than anything else then it is the duty of rich countries to innovate and pay to develop technologies that allow the developing world to rise. Tax is actually infective because it is spent by government ineffectively. It would be far better for that money to go into reinventing the way human beings can organise themselves so the world can free itself from bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is what holds the developing world back the most. I make no apology for seeing a better way for that tax revenue to be spent in changing the world. For me traditional government is not the answer. Luckily I live in a world where I am free to hold a different view and am free to explore alternative solutions.

      Thank you for your kind words re Burning Man. It was inspiring, meaningful and fun.

      • Hi

        Would you care to give a few examples of the banks repayment rates ? That’s the data I was missing (I completely trust kiva to get a high amount of small loands repaid, being a kiva lender myself 😉 )

        I’m sorry about the Airbnb quote, I completely misread that before commenting. I don’t know why, by my brain automatically parsed it as “why do people prefer Airbnb to traditionnal hotel”. I can tell from the rest of the comment that I was kinda grumpy, so I’ll blame sleep deprivation 😉

        I’ll have to disagree with your view on tax evasion. I completely understand the notion that government spending can be inefficient and that excessive beaurocracy can hinder countries, both in first or third world ; however, I sincerely doubt this is any of the *real* concerns of any corporation pulling out a double irish sandwich.

        Saying “tax is spent by government ineffectively” is a gross simplification. Cliché for cliché, you drove to Burning Man on a road that was not happilly built by enthousiast road-makers, or by an investor seing the potential ROI in building roads to the middle of nowhere.

        You drove on a road that was built by construction workers most likey paid, at one level or another, with the money of an (unhappy) taxpayer.

        Are you arguing the taxes that paid that was useless, or simply that you had rather it being more “local” ? What would the personnal connection look like with the people who built the roads, who designed the Internet we’re using ?

        Sadly, precisely because of beaurocracy, evading tax simply lowers the amount available for basic required public services. When you let the money go the Cayman islands, people start cutting teachers, researchers and doctors pays – not removing layers of beaurocraty.

        I can’t help but thinking this tax evasion is a clever manifestation of pure greed – and we’ll probably agree that reducing deeds of pure greed is an important step before any sort of “better world” (you’re always in for unrealistic, aren’t you ?)

        And to come back to Burning Man : getting societes to work together is not new ; getting to know who, and how you deal with the needs of the community has *precisely* came to the conclusion that, at some point, some centralized form of decision has to be made in the best interest of the group ; and to make those decision actionnable requires (guess what?) contributions by each.

        Does the size of the group matter ? Is there something fundamentally different is small groups (families ? Burning Man attendees) that make sharing or altruistically contributing to the needs of the community less painfull, more acceptable ? I don’t know.

        And that concludes a question, an apology, and a rant.

        Have a nice day.

  2. Tony Trenker says

    Would a Burning Donkey event be viable here? Perhaps at some huge campsite like La Bailloterie? We could draft our own islandy principles and leave more likely to ‘pick up a piece of rubbish’ at home. Eventually, the whole 65,000 of us would be living renewed (like the population of Burning Man aha).

    Burn the old donkey, in with the new Gov 2.0!

    Anyone up for this?

  3. Augustine Inogbo says

    I love this! Our present day democracy is a chaos, a confusion, survival of the fittest, “cold war” of political infighting and empire of political corruption.

    Marc, this write-up is one of my best ever read post from you. I must share it.

    Best Regards.


  4. Thanks Marc, great post.

    It was enough to read the first sentence – what a question. I’ve had the experience that makes me believe that the human connection is what makes great companies different from good ones.

    I also like your point about the middle man, and suggest that perhaps where the trend is to use a middle man (ie with estate agents for example) we may lose a sense of our own power, which contributes to us not being our best selves.

    Another idea to throw into the Airbnb debate is that the guests aren’t afraid of the human connection and therefore more likely to be aware of their actions and their effect on other people.

    Enjoy Burning Man!

  5. Hi Marc
    Burning Man is a great place
    Worldview greats reality, the way people behaive towards the environment is as if they don’t depend on it because there should be awareness that environment is everyone’s business.
    In the past 6 months, I was working in a project with Envionmental Youth Groups in Primary Schools in a deep rural of Thaba-Tseka. The pupils have developes small projects by recycling and reuse of bottles for soft drinks to make tippy taps so as to wash hands when frm the toilet. That has changed their mind set and educated the parents as well.

  6. You’ve to devote time and effort to obtain probably the most savings.

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