Nobel economist Paul Romer goes to Burning Man, and finds a model there for this century's sustainable cities


We are in touch with many “Burners” - those who take themselves onto the Black Rock City, Nevada every year, to build temporary autonomous zones under the general title of Burning Man. We are interested in how Burning Man is inspiring many others to set up festivals and experiences which celebrate creativity but also planet-friendly values (see our archive). We’ve often thought there’s the embryo of a new organisational/institutional form there.

But not just us, it seems. The New York Times has an entertaining, thoughtful (but also hipsterish) piece on the day that Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Romer went to visit Burning Man.

Burning Man, to catch up the uninitiated, takes place for a week in the Nevada desert every August into early September. Thousands of avant-garde revelers come to bend their minds, shed their clothes and incinerate a large wooden effigy. The event is tamer than it used to be, with more Silicon Valley types and fewer anarchists, but it’s still wild territory for a staid academic.

Mr. Romer, who appreciates a bit of shock value, has been showing aerial images of the city in public talks about urban growth for several years. The world, he says, needs more “Burning Man urbanization.”

By 2050, developing-world cities are projected to gain 2.3 billion people. Many of those people will move to makeshift settlements on the edge of existing cities, tripling the urbanized land area in the developing world.

“To be a little grandiose about it, this is a really unique moment in human history,” Mr. Romer told me last year. “We’re likely to decide in this time frame what people are going to live with forever.”

Urbanization in the developed world has largely come to an end; nearly everyone who would move from farmland toward cities already has. This century, the same mass migration will run its course across the rest of the world. And if no one prepares for it — if we leave it to developers to claim one field at a time, or to migrants to make their way with no structure — it will be nearly impossible to superimpose some order later.

It will take vast expense, and sweeping acts of eminent domain, to create arterial roads, bus service, trash routes, public parks, basic connectivity.

Paul Romer surveys Burning Man

Paul Romer surveys Burning Man

That prospect agitates Mr. Romer, because the power of cities to lift people out of poverty dissipates when cities don’t work. To economists, cities are labor markets. And labor markets can’t function when there are no roads leading workers out of their favelas, or when would-be inventors never meet because they live in gridlock.

Mr. Romer’s answer is to do with this moment what Burning Man does every summer: Stake out the street grid; separate public from private space; and leave room for what’s to come. Then let the free market take over. No market mechanism can ever create the road network that connects everyone. The government must do that first.

The history of the Manhattan street grid, drawn in 1811 over all the land from Houston Street to 155th, offers similar lessons. But Mr. Romer fears that Manhattan sounds like a chauvinistically American example. And so when skeptics say that it will be too hard to plan for large new waves of urbanization, he says this instead: “Look at Burning Man! They grow to 70,000 people in one week.”

And then 70,000 people go home, and they do it all over again the next year. The planning requires no major expense, he argues. He’s not talking about laying sewer lines, or even paving the roads. Just draw the street grid on the open desert.

When he first proposed this to me — Burning Man as template for the next urban century — I asked if he had ever, well, been to Burning Man.

He had not. And so we made two trips there in August: first to see the city surveyed, then a few weeks later to camp in it. He would see firsthand if his provocative argument held up.

Order underlies the chaos of the festival. Streets are exactly 40 feet wide; plazas steer people into common spaces; the 430 fire extinguishers around town each have their own QR code.Alex Welsh for The New York Times

Mr. Romer’s logic is connected in a roundabout way to the work that won him the Nobel. Macroeconomists used to think about the world by tallying up quantifiable stuff: capital, labor, natural resources. They weren’t sure how to account for ideas.

But Mr. Romer, in a seminal 1990 paper, showed that ideas were central to progress. His model of economic growth incorporating them enabled economists to ask entirely new questions about the modern “knowledge economy”: Where do ideas come from? How do they spread? Why are cities such hotbeds for creating them?

By the late aughts, Mr. Romer was sure that cities were the urgent subject of the 21st century. He had a new idea: “charter cities” that would be built in the developing world but governed by nations with more advanced economies and more rules protecting, say, property rights and independent judges. He was picturing British-era Hong Kong, replicated 50 times over.

Some developing-world politicians were intrigued. Critics cried neocolonialism. Libertarians largely misread Mr. Romer’s intentions: They saw new territory where capitalists could shrug off government rules. To Mr. Romer, the idea was about seeding the right government rules.

The proposal forced Mr. Romer to learn the mechanics of cities. He persuaded N.Y.U. to create a new institute devoted to them, and two planning experts gave him an education. Shlomo Angel taught him the foundation of good street grids.

Alain Bertaud gave him a framework: Urban planners design too much, while economists cede too much to the market. The answer lies in between — in drawing the street grid on the desert.

“The beauty of the mind of Paul is that he sees patterns where we don’t see them, because he sees patterns across examples which have nothing to do with each other,” Mr. Bertaud said.

Mr. Romer looked at the Manhattan street grid, the imagined charter city, Black Rock City. He was doing this even in his short tenure at the World Bank, where he worked from 2016 to early 2018. He took the job quietly hoping to persuade the institution to back a new city. (It did not.)

In all of this, Mr. Romer has been creeping further from the economists toward the urban planners. By the time he got to Burning Man in August, he was thinking of himself as a University of Chicago-trained economist, once indoctrinated in the almighty free market, now in open revolt against his roots.

More here. The piece goes on, following Romer round the desert, as he matches his realisations about the limitations of his economics world-view as the Burning Man City develops:

The Burners “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,” Larry Harvey, one of the founders, recounted in an oral history before his death last year.


“It had gone beyond a bit of pranksterism in the desert,” he said. “We had made a city, and no one wanted to take responsibility for it.”

To Mr. Romer, this was a teachable moment. “Anarchy doesn’t scale!” he said.

Most of the structure that has been added since feels invisible to the people who come: the streets that are surveyed to be exactly 40 feet wide, the plazas that steer people together without crowding them, the 430 fire extinguishers around town, each tracked by its own QR code.

The goal now, one planner explained to Mr. Romer, is to make Black Rock City just safe enough that people can joke about dying without actually dying.

“It’s a metaphor for my sense of economics,” Mr. Romer said. “I picture an economist showing up at Burning Man and saying: ‘Oh, look! This is the miracle of the invisible hand. All of this stuff happens by self-interest, and it just magically appears.’ And there’s this huge amount of planning that actually is what’s required beneath it to make the order emerge.” 

On this point, the economist and the Burners kept converging: Freedom requires some structure, creativity some constraints. But it was becoming clear there was more to the structure and constraints at Burning Man than Mr. Romer imagined. As he learned that, he inched even further toward the urban planners.

For more background, read Paul Mason on Paul Romer:

It’s 26 years since Paul Romer shook the discipline of economics with a single research paper. Entitled Endogenous Technological Change, Romer’s article showed how information technology changed something fundamental about our world – moving the focus of economics away from land, labour and capital towards “people, ideas and things”.

A generation later, Romer has published what many see as an equally significant intervention. Macroeconomics, he argues, is like a science that has not only stalled for three decades, but has actually gone backwards in its ability to understand reality.