"If the past ten years have been about discovering post-institutional social models on the web, then the next ten years will be about applying them to the real world." Chris Anderson
In his 'Does Journalism Exist?' lecture (which I wrote up in more detail here), Alan Rusbridger noted how many of The Guardian's most interesting experiments lay in "combining what we know, or believe, or think, or have found out, with the experience, range, opinions, expertise and passions of the people who read us, or visit us or want to participate rather than passively receive". We are, he said, edging away from the 'binary sterility' of the debate about new replacing the old, and towards a world characterised by mutualised contribution and interest.
What has happened in media, so it now goes with industry. In 'What Would Google Do?', Jeff Jarvis talks about what would happen if you applied 'Googlethink' to the car industry. Car customers, he noted, have no good way to listen to customer's ideas, or allow them to openly affect the product. It is anathema for big car manufacturers to truly open up their design process and make it both transparent and collaborative because of traditional, ingrained habits of secrecy. And yet, it is an industry that could so do with an injection of humanity and personality:
"The anticipation I remember about a new year's cars – like a new season's TV shows – is gone. Cars have lost their season. They stay the same year upon year. They all start to look alike. They rarely engender excitement"
I can't help but agree. Design, says Jeff, if not a democracy can at least be a conversation. Offering the opportunity of real customer involvement, of participating in the process, of customisation from the ground up, would make cars exciting again.
The good news is that it is already happening. Local Motors in the US is turning the car industry on it's head, re-engineering it with an open-source, participative, distributed model. I've been following their story for a while. And Chris Anderson has just penned a feature about them in the latest issue of Wired. The first Local Motors model, the Rally Fighter (pictured above), goes on sale in June. Its design was crowdsourced from an actively engaged community of designers, hobbyists and enthusiasts (the largest online design and development community in the world) and released under a creative commons license. Customers get involved with the selection and design of components, and the final assembly will be done by the customers themselves in local micro-factories.
But this is no kit-car company. The designs are totally original. The community is well managed, well equipped (with 3D design software), and well led, meaning that 3600 innovators have submitted no less than 44,000 shared designs onto the website. But it's a sensible approach to crowdsourcing. Whilst the community design the body and many of the components, the company takes charge of the chassis, engine and transmission (meaning that, as Chris Anderson says, the pros are looking after the parts critical to performance, safety and manufacturability whilst the community designs the parts that give the car its style, shape and personality). Instead of allowing the design to be crowdsourced into mediocrity, they encouraged the submission of individual designs and the community then decided on the winner. Even though there initially wasn't meant to be a prize for the winning design, the winner was awarded $10,000 by the company anyway. And a whole ecosystem was created around the development process, with customers encouraged to enhance designs and produce their own components that they can then sell on to other customers. The process, from beginning to end, is part of a whole customer experience.
And the result is a car that Detroit would never have built. John Rogers, the CEO describes his business as the sand that fills the gaps between the big pebbles in the auto-industry. Not only building better cars, but a better process for building better cars. He says they make cars on a cycle 5 times faster than the average car business, in a process that is 100 times less capital intensive. And he already has a ready made, highly engaged, community of brand advocates: "People say to me 'you've been developing that car for a year and a half with your community, when are you going to start marketing it?' And I say 'exactly'". Compare the googlejuice for General Motors:
…with that (albeit on a smaller scale) for Local Motors:
I agree with Alan Moore, who left a comment the previous time I wrote about Local Motors (and who wrote a good post on the subject that is worth a read) that this business fundamentally changes the relationship to supply and demand. The real insight is "not that this is the car that twitter built, but that this company was built around a designed approach in which it had specific criteria and values. The result is the blending of old and new together."
This is not confined to the auto industry. With the development of 3D printers, access to affordable prototyping and design technologies, and open access factories in China, disruptive manufacturing models are going to start springing up everywhere. Traditional business processes are nowhere near agile enough to compete with companies that can bring (more exciting) products to market, in more inclusive ways, in a fraction of the time, and at a fraction of the cost. Manufacturing is about to get remanufactured.
NB. You can still vote for Local Motors in David's Social Business Innovation vote over here.