Sunday, August 09, 2009

Could the crowd design a better car than Detroit?

Would it be possible for all the wannabe car designers in the world – many of whom, perhaps, don’t have a job because of the flailing auto industry – help resurrect, well, the flailing auto industry?

That’s part of what Jay Rogers, co-founder of Boston start-up Local Motors is hoping. Using a form of distributed innovation approach – crowdsourcing as happens at businesses like Innocentive – Rogers has set up a Web site to attract a vast online community, which now comprises of 2000 ambitious, creative designers from 121 countries. The first car design happened in less than 3 months, a task that typically takes Detroit 2 years.

This is not surprising considering the crowd at Innocentive solves complex R&D problems at a rate 30% better than that accomplished by in-house approaches at scientific companies.

Local Motors' plan is also to tap into consumers’ own interests – it would be sort of like customers giving ideas for a personalized car. Online design competitions help fuel this project. In the true crowdsourcing model of Threadless, the t-shirt designing company, users vote on the best designs submitted by hobbyists, amateurs and experts alike. The winners are motivated by huge cash prizes in the range of a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars.

“I realized that the car industry needed to create totally new designs and do it a more honest way, where we learn from the community out there: what do you want to buy?”

James Surowiecki’s wisdom of the crowds, of course, thrives on the idea that a divergent crowd is required for a collective brain to be smart and innovative. Harvard researcher Karim Lakhani (who serves as an adviser for Local Motors) has shown that Innocentive’s success rests on ideas and solutions coming from people outside the immediate field of expertise.

As crowdosurcing guru Jeff Howe once told me, the problem is that people in a given field often operate within their own psilos; those who are not restrained by that can think outside the box. So it's not surprising that Rogers believes the crowd will help solve problems inherent in the auto industry – from the restraint to explore modern technology to the insistence on using expensive material to build cars.

His company, which is now in the idea stage, will take the most promising propositions from the Web site to various factories that Rogers plans to set up all around the US. To add to the personalized car concept, the first set of vehicles produced by Local Motors – whose design and engineering is now being crowdsourced – will actually allow customers to be part of production as well – buyers will be invited to come and help put their cars together themselves.

It works for t-shirts, it works for complex scientific problems. Perhaps, it will work for cars as well.