Tag Archives: Detroit

Creativity, innovation, and the space between cultures

iPhotoAnthropologists are drawn to places where culture is a little shaky.

Normally, culture supplies the meanings and rules with which we understand and navigate the world. And normally, it does this invisibly, effortlessly, in real time. We don’t sense culture operating in us. It just does. It’s like language, it’s just there.

But sometimes culture is a little shaky. It has found a world it can’t quite render or organize. And when that happens, wonderful things happen. We understand that we are no longer under “strict instructions.” We are no longer the captive of meanings made. We are now living in a world where meaning and rules are up for grabs.

This happens especially in what Van Gennep called “liminal spaces.” Vegas and New Orleans are liminal spaces for social purposes. Rules are loosened. We have a new sense of freedom. Boulder, Madison, Palo Alto and Detroit are liminal spaces from an economic point of view. We have a new sense of possibility and certain innovations are now possible. Often these liminal spaces sit quite literally between cultures. They come by their culturelessness honestly. There are competing meanings and no one of these sets of meanings has the upper hand.

iPhotoWhich brings me to Panama City. I spend Feb. 21 and 22 to hear in transit from Mexico City to Brazil. And I was stunned by what I saw. This is a body of architectural experiments that are prepared to go anywhere and do anything. See the two buildings pictured here. (This is not a perfect photograph. Please enlarge it and have a look.) This work is gogglingly strange. I’m not saying wonderful. But it is like nothing I have seen in more ordinary worlds, those Gullivers pinned down by cultural convention.

I hadn’t thought about it before but there is no place in the world quite as liminal as Panama City. After all, it sits between both hemispheres and oceans. It’s not quite this, nor exactly that. Talk about a cross roads.

And we would expect a cross roads to be the place where strange things happen. (It is of course that Robert Johnson went to find his genius.) I am living on the surface of Panamanian culture. Here for the weekend. Stuck in a hotel. But what a surface! These buildings are lunar when not martian. And again, I’m not saying they are good. I’m just saying they are innovative. Wonderful in the literal sense, not the approving one. God knows what other wonders lie beneath the surface. Scary, really. The anthropologist, properly terrified by this prospect, gets on a plane and moves on.

Local Motors: a glimpse of the future?

Is this a glimpse of the future?

Detroit without Detroit?

Detroit de-troited?

Local Motors outsources the design task (in this case to Mihai Panaitescu), builds variations on to a single chassis (in this case from BMW) and invites consumers to come to the plant (in Massachusetts) and help build the car.

Customization, local content, consumer participation (aka cocreation), these things are now happening everywhere in Western economies.  But it looked as if certain industries would remain locked in the old world of mass and mono manufacture.  Any industry that is capital intensive, constrained by government requirement, and engaged in a complex production process…surely this would continue to make product the old fashioned way.

Enter Local Motors

In the FAQ, Local Motors asks this question:

How does Local Motors intend to build and sell cars?  Doesn’t this cost hundreds of millions of dollars?

Their answer:

To compete with the major auto manufacturers, it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. However, we do not intend to compete with them in terms of size or mass appeal. Our focus is specifically car enthusiasts and design lovers. We intend a simpler product and a lower volume. You might ask then why customers will pay for that simplicity, and we would answer that the specialized local nature of the business is meant to make up for that differentiation. We are ALL ABOUT bringing the fun of cars back to people’s hometown. Think of Micro-Beer for cars or Organic Food markets. What would you pay more for: a generic beer purchased at a 7-11, or a custom Micro-Brew? Where would you rather shop: an Organic Food Market with local produce, or a Supermarket Chain? The products at these types of local places are simpler and created with less manufacturing complexity, though they cost more because they are special and lower volume. Therefore, we do not intend to create a large OEM only to sell cars through dealerships. Volume is not our thing.

The strategy here is interesting, micro manufacture, niche markets, branding by location, making locality the basis of product variation.  It’s all about going intensive where cars have traditionally been extensive.  "Volume is not our thing."

The FAQ then asks:

How will Local Motors sell cars?

The answer:

Cars will be sold from specialized facilities distributed across the United States. These local facilities will not only stimulate local economies, they will be a source of pride for the entire community.

Local Motors will create an aspirational experience of scarcity driven demand whereby the local factory will create a Wonka-like fascination with its products and methods. Not only will it sell its cars, but it will sell the experience of people being able to visit and watch their car being "born."

Now, the factory, long the guilty, throw-a-tarp-on-it, or at least put it on the edge of town, is now one of the sites of meaning manufacture.  Whether Local Motors can actually capture Wonka-like fascination remains to be seen, but perhaps for car enthusiasts and design lovers, this is not so hard.  In any case, the process of meaning manufacture is as different here as is the process of physical manufacture.

Clearly, an exercise like this still takes lots of capital.  But this model of car making feels like a return to the early days of the auto biz. When the game was played locally, by small players, with a massive amount of tinkering, and lots of participation from the owner.  What an interesting experiment.  The old dog learns new tricks.


For the Local Motors website, go here.


Thanks to Alan Moore for telling me about Local Motors this morning.  See Alan’s website here.

Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle of last year.  It was reposted Dec. 24, 2010.  Apologies to those who left comments.  Those are long lost.  Sorry!