2014-02-05

Co.Exist

Meet The Manufacturing Pioneer Behind A 100 MPG Supercar And A $100 Microhouse

Some might think Joe Justice is living an over-engineered existence. But the social good entrepreneur is showing ambitious results from his "Wikispeed" system of mobilizing talent to advance his projects all over the world.

By his own admission, Joe Justice is a "business process junkie." He's into techniques like Agile, Scrum and Kanban the way other people are into, say, the Dodgers or episodes of Boardwalk Empire. And sometimes his obsession even bleeds into his personal life.

There's a "time-box" set aside for kung fu (Wednesday night, Saturday morning), dinners with his wife (Friday), and working with Wikispeed, the freewheeling engineering group he founded (Thursday, Sunday). Justice even ticks off family tasks like they were "backlog items," agreeing upon weekly priorities with his spouse. "If it wasn't for the Personal Kanban, I would probably fold," the entrepreneur says. "Mentally, I wouldn't be able to keep up."

Some might see this as an over-engineered existence. But Justice argues that sticking to a system is "enabling."

Besides, he really does have a lot on his plate. Wikispeed is working on several ambitious projects, including a modular 100 mile-per-gallon supercar and a $100 Microhouse for the developing world. And, Justice has a raft of his own consulting gigs these days. Since Forbes touted his approach as the future of manufacturing, the Seattle native's time has been in ever higher demand. Recently, he's spent time with Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, and he's about to go to India to talk with John Deere. These enormous companies want know if Wikispeed's model of lean, distributed development and hyper-accelerated lead-times can work for them. It seems a long shot--but Justice wants to help them try.

In 2008, Justice heard about the Progressive Insurance Automotive X-Prize--a $10 million challenge to build a road-legal 100 mpg car--and he decided to give it a go. He figured it couldn't be that difficult to outdo some of the impractical "bob-sleds" that had entered. Working with 44 engineers around the world, Justice built the C3 (see below) in just three months, placing 10th in the contest, and beating out many better-funded and more experienced rivals.

After that, Justice took the car to automotive shows, appearing alongside Detroit carmakers. Wikispeed has since sold 10 advanced prototypes and raised $250,000. The plan is to update the car continually as early customers provide feedback. Meanwhile, a separate group of Wikispeeders has set up a for-profit company to make up to 10,000 cars. Justice's nonprofit arm will get $500 for each vehicle sold.

Justice isn't upset that people are co-opting his idea for money. It's a way of spreading the idea and generating funds for other projects. "Wikispeed is behaving like the open source nonprofit idea engine," he says. "We're providing these concepts and proving viability, and encouraging other companies to produce them in volume and fund Wikispeed as a result." Teams in New Zealand are working on a pick-up truck based on the same technology as the car, and there are plans for a Wikispeed taxi, school bus, and mail carrier as well.

Justice's attitude is all about getting things done and having as much impact on the world as possible. He describes Wikispeed as a "do-tank," as opposed to a think-tank that comes up with ideas but never sees them through. The real innovation is in the process: the way Wikispeed splits every engineering problem into smaller pieces, putting each task onto a backlog-list. Distant collaborators work independently, choosing tasks to work on, until they've met detailed "acceptance criteria." Then, once they've finished, each member files meticulous paperwork, so other participants can copy, and improve, on what they've done.

Wikispeed engineers work in small teams and often anonymously. Justice doesn't know exactly who is doing what until they complete a task. And he says he has no idea how many people are in the whole network (though about 500 are signed up officially). Sometimes, he is surprised to hear that a team in, say, Barcelona has been working on something for months, or when completed components turn up out of the blue. "I only really know when they've mailed it to one of our shops, and they've posted a YouTube video about it," he says.

Wikispeed's newest project is the MicroHouse, a pared-down bedroom-and-bathroom structure built from insulated foam (see an early model here). The shelter is designed to heat itself from inhabitants' body heat and to offer basic sleeping and washing facilities. There's a cheap solar panel on the roof and a clever rainwater capture system that destroys bacteria using concentrated UV light.

Justice designed the MicroHouse himself after studying dozens of traditional shelters and camping in the wilderness without a tent. There are currently two prototypes set up in the woods in the Northwest. He sees the structure as providing cheap accommodation in developing countries, possibly on marginal land. The advantage of the foam is that it doesn't need a weather covering, and Wikispeed can buy material in bulk, keeping costs down. Each house has only a few parts.

A wealthy patron recently called to ask if Justice could provide units for the Philippines disaster. But he had to say the design wasn't quite ready yet. Justice doesn't know exactly when it will be finished: It all depends on when Wikispeed members take up tasks. Probably, though, it won't be too long in coming. Justice prides himself on speed, and his record shows he gets things done while others move slowly, or not at all.

[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

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