As China transitions from being the “world’s factory” to a global epicenter of innovation the maker movement is being brought to the forefront of national attention.
In January China’s Premier Li Keqiang went on a three day inspection tour of Guangdong Province under the banner of promoting reform and structural adjustment to counteract a slowing export market and a stagnating domestic economy. Along with visiting Qianhai Webank, China’s first virtual bank, Huawei, a rising domestic tech giant, and the new Guangdong Free Trade Zone, he also made two stops at less typical locations: the Chaihuo makerspace and Seeed Studios, a hardware development platform for makers. These later two visits show China’s growing commitment to supporting grassroots innovation and the budding maker movement that’s producing it.
The makers are a decentralized global community of do-it-yourself hardware designers, tinkerers, hobbyists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and other individuals who aim, simply put, to make things. They tend to have a strong commitment to the open sharing of knowledge, open source design and code, cross-discipline collaboration, transparency, reusing and repairing objects rather than buying new, and creating new things by building onto existing technologies.
“The maker movement is really not about a new industrial direction or strategy but it’s really about being able to be free to do something you’re really passionate about. . . Something you would actually spend your leisure time doing,” David Li, the founder of China’s first makerspace, Xinchejian, explained. “And if you can turn it into a business, great, if you don’t you still get something out of it.”
Silvia Lindtner, a professor at the University of Michigan who has researched the maker movement in China, added that, “Making is conceived of as a new form of citizen engagement. It is seen as a path to turn passive consumers into active participants in state affairs and the market.”
The maker movement is about the re-democratization of technology so that the general public are again empowered to make, adapt, repair, and understand the things they use. In many ways it’s a throwback to an earlier era where it was common for people to tinker around garages, repairing machines and tools for themselves and building the customized contraptions they wanted but couldn’t get otherwise.
A makerspace, or hackerspace, is a workshop where makers gather together to work on projects, share ideas, and teach others how to make things. Providing devices like 3D printers, laser cutters, and soldering irons makerspaces become catalysts of creativity as participants build on each other’s ideas and share what they learn. Mitch Altman, co-founder of NoiseBridge, one of the first makerspaces in the USA, describes makerspaces as being, “. . . full of people playing with projects, working on projects, creating projects that they really are excited about and sharing it with other people, helping other people with their projects . . . it’s a very creative environment that amazing things can come out of, including people creating companies that they make a living from.”
While maintaining their club-like atmosphere, makerspaces occasionally become staging grounds for serious entrepreneurs who form startups and turn their ideas into prototypes and prototypes into products. Some of these startups become global successes, like MakerBot, who revolutionized home 3D printing technology, Local Motors, who made the first fully 3D printed car, and the Shenzhen-based DJI Technology, a company that was founded by a Chinese model plane enthusiast that now has 50% of the global market share in unmanned aircraft.
“The whole maker movement is showing that what would have been a hobby a decade or two or three ago can actually be something that’s the center of your life, and it can even be something that you can start making some money with,” Mitch Altman explained.
One of the biggest turning points for the maker movement came with the publication of a book called Makers by Wired Magazine’s former editor Chris Anderson. This book framed the movement as a wellspring of innovation that could become the next industrial revolution.
“Before that it was more like a social club, like minded people who wanted to just sit around and play with stuff or get together in the makerspace,” said David Li, “. . . [then] people started to discover that they can sell their stuff through companies like Seeed Studio.”
Seeed Studio, one of Li Keqiang’s stops in Shenzhen, is a hardware innovation platform which helps makers from around the world evolve their ideas into products. It was founded in 2008 by Eric Pan, who was subsequently named one of Forbes’ top 30 Chinese entrepreneurs under 30 years old, as an “out-of-the-garage” kind of startup. It has since grown to be one of the biggest drivers of Shenzhen’s professional maker movement, essentially connecting the entire matrix of design and production together for makers by offering engineering assistance, supply chain management, and access to manufacturers, incubators, investors, and distribution channels.
With programs like Seeed Studio, the maker movement in China very quickly began ascending into the mainstream of technological development. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter provided the framework for many maker-backed startups to raise the funds to produce their products, corporations like Foxconn and Haier began experimenting with makerspaces and incubators, international venture capital firms like SOSventure began injecting money into China’s grassroots hardware development, and political leaders began lending their support to a movement that has been posited as the next step forward in their country’s technological and economic advancement.
“One thing that’s important to recognize is that there is a very powerful vision and rhetoric in place right now that promotes a maker approach towards industrial production as the way to go,” said Silvia Lindtner. “I think that vision is actually incentivizing a lot of investment.”
“The maker community is very different in China than elsewhere, as it’s almost exclusively focused on mercantile activities,” explained Cyril Ebersweiler, the co-founder of Haxlr8r, one of the top startup incubators in Shenzhen. “Making things with your hands in China for fun still has a long way to go, as people tend to want to get away from that.”
As China transitions from being the “world’s factory” to a more mature, consumer oriented economy with a vibrant high-tech sector, it is looking farther afield for new sources of design and inspiration. Big players in China’s central government as well as some local municipalities appear determined to caste Chris Anderson’s vision of a new, maker led industrial revolution into reality. Innovation has been framed as a new driver of growth, and during his visit to the Chaihuo makerspace Li Keqiang declared that makers with creative ideas should receive support to set up their own businesses. To these ends, the Chinese government is offering spaces for makers to work in, low interest or no interest loans for promising projects, equipment, invitations to government sponsored tech fairs, and the attention of investors both public and private. In 2011, the Shanghai government declared that it would directly sponsor 100 new makerspaces in the city, which they dubbed “innovation houses,” and Beijing and Shenzhen have followed suit with similar strategies to pump inertia into their local maker communities.
“China is a very top-down place, but there are a lot of people who are pushing bottom-up from their top-down approach,” Altman explained the apparent contradiction in methodologies.
China is looking for new economic frontiers, and one of the places they’re finding them is in the communities of grassroots hardware developers, tinkerers, and startup entrepreneurs that have been springing up in high-tech epicenters like Shenzhen, Beijing, and Shanghai. What is at root a recreational activity of hobbyists developing electronics for fun has produced a movement that is connecting ordinary citizens, grade schools, universities, small businesses, big corporations, investors, manufacturers, and governments together in the pursuit of a common goal: innovation.
A version of this article was originally published in the South China Morning Post at Li’s Shenzhen tour gives boost to China’s innovators.
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