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Li's Shenzhen tour gives boost to China's innovators

Premier shows Beijing's growing support for designers and producers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 April, 2015, 9:22am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 April, 2015, 9:22am

In January, 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, the mainland's first virtual bank; Huawei Technologies, a rising domestic tech giant; and the new Guangdong Free Trade Zone, the premier also made two stops at less typical locations: the Chaihuo makerspace and Seeed Studios, a hardware development platform for makers. Li's calls on Chaihuo and Seeed Studios show the nation's growing commitment to supporting grassroots innovation and the budding maker movement that is producing it.

The makers are a decentralised global community of do-it-yourself hardware designers, tinkerers, hobbyists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and other individuals who simply aim 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, and 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,” according to David Li, the founder of China’s first makerspace, Xinchejian. “And, if you can turn it into a business, great. If you don't, you still get something out of it.”

Silvia Lindtner is a professor at the University of Michigan who has researched the maker movement on the mainland. She says making is conceived of as “a new form of citizen engagement” and a “path to turn passive consumers into active participants in state affairs and the market”.

The maker movement is about the redemocratisation of technology, so that the public is again empowered to make, adapt, repair, and understand the things they use. In many ways, it is a throwback to an earlier era, when it was common for people to tinker around garages, repairing machines and tools for themselves, and building the customised contraptions they wanted but couldn’t get otherwise.

A makerspace, or hackerspace, is a workshop where makers gather to work on projects, share ideas, and teach others how to make things. Providing devices such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and soldering irons, makerspaces become catalysts of creativity as participants build on each others' ideas and share what they learn.

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 start-ups become global successes, such as MakerBot, which revolutionised home 3D printing technology; Local Motors, which made the first fully 3D printed car; and the Shenzhen-based DJI Technology, a company that was founded by a Chinese model aircraft enthusiast that now has 50 per cent of the global market share in unmanned aircraft.

“The whole maker movement is showing that what would have been a hobby, a decade or three ago, can actually be something that's the centre of your life," explains Mitch Altman, co-founder of NoiseBridge, one of the first makerspaces in the US.

“It can even be something that you can start making some money with.”
Seeed Studio is a hardware innovation platform that helps makers from around the world evolve their ideas into products. It was founded in 2008 as an “out-of-the-garage” start-up by Eric Pan, one of Forbes magazine's top 30 Chinese entrepreneurs under 30. The company 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 for makers by offering engineering assistance, supply chain management, and access to manufacturers, incubators, investors, and distribution channels.

With programmes such as Seeed Studio, the maker movement on the mainland very quickly ascended into the mainstream of technological development. Crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter provided the framework for many maker-backed startups to raise the funds to produce their products. Corporations such as Foxconn and Haier began experimenting with makerspaces and incubators; international venture capital firms such as 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 recognise is that there is a very powerful vision and rhetoric in place that promotes a maker approach towards industrial production as the way to go,” Lindtner says. “That vision is incentivising a lot of investment.”

The maker community is very different in China to anywhere else, as “it's almost exclusively focused on mercantile activities”, explains 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 the mainland transitions from being the “world’s factory” to a more mature, consumer-oriented economy with a vibrant hi-tech sector, it is looking farther afield for new sources of design and inspiration. Innovation has been framed as a new driver of growth. During his visit to the Chaihuo makerspace, Li  declared that makers with creative ideas should receive support to set up their own businesses. To these ends, the mainland government is offering spaces for makers to work in; low interest or no interest loans for promising projects and equipment; invitations to government sponsored tech fairs; and the attention of public and private investors.