Story Three: David Li, Director of Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab; Founder of China’s First Hackerspace “Xinchejian”

Date: 2015-07-31 14:18:22  Source:   Compile: admin

Story Three: David Li, Director of Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab; Founder of China’s First Hackerspace “Xinchejian”

“Through researches carried out in Shenzhen, Shanghai and other cities, we found that, different from the development path of foreign makers, China has already formed a thorough and larger maker ecosystem from the bottom up, satisfying maker’s highest ideal 'democratic innovation' and all other features. We call it ‘the new Shanzhai’.” This passage is extracted from David's article. But what will happen when the international makers encounter Chinese Shanzhai?

A Simple, Honest but “Self-willed” Engineering Geek

In 2013 in Shenzhen, I met David for the first time at an after-party of our intelligent wearable devices salon. He is a typical engineering geek, with old head on young shoulders, smiling in a simple and honest way, and speaking Taiwanese. He talked about the story of the first domestic hackerspace “Shanghai Xinchejian” excitingly, and said that Shenzhen is domestic makers’ paradise and foreign makers’ dream place. He told me to promote more connections between industrial design and makers, and become an accelerator for makers. When saying this, David was like talking about his beloved children. He said that “I do all this for fun, with no other intentions. As long as someone is willing to come and try DIY, I don’t mind it is profitable or not.” It seems that this is the willfulness of all makers. He majors in computer science and is proficient in open source software and hardware. When he knew that I have the same major as his, he said impressively, “I think there are not many girls willing to take this major.”

Showing Up at Design Salon

Soon after, David became a frequent visitor to Shenzhen, accompanying with a foreign beauty every time. Later, I got to know that she was David's friend Silvia Lindtner, who has a nice Chinese name: Lin Yunya. She is an associate professor at the University of Michigan, and she came to Shenzhen to do some researches about makers’ ecosystem. At the first meeting with Silvia, she asked me about the development of the industrial design in Shenzhen, and learned about situations of industrial designers. She thought that the industrial design was an advantage of accelerating the development of makers in Shenzhen. David and Silvia attended our industrial design salon together later that day. David was both the speaker and translator, the two of them complementing each other, brought to us a wonderful speech.

David and Silvia shared their research results about maker circles in Shenzhen, Shanghai and other cities at our design salon, giving ideas about how makers could break the limits of mainland’s knock-offs and make innovations. They also explained the possibilities of coexistence between hackers, manufacturers, producers and Chinese design industry, providing the audience a new understanding of maker.

Building the Open Innovation Laboratory (OIL)

On November 30, 2014, the "Make with Shenzhen" Forum and Shenzhen International Maker Roundtable Meeting showed up at the world's largest industrial design exhibition, the 2nd Shenzhen International Industrial Design Fair, leading great response in domestic and foreign design industries. From event planning to guest inviting, this event condensed a lot of effort of David, especially the English version of “Global Makers’ Manifesto in Shenzhen.” We have reached a consensus with the elite international makers to build an open innovation laboratory in Shenzhen, as a bridge to connect the world's makers, which will also be the platform for developing and manufacturing FABLAB2.0 of the MIT. I believe this will be David’s another peak of maker career.

New Shanzhai, the Symbol of China’s Democratic Innovation

David and Silvia drew an interesting conclusion from their research about how maker and crowdfunding would influence China, when establishing the think tank called Hacked Matter: China has already formed a thorough and larger maker ecosystem from the bottom up —— the “New Shanzhai”.

The word “Shanzhai” was first used around 2000, referring to the counterfeited brand products. When talking about Shanzhai, people will naturally think of Shenzhen Huaqiang North, where they can find a wide variety of knock-off products. But from David’s point of view, after the development in recent years, the meaning of Shanzhai has been changed. To take Shanzhai phones as an example, they started from copying externality of Nokia, Samsung or Ericsson, but with the expansion of production. Later, when simple mechanical imitation becomes unprofitable, some products with “magical” features began to appear, costing only a little. Producers stopped copying those international brands, but turned to copy each other. Thus, producers have no more worry about intellectual property rights, and an open sharing ecosystems and industrial chain was formed. That is the “New Shanzhai.”

What interests David is that this new ecosystem is changing the pattern of the entire mobile phone industry. 10 years ago, if someone said Nokia and Motorola would decline, people would think he or she was crazy. The fact is, Nokia has become irrelevant in the mobile phone market nowadays. As for Ericsson, almost no one remembers. 10 years ago, when Nokia launched an $800 phone and promised to lower the price to $100 in 2015 for the poor, Chinese had been able to make an even more outstanding featured Shanzhai phone, selling only for $200. Moreover, they did not copy the design of Nokia. Driven by desire of survival rather than noble ideals, producers keep introducing new prototypes and making new improvements. People found that the product Google launched in 2013, the Chromecast, had already got a similar product selling at Taobao (Chinese equivalent of ebay) three years earlier.

The age of China's knocking-off international brand product has gradually become the past. With the expansion of Chinese manufactured goods, simple imitation products cannot meet the needs of manufacturers as well as corporate profit. In order to be more competitive, producers keep adding functions and innovative designs which have not been used by international brands. David thinks that this is an important symbol of China's democratic innovation.  

Chris Anderson, Makers: the New Industrial Revolution

In early 2011, a seminar, about makers and China’s manufacturing, was organized by Lyn Jeffery, Director of American Institute for The Future (IFTF). Inviting David Li, Eric Pan and others to talk about the maker and ecosystems of China, this discussion lasted for a few months through Skype, email, etc. Their discussing contents have been published at IFTF’s website, “Innovation spaces of the future: research notes on China's Shanzhai meeting the Makers”, which also been included in Chris Anderson's book Makers: the New Industrial Revolution, talking about the similarity between Shanzhai and maker.

He Talked Minister Wan Gang Into Being A Maker

On January 24, Wan Gang, CPPCC Vice Chairman, Minister of Ministry of Science and Technology and his team investigated about the condition of Shanghai innovation and entrepreneurial environment, and paid a visit to “Xinchejian”. Accompanied by David, the Minister experienced the OSG open source smart glasses, 3D printing, auto-balance car, concept headphones, etc. Excitingly, Minister Wan Gang became a member of “Xinchejian” during the visit, and got his maker passport issued by David in person. The act of Minister’s joining to maker group encouraged all Chinese makers, which is also a new milestone for maker development in China.  

Dialogue between Shirley and David

Shirley: As a creator, founder of China's first hackerspace, what was your first intention? What are your future plans? 

David: “Xinchejian” was established in 2010 out of a simple reason. Since 2009, at “Xindanwei”, a group of my colleagues and I were really interested in open source hardware such as Arduino. So we study it together, gradually buying more hardware tools back home. Our families complained about it because the tools made our house messy. Therefore, in 2010, we decided to find a space. Coincidentally, “Xindanwei” moved to No. 50 Yongjia Road at that time. Just on the second floor of there, we built the “Xinchejian” with only 15 square meters of space and two tables. The origin of the name of “Xinchejian” also comes from “Xindanwei”. About the name, Liu Yan, founder of “Xindanwei” said, jokingly, “Xindanwei” (a.k.a new work unit) is a place for joint working, why don’t you call this DIY place “Xinchejian” (a.k.a new workshop).  
“Xinchejian” is a place for makers to have fun. Budget is not a problem now, which has been balanced by membership dues. So we will not consider the expansion of “Xinchejian” itself, we simply want to provide such a space for makers and those who are willing to join.

Since 2011, makers’ movement has developed from pure pleasure to another stage. International maker community had been broadened in scale. Through the open source hardware and crowdfunding, some makers began to turn their projects into products, and some of them started a business with it. When this phenomenon began, I shared my idea with Anna Greenspan, professor from the New York University, and Silvia Lindtner, researcher from the University of California (now a professor at the Michigan University) about the innovation maker represents, wondering how this kind of innovation would be connected with China’s industry and society. Later on, in 2011, we set up the think tank Hacked Matter together. Supported by the NSF and other research funding, we have carried out a series of researches, forums and other research methods to investigate makers and China. For the past two years, this topic attracted much attention. At present, the think tank shares many similarities with Shanzhai and maker movement, both of which are representatives of open innovation and grassroots’ innovation ecosystem.

Shirley: 2014 can be described as a year of maker storm. What do you think about it? In this storm, how do you see China's opportunity and Shenzhen’s opportunity? Please compare and evaluate the pros and cons of Chinese and foreign makers’ accelerators and incubators.

David: In 2011, Chris released his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, and drew a wild attention on makers. Since then, maker movement has not only entertained hardware enthusiasts, but also led people to think how to raise fund, manufacture, and finally sell their products. 2014 was a year of maker’s rapid upgrade, resulting from three factors: open source, 3D printing, and crowdfunding. Open source enables everyone to obtain, modify, and distribute software to others, which contributes to the spread of 3D printing; With a 3D printer, people can build their prototypes at a reasonably low cost, lowering the barriers for makers to set up a business; In the past, people have to gain investigation first for starting up a business, then to make products and promote sales, and get the return at last. But crowdfunding enables makers to sell their products before manufacture them, thus makers do not have to worry about funding. These three factors helped people see the start-up opportunity in maker business, gradually led to the storm in maker industry in 2014. And the rise of maker is beneficial to the recovery of global manufacturing, which is an important reason for the US President Barack Obama to focus on development of makers from the last year.

Through researches carried out in Shenzhen, Shanghai and other cities, we found that, differing from the development path of foreign makers, China has already formed a thorough and larger maker ecosystem from the bottom up, satisfying maker’s highest ideal ‘democratic innovation’ and all other features. We call it ‘the new Shanzhai’. New Shanzhai shows people the tremendous energy and vitality of Chinese-style grassroots innovation. In the next decade, Shenzhen will be another Silicon Valley of intelligent hardware. 

In 2012, from the establishment of Haxlr8r, followed by Highway1 and etc., foreign maker accelerators have taken the lead in start-up, and it is more direct for them to dock with foreign companies. But our advantages are from domestic design, producing and supply chain resources. Therefore, the late period of mainland incubators and accelerators will be able to boost.

Shirley: Please compare the characteristics and unique features of makers' development in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and other cities, and how they should interact and develop with each other?

David: Makers from different places have their own characteristics, and we think that they are the reflections of each city. For instance, makers from Shanghai, like us, prefer to play for fun, so we take maker creation as a way for leisure; But in Beijing or Shenzhen, entrepreneurial atmosphere is quite strong, thus more makers there are holding ideas and preparing products for their start-ups. There are currently more than 70 hackerspaces in China. Each of their characteristics and development routes is differed, relating to the characteristic of the founder and the city. And now most of the hackerspaces are connected closer and interacted more with each other than before.

Shirley: Shenzhen is described as makers' paradise by foreign media, what do you think? Are there any shortages of makers' development in Shenzhen? Any advice for overcoming them?  

David: Comparing with Shanghai, Beijing and other places, Shenzhen has a more completed industrial chain of hardware infrastructure and better entrepreneurial atmosphere. With Huaqiang North electronic market, a lot of project's solution companies, advantages of industrial design and maker accelerators and supporting by other manufacturing firms, makers can get any material they need for their products. That is why many foreign makers are willing to develop their businesses in Shenzhen. However, at present, foreign and most of mainland makers are only able to get in touch with lower level of resource of Shenzhen. High level of resources, from large-scale manufacturing companies to elite industrial design groups, has not devoted much yet. How to develop these resources and help them interact with maker groups will be a major problem for Shenzhen to solve. Meanwhile, Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab will provide a gateway for foreign makers to get hold of relevant resources in Shenzhen.

Shirley:What are your suggestions for Chinese makers to become internationalized? Since Shenzhen open innovation lab will serve as a platform for global makers, what specific actions and programs there will be?

David: What Chinese makers need for internationalization is confidence. Years of developing ODM, OEM, the country has accumulated world-class product design and manufacturing capabilities, now the problem is the lack of confidence to go global. In addition, Chinese makers need to learn how to use the existing experience and resources in order to achieve a complete upgrade of the entire manufacturing chain. Shenzhen open innovation lab will provide domestic makers with branding, marketing and docking with oversea resources, create a way for them to start up and then expand to the world.

Shirley: Shenzhen municipal government pays great attention to the development of makers, how do you like the attention and support? As a promoter, SIDA has been promoting industrial design and maker for the past two years. Do you have any expectations and suggestions for SIDA?

David: Since the past month, there has been an increasing focus from the government on development of maker. From Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Shenzhen Chaihuo Maker Space on the 4th, Minister Wan Gang's visit to Xinchejian in Shanghai on the 24th, to the “Mass Maker Space” announced by the State Council, new policy of "Everyone to create, everyone to make" has been settled. The attention from government helps accelerate the development of maker industry a lot. 

Maker activity represents a transition of product's core, changing from technique to design. We hope in the future, SIDA will lead more industrial designers and interaction designers into this field.