Tag Archives: hardware


Shanzhai Meets Open Source

From Hacked Matter’s feature in the Atlantic:

Take, World Peace Industrial (WPI), a Taiwanese electronic sourcing company located in Shenzhen, as an example. The company’s application technology unit (ATU) spends millions annually to develop reference circuit boards, called gongban 公板 (“public board”). A gongban can be used by a variety of different companies, who either incorporate it in their products directly or build atop it as they please via modifications. ATU develops 130 gongbans annually in areas ranging from smart phones, tablets, smart watches, smart homes, and industrial controls—and distributes the designs for free. WPI then makes money by trading in the boards’ components.

“We call this shanzhai in Shenzhen. It’s a mass production artwork,” explains Lawrence Lin head of the Application Technology Unit at WPI.

Read the full article.

Maker City: Hong Kong

Reposted from my personal blog.

JasonLiAtMakerCitiesShenzhenMeetup

Last Sunday, I was invited by the Institute for the Future as part of its Maker Cities program to speak about how makers are working to improve the future of Hong Kong. I was joined by other representatives from all over (New York, Kathmandu, Tel Aviv, Shanghai…)

I’ve included the slides to my presentation below.

Join us at Maker Faire Shenzhen in April!

mommyhacker

Join us at the upcoming April 6th Maker Faire in Shenzhen!

For starters, Lyn will be speaking there alongside an international cast of researchers, hackers and entrepreneurs. And there are also a series of great workshops, including a course by a “mommy hacker” (pictured above) for kids interested in electronics.

More information at shenzhenmakerfaire.com.

P.S. Maker Faire Shenzhen is once again co-organized by our friends over at Seeed Studio.

Cheat Sheet for Hardware Startup Accelerators

Here’s the link to the original Google spreadsheet. Please feel free edit! :)

* * *

What’s interesting about the data above is that there are two programs that criss cross China, and a bunch that don’t:

  • HAXL8R starts in Shenzhen and does their final demo day in San Francisco; it’s all about an immersion in China for them.
  • Highway1 is mostly based in San Francisco, but includes a field trip to Shenzhen; there’s a more clear focus on the US market using Chinese manufacturing for them.
  • Berlin Hardware Accelerator and Startupbootcamp (HighTechLX) seem to be about European manufacturing; the subtext is we can do it here in Europe too.
  • Am I missing any Chinese language programs?

P.S. Our friends over at PCH/Highway1 are touring Hong Kong and China this week – see here for more details.

Where are all the creative Chinese people? hanging out in hacker spaces apparently

Finally we get some sense of history to hackerspaces outside of the West from Silvia Lintner and David Li in their latest co-authored article in Interactions, Created in China.

In September 2010, China’s first hackerspace opened its doors in Shanghai under the name XinCheJian (literal translation: new workshop, or new factory). Only a year after the founding of XinCheJian, the Shanghai government announced a call for proposals to build 100 “innovation houses” (chuangxin wu ) to be supported by government funding. Although the official document [4] described this initiative as part of a larger effort to build a citywide platform for supporting popular science work and innovation, national and international media interpreted this move as an endorsement of China’s fledgling maker culture by Chinese politicians.

They article is more than just a report on hackerspaces. They do several important things. First, they show that Chinese hacker spaces are incredibly politicized on a local level and on a national level. Silvia Lindtner has done a lot of research on the politics of Chinese hacker spaces for her dissertation that is a must-read for the juicy back stories that link hacker spaces to larger national efforts for innovation. In the article, they ask,

What motivated politicians in China to support the growth of a community that has come to be known for its commitments to a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach toward making technologies and to the free and open exchange of knowledge? How does maker culture manifest itself in China, where “making” in the DIY sense collides with China’s image as the world’s largest manufacturer?

They share some details about this politicized space:

Members of the growing scene are not only into making and remaking technologies, organizing workshops, and showcasing their work to others, but also are actively engaged with political debates. For example, the announcement by the Shanghai government to support the establishment of hackerspaces as innovation houses has been the subject of heated debate.

They also connect the hacker space culture to shanzai culture, which is a very important link that reveals the bottom up nature of these spaces.

This form of open source manufacturing has co-evolved with the formation of new production sites, including, for example, counterfeit/copycat design houses. Over the years, these copycat productions have adopted these open source processes and moved beyond simply copying popular brands such as Nokia or Apple. Today they often produce new, consumer-specific products, such as mobile phones with additional features tailored to particular customer segments or location-specific demands. Examples include dual-SIM-card mobile phones that support two operator networks on one device—such as the G5 phone, a made-in-Shenzhen brand for the Indian market—and phones with built-in compasses that are shipped to consumers in the Middle East, who may need to know the direction of Mecca during prayers [11,12]. Many of these innovations were later reappropriated by mainstream mobile manufacturers; for example, in 2010 Nokia launched two dual-SIM mobile phones.

Copycat productions from Shenzhen are often described with the term shanzhai (山寨). However, in the hackerspace community, shanzhai now speaks to a new form of innovation based on the principle of open source manufacturing and continuous remaking. The literal translation of shanzhai is “mountain village” or “mountain stronghold,” the home to bandits or Robin Hood–like figures who oppose and evade corrupted authority. China’s hackerspaces invoke this image of subculture in order to argue for an alternative take on the meaning of copying through the lens of remaking.

In their concluding comments, they make a case that hacker spaces are signs of Chinese people being creative. They are critical of statements that contribute to “cultural stereotypes and extend existing systems of power” that portray Chinese people to be uncreative. They cite  James Landay, a professor who helped lead Microsoft Research Asia’s HCI group in Beijing, in a quote where he says Chinese researchers are not as creative as US researchers.

He [James] argued that “the level of innovation and creativity in this cohort is much lower than in similar cohorts in the U.S. And in fact, the ones that are the best on the ‘creativity’ scale almost invariably are folks who received their Ph.D.s in the U.S./Europe or worked in the U.S./Europe.”

My research on Chinese youth lines up with James’s assessment. In my work, I show that the lack of trust between individuals and social trust with institutions is hindering creativity. The problem is that institutions can really promote or damper the expression of creativity, and in the case of China, its education system (combined with cultural elements and political control) has hindered, not promoted, creativity among Chinese youth. The students WHO DO make it to research labs like the one that James’s was overseeing in Beijing or in more elite positions like running companies aren’t necessarily the most creative ones, they are the most privileged ones and sometimes they are the most knowledgeable ones.

But creativity is not about how much you know, but about how much you can think beyond what you know.

The reality is that Chinese people are not as creative as they could be, for now. There is nothing inherently uncreative about the Chinese. I mean who really thinks that about Chinese people after spending a day on the streets. Migrants and youth all over are doing mind-blowing stuff. China is dripping with creativity as your research confirms. But we aren’t’ seeing the mind-blowing stuff happening within formal spaces.

So where are the creatives in China? I don’t think the future crazy ass disruptive innovators are going to come through Tsinghua, this is not to say that there aren’t brilliant freaking people there doing cool stuff. But the crazy kind of thinking-out-of-the-box-crazy-ass-imaginative-attitude needed for disruptive innovation may be more attracted to space like XinCheJian. Researchers like James work in a very institutional formal place so his assessment makes sense for the kind of researchers who are coming through Microsof. But of course Silvia and David know where the most exciting energy in tech innovation lies – hackerspaces!

That’s why more research like Silvia’s on hacker spaces is super important because it highlights the possibilities for alternative spaces of creativity in China. Hackerspaces promote the exploration of the unknown – their cultures around sharing and teaching all create an informal environment to get people to learn new things. So more research please! Creativity is not dead in China, it’s just happening in informal spaces.

Shanghai Government to Sponsor Hacking Spaces?

I came across this article recently on hackaday.com, talking up the possibility of new hackerspaces in China:

Government leadership in Shanghai wants to build 100 community hackerspaces funded by the Chinese government. Each space will be at least 100 square meters, open 200 days a year, and come equipped with wood and metal lathes, saws, drills, grinders, mills, and more electronics than we can imagine.

It’s an intriguing prospect.  It’s become commonplace for media to ask when China will have its own Steve Jobs (see here and here).  The most frequent reply is that China, with a censored media environment and an education system that discourages critical thinking, is a long way off from producing innovative thinkers.  Until recently, I also agreed with both points.

But then one day I visited the Makers Carnival at the Beijing Institute for Petrochemical Technologies to give a talk.  I was thrilled by the number of hacked inventions, from swimming robotic fish to airborne weather detectors. During my lecture, I found the students, who came from many universities around China, to be critical and engaged with the ideas I presented on social media and art.  But more importantly, as I toured the different booths, I found the students to be excited to present their creations to me and talk about the pros and cons.  They were critically engaged, active learners and developers, and they were making things I could only imagine doing.

I chatted with David Li, who founded the Shanghai-based Xinchejian (pictured above and below), China’s first official hackerspace. “Most of global hackerspaces are operated as non-profit membership driven to balance between the membership and public access to the space,” he explained. “The government sponsored spaces can be more public accessible.”

Indeed, while hacker communities I’ve seen in both the US and China are ostensibly available to the public, they are in practice usually patronized by a small collective of people.  This is great for community building but not always for the wallet.  Most spaces have to charge a membership fee, thus cutting out a swath of the population that may not be able to afford it.  That swath almost invariably includes students.

Li pointed me to an intriguing piece in MAKE that argues for more publicly-accessible hacker spaces, like a library: “If the only public space where 3D printers, laser cutters, and learning electronics happens is in fee/memberships-based spaces (TechShops, hackerspaces), that will leave out a segment of the population, who will never have access.”

Of course, with government sponsorship comes government oversight. Can true innovation happen in this kind of environment?  My take is that providing tools and resources is a great first step.  Few people have access to large workspaces, a community of like-minded makers and mentors, and expensive tools like laser cutters and 3D printers.  Giving them that access can spark their thinking at the very least and help encourage a culture of making early in life.  Let’s hope this plan pushes through.