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Hacking in Shenzhen

Last year Silvia Lindtner spoke as part of an ongoing lecture series at IIT Institute of Design. Her presentation drew from long-term ethnographic research exploring how China’s makers are refitting the ideal of hacking as tool for individual empowerment and liberation, simultaneously challenging and adopting Western stories of hacking, making, and technology production. Her visit prompted an extended conversation with IIT Institute of Design about digital technologies and their role in global innovation. Silvia and her colleague David Li took Strategy World Tour Hong Kong participants into Shenzhen for a first-hand look at the “Silicon Valley for Hardware.”

IIT Institute of Design: The culture of Shenzhen is one of the drivers of innovation in the region. Can you describe a scene at a local factory? 

Important to understand about shanzhai production is that it does not take place in one single factory. Rather, the power of shanzhai comes from the fact that it is rooted in a network of small- to mid-size factories that partner and openly share knowledge, and in doing so have been able to produce electronic products that today compete with those by large international corporations.

Shanzhai is comprised of a horizontal web of component producers, traders, design solution houses, vendors, and assembly lines. They operate through an informal social network and a culture of sharing that has much in common with the global maker movement (though largely motivated by necessity rather than countercultural ideals).

Shanzhai” translates into English as “mountain stronghold” or “mountain fortress” and connotes an informal, outlaw tradition. The term has been in use in China for a long time and features most prominently in folk stories like Shuihuzhuan (water margins), which tells of the adventures of 108 rebels who hide in the mountains and fight the establishment. There’s an element of criminality about shanzhai, just the way that Robin Hood is a bit of an outlaw, but it’s really about autonomy, independence, and very progressive survival techniques.

Scholars speculate that the term was first applied to manufacturing in the 1950s to describe small-scale family-run factories in Hong Kong that produced cheap, low-quality household items in order to mark their position outside the official economic order. They produced counterfeit products of well-known retail brands such as Gucci and Nike and sold them in markets that would not buy the expensive originals. As electronic manufacturing migrated to Shenzhen, the informal network of shanzhai manufacturing found a perfect product in the mobile phone. Shanzhai production includes not only copycat versions of the latest iPhone but also new creations and innovations of phone design and functionality.

IIT Institute of Design: Most people still believe that ideas get exported to Asia to be built, then exported back out for sale on a global scale. How does your research on the economy in Shenzhen dispute this?

Within China, shanzhai devices are catered towards low-income migrant populations that could not afford more expensive branded products. Shanzhai phones have a strong global market, targeting low-income populations in India, Africa, and Latin America. As the shanzhai ecosystem matures, we are beginning to see the development of branded phones. For example, Xiaomi (小米)is an affordable smart phone that comes with a chic design and makes use of sophisticated branding techniques. Although it grew by leveraging the shanzhai industry, Xiaomi is rarely associated with it. Rather, it has become widely accepted as a national phone brand that many Chinese are proud of. Xiaomi is but one example of shanzhai‘s global reach. Shanzhai is a multi-billion dollar industry that ships products all over the world. Notable is shanzhai‘s attention towards niche markets ignored by the big international players, such as low-income and special-interest populations in Asia, India, Africa, and the Middle East. What started out as copycat has transitioned over the last 10 years into a professional industry that develops new brands for regions around the world. The Tecno phone in Africa and Wiko in France are two other telling examples of this process that challenges the notion that innovative technology products are created in California by Apple and then simply assembled in China, as the back of the iPhone has us believe.

During our research in Shenzhen, we met and interviewed many different players in shanzhai production ranging from component producers, vendors, traders, assemblers, and design solution houses. One consistent element that we found to be at the core of shanzhai was the production of so-called “public boards,” called gongban (公版) in Chinese—production-ready boards designed for end-consumer electronics as well as industry applications. Gongban are typically produced in independent design houses that link the component producers (e.g., a chip manufacturer) and the factories that assemble the different parts into phones, tablets, smart watches, medical devices, and so on.

During our research, we followed closely the process of one of the region’s largest distributers and their internal design house that produces about 130 gongban per year. The design house does not sell any of these reference boards but rather gives them out to potential customers for free, alongside a list of components that go into making the board as well as the design schematics. The company makes money by selling the components that go into the boards. As such, it is in their interest to support as many companies as possible to come up with creative “skins” and “shells” (called gongmo in Chinese) that are compatible with their boards. Their customers then take a gongban of their liking as is or build on top of it. The boards are designed so that the same board can go into many different casings: e.g., one board can make many different smart watches or many differently designed mobile phones. Since 2010, years before Pebble Watch or the Apple Watch made news, thirty some companies in Shenzhen were shipping their own smart watches based on this open production mechanism.

In shanzhai, products are designed in relation to the demands of a fast-changing market. Rather than spending months or years deliberating over the next big hit, shanzhai builds on existing platforms and processes, iterating in small steps. In this way, shanzhai brings new products to the market with remarkable speed. In Shenzhen, cellphones can go from conceptual designs to production in 29 days. Products are market tested directly by throwing small batches of several thousand pieces of a given product into the market. If there is demand and they sell quickly, more will be produced. There is a commitment to never building from scratch (an approach that is shared by the open source community). Prototyping and consumer testing occur rapidly and alongside the manufacturing iteration process rather than occurring beforehand, where it is commonly placed in Western-centric design models.

IIT Institute of Design: What does it mean to be part of the maker movement in China and how does it differ from a Western view?

China’s early hacker and maker spaces were oriented towards building a bridge between what many makers believe to be a global maker movement and the making cultures in China. When China’s first hackerspace, XinCheJian, opened its doors in Shanghai in 2010, one of the key goals of its co-founders was to bring together China’s own culture and history of making, i.e., professional industrial production, repair work, and a making-do mentality, with the attitude and ethos ascribed to hackerspaces (tinkering,experimenting, play, interdisciplinary, etc.) that has traveled around the world.

In an article entitled “Hacking with Chinese Characteristics,” Silvia unpacks in more detail the visions and practices of China’s first makers and how they have impacted China’s contemporary landscape of making. Back when China’s first makers began their work, around 2008–2010, they were driven to show to the world that China can mean other things than cheap and low-quality production. More specifically, their vision was to transform China’s manufacturing cultures from a place seen as inherently backwards to a site of expertise and know-how, a place that can offer alternative forms of design and innovation, challenging Western authority claims. Fast forward to 2015: Shenzhen is celebrated as the Silicon Valley for Hardware; companies like Intel invest millions of dollars, elite university programs like the MIT Media Lab send their students to Shenzhen to learn from its manufacturing culture, and the Chinese government announced a national “mass maker and mass innovation” policy.

In some ways, the vision of China’s makers has materialized—China, and the south of China in particular, are taken seriously (at least by some) as a center of contemporary technology innovation. The big opportunity and challenge lies in not simply approaching Shenzhen through a Western design language or seeing it as following behind western hubs such as Silicon Valley, but to take seriously its culture and history of production in their own right.

To answer our questions in detail, Silvia drew from a recent publication by Anna Greenspan, David Li and herself (Lindtner, S., Greenspan, A., Li, D. 2015. Designed in Shenzhen: Shanzhai Manufacturers and Maker Entrepreneurs. In Proc. of Aarhus Conference on “Critical Alternatives,” ACM, Aarhus, Denmark; the full text is here).

Apply to join Silvia in Hong Kong and Shenzhen