The maker movement (or DIY, for “do it yourself”) is gaining ground in China, challenging assumptions about the country’s capacity for innovation

October 4, 2013, 8:06 p.m. ET

In China, Lessons of a ‘Hackerspace’

Do-it-yourself hubs are giving a boost to tinkerers and inventors


Several years ago, Peng Ziyun was at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, studying music and technology. She learned about sound engineering and wanted to build something of her own. But she didn’t know how, and she didn’t have anyone to teach her. An Internet search led her to Xinchejian, China’s first formal “hackerspace,” a community-run workshop where ordinary people tinker with everything from art projects to robots.Ms. Peng, now 23, wanted to make a tree that could talk. With the encouragement of others at Xinchejian, she learned to drill and solder and to work with arduino, an open-source microcontroller board that is user-friendly. Her new skills helped her to attach sensors and colored lights to an actual tree so that it would react to human touch. The tree spoke both English and Chinese: The more you interacted with it, the more it talked, its sound growing richer and its lights flashing vividly.

Ms. Peng’s work, a meditation on the relationship between nature and man, was later shown in an art gallery and spent a month on display in a mall. “It definitely changed me,” Ms. Peng says of the experience. “It’s given me the confidence to build things like that in the future.”

Already booming in the U.S., the maker movement (or DIY, for “do it yourself”) is now gaining ground in China, challenging assumptions about the country’s capacity for innovation. Make Magazine co-founder Dale Dougherty defines a maker as someone who builds, creates or hacks physical materials, whether food, clothing or gadgets. Makers often gather at hackerspaces, or makerspaces, real-world locations where they can learn and work together. There are hundreds of hackerspaces world-wide and over a dozen now in China.

Lone inventors have long tinkered in garages. But today, inventors can use software to design objects to be produced by desktop machines like 3-D printers. They can get funded on Kickstarter. And thanks to the Internet, DIY is thoroughly collaborative. Rather than work on projects in secret, people freely share their ideas and designs online. Chris Anderson, former editor in chief of Wired, describes makers as “the Web generation creating physical things rather than just pixels on screens.”

Xinchejian, founded in 2010, means “new workshop.” It occupies a rented room in a Shanghai warehouse. Members pay around $16 a month to use the space and tools, and on Wednesday nights it is open to the public. The Taiwan-born David Li, a 40-year-old programmer and a co-founder of Xinchejian, wants to lower the barriers for experimentation and play. “It’s not about getting together a group of geeks doing something. It’s a conduit for people to say, ‘This interactive stuff is not that scary, not that difficult.'”

One of these tinkerers might develop the next groundbreaking technology, or at least that is the hope of Chinese policy makers. “Chinese industry has to change. It has to migrate to the next stage. Right now it’s purely contract-based. We execute what other people design,” says Benjamin Koo, an associate professor of industrial engineering at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Others wonder why China doesn’t have more internationally celebrated brands or a homegrown innovator like Steve Jobs.

The Chinese government has taken an interest in the maker movement. Not long after Xinchejian opened its doors, Shanghai officials announced a plan to build 100 government-supported innovation houses. Last November, according to Mr. Li, the Communist Youth League of Shanghai helped to attract over 50,000 visitors to a Maker Carnival, where makers exhibited their creations to the public.

Officials have also visited Xinchejian, and for now, Mr. Li sees their involvement as a positive development. He notes that the lack of accountability in the Chinese political system sometimes encourages innovation and risk-taking. “The policy makers we meet here are genuinely very curious. They have the resources. They are not afraid to try,” he says. “They could build bridges to nowhere, and they will still have a job.”

But simply building more hackerspaces won’t transform China into an innovation hub. The country’s education system is widely criticized for its emphasis on the gaokao, or university entrance examination, which rewards rote learning. Mr. Li thinks the larger issue is China’s rapid development and the great pressure people feel to provide for their families. He says that some of the best hackers in Xinchejian are the “second-generation rich,” who are set for life and thus free to experiment.

Whatever the cause, many Chinese simply don’t have time for tinkering. Tsinghua University’s Mr. Koo, originally from Taiwan, described going to one of China’s top high schools and asking a group of some 400 people how many had enjoyed five minutes to themselves since childhood. “Nobody raised their hand,” he said.

Now he is trying to teach Tsinghua students the maker spirit, giving them opportunities to work with their hands. Mr. Koo’s classes are project-based, and “every team, starting from the first year, has to do something on their own.” He gets funding from the university for his students’ projects and for organizing maker events. “I will spend some departmental money to buy a box of toys so they can physically construct anything.”

In the city of Shenzhen, Seeed Studio works with global makers to transform their hardware designs into prototypes and samples. Seeed specializes in the small-scale manufacturing of experimental, niche-market products. The Sichuan-born Seeed Studio founder Pan Hao, also known as Eric Pan, doesn’t aim to replace big manufacturing but to complement it. “When designs go big, the traditional manufacturer will have new products to make,” Mr. Pan told me. “We are providing more candidates.”

Seeed Studio may be a business, but it still sees itself as a frontier in China’s maker revolution. Its recruitment poster for new employees features a picture of the South American revolutionary Che Guevara, his head sprouting electronic components instead of hair. The poster calls for people to come together to “challenge the hegemony of industrialized mass production in an unprecedented way!”

Some observers see China’s maker movement as yet another instance of the country’s tendency to produce shanzhai, or copycat goods. But Mr. Pan advises patience. “China is just on the way,” he said. “The first time you learn to write, you cannot write novels. You have to copy from the textbook to learn to write A, B, C, D.”

For now, hackerspaces give Chinese inventors a community. Ms. Peng, the maker of the interactive tree, says that her life changed when she went to Xinchejian and realized there are “people out there that are sort of like me, they just want to build things, and learn.”

—Ms. Parker is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground,” which will be published next year.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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