Technology and society: China has its own distinctive version of the maker movement, which spans electronics hobbyists and high-tech startups

Technology and society: China has its own distinctive version of the maker movement, which spans electronics hobbyists and high-tech startups

Nov 30th 2013 | From the print edition

IT IS a drizzly October day in Shanghai, and beneath a few dozen bright orange tents, set up in the plaza of a shiny new innovation park, hundreds of electronics hobbyists and entrepreneurs are attending China’s second Maker Carnival. The “maker” movement, an offshoot of do-it-yourself culture whose adherents design and build their own technology products, is more established in America: the most recent Maker Faire New York, for example, held in September, boasted some 75,000 participants and over 650 stalls. But size isn’t everything, even in China.Under those orange tents some surprisingly innovative companies that supply hobbyists and startups were strutting their stuff. There were robot-construction sets, build-it-yourself electronics kits and 3D printers galore. None of the companies that make them is a familiar name yet. But some of them could one day challenge the likes of MakerBot, an American manufacturer of 3D printers, or Arduino, an open-source microcontroller platform invented in Italy, as the darlings of the worldwide maker movement.

What gives these young Chinese firms a potential edge is their close connections with the so-called shanzhaiproduction networks centred on Shenzhen, China’s high-tech manufacturing hub. The term shanzhai is often used pejoratively to refer to Chinese copycat producers of mobile phones and other electronic devices, based on copied designs and knock-off brand names. But its literal meaning is “mountain village”, and it refers to bandits who opposed corrupt rulers and hid in the countryside—much like Robin Hood in English folklore. David Li, co-founder of XinCheJian, Shanghai’s first “maker space” (essentially, an open-access workshop), says the Robin Hood spirit is inspiring legitimate and often quite innovative products, as the socially progressive maker movement teams up with hard-nosed manufacturers.

Seeed Studio, a startup based in Shenzhen, is a good example. The company specialises in open-source hardware, which means the design of the hardware and the software code that goes with it are both freely shared. As the success of Arduino has demonstrated, open-source hardware is ideal for quick prototyping and small-scale production runs of digital devices. But Seeed goes one step further, supporting a whole ecosystem of open-source production. People pitch ideas on its website, and if they garner enough community support, Seeed will manufacture them. More than 70,000 people are participating on its site, and over 130 projects were crowdsourced this way in 2012. Those numbers are expected to more than double in 2013.

Eric Pan, the founder of Seeed Studio, exemplifies a new breed of Chinese entrepreneur. He quit his tech-industry job in 2008 to start making hardware with a friend, based in his apartment (the urban Chinese equivalent of a garage). Now his company employs more than 100 people, and the unassuming Mr Pan is a rock-star among young Chinese geeks. Even so, he is quick to admit that not all Seeed Studio products are hits, and humble about the challenge of surviving as a business in an open-source world, where copying good ideas is not merely allowed but encouraged. Yet he is also bullish about the future: his firm is expanding its range of kit to include wearable electronics and new kinds of sensors.

Proximity to shanzhai manufacturers could make it easier for Chinese makers to turn prototypes into mass-produced products. At the same time, the maker community could boost innovation among shanzhai firms, which are in fact more inventive than is often assumed. Silvia Lindtner, an ethnographer at University of California, Irvine and Shanghai’s Fudan University, notes that shanzhai producers have long adapted mobile phones to the needs of people in the developing world. For example, unlike mainstream manufacturers, they championed mobile phones with dual SIM slots, ideal for Africa and India where users often switch networks to reduce costs.

For their part, Chinese government officials are taking an interest in the maker movement because of its economic and educational potential. Shanghai’s municipal government has backed a plan to build 100 maker spaces throughout the city. Four of these new spaces are already up and running, with several more to be completed by the end of the year. Each will have a 3D printer, and will also teach traditional crafts such as woodworking.

One of the attractions of maker spaces like XinCheJian, however, is that they operate independently of the state, supported by users’ monthly membership fees. Although expats played a big role in initiating XinCheJian, more recent maker spaces such as Beijing’s Maxpace and Shenzhen’s Chaihuo were entirely home-grown. China’s distinctive take on the maker movement—makers with Chinese characteristics, to paraphrase Deng Xiaoping—is worth keeping an eye on.

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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