Shenzhen, hardware, openness

Recently WIRED published a brilliant video series on the hardware ecosystem in Shenzhen. It has four parts and starts with this one:

As a refresher, Shenzhen is where most of the world’s electronics are manufactured. What a few decades or even just a few years ago was a place for cheap manufacturing of knock-offs has become a high-tech hub, and a hub of incredible manufacturing knowledge. Shenzhen is also on the way to become a major player for highly innovative hardware and product design.

I believe the Western tech scenes can learn a lot from Shenzhen.

As a hub for hardware and connected product, the region is moving upstream, from pure manufacturing (“Make this thing we designed 100.000 times really cheap!”) to design and innovation.

There are many factors that contribute to this development, and the WIRED documentary does a good job explaining them.

One factor that stands out for me is the level of openness and sharing that powers innovation and knowledge/skill distribution.

What in the West traditionally would be considered a violation of IP—ie. the sharing of plans, files, and knowledge—is considered perfectly normal business in Shenzhen. It’s an organic, informal way of open source, sans the formal license.

The money quote for me in the documentary was this:

“Right now it’s just in the West that we haven’t seen an open source hardware system working.”
David Li, founder of Hacked Matter

I initially found it mind-boggling, but this statement is so obviously true. Only in the West has this not panned out. But it very much seems a matter of time.

The argument draws a strong parallel to the open source movement in software that turned out to become a main driver of the internet as we know it today—in clear violation of Western corporate business tradition and its approach to IP protection.

A second aspect that stands out is that the interview partners emphasize that the distinction between makers and professionals that is so prevalent in the West doesn’t track in Shenzhen. Why separate between hobby and professional? Why choose between trying to iterate on someone’s product for fun and really producing it if it works? The lines are blurry, and that’s ok. Also, the basic approach to openness and sharing stays the same, no matter if it’s in the context of maker culture or business.

The distinction between maker culture and business is something we’ve been thinking a lot about in the context of ThingsCon, our conference for practitioners. Why? The distinction never really made sense to me; the Shenzhen approach of a spectrum, of not treating maker and business as a binary, really resonates with me.

At ThingsCon, we cater to a community that’s not strictly hobbyist (ie. can afford to attend the conference) and not strictly corporate/big industry. There is a big community in that in-between space, made up of designers, developers, inventors; agencies, design studios, startups, and many more. But they don’t really have a clearly established identifier. We refer to them as independents. But even that doesn’t necessarily communicate that well who would get most value out of participating in the conference.

The Shenzhen approach of blurry lines intuitively makes a lot of sense to me in that regard, as does the default to openness & sharing over strict IP protection. I’m convinced the West can learn a lot from the Shenzhen ecosystem. The faster, the better for the future.

With that in mind, we’re looking into setting up a trip to Shenzhen: A humble learning and fact-finding mission, with an additional focus on establishing relationships. Let’s see what we can learn!

1 Comment

the scenes in the street market in episode 1 reminded me of one hall last year at IFA; where hundreds of Asian companies were presenting their products. It looked completely out-of-sync with the rest of the exhibition, but would be a very interesting concept to introduce somewhere in Berlin. It would totally turn around popular business thinking

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