Shenzhen travel log: Day 2

These are the quick & dirty travel notes from our second ThingsCon trip to Shenzhen, China. Read all posts from this series here (tag: ViewSourceII), or all blog posts relating to Shenzhen here (tag: Shenzhen). The latter one includes last fall’s trip to Shenzhen as well.

Today the group splits up into two. Part does factory visits. I join team Velocracy.

Harm as we arrive at our local work HQ

I ask for an updated pitch for Velocracy.

Harm explains Velocracy

Velocracy, early prototype

Here’s the pitch; I hope I represent it correctly.

Velocracy is a decentralized bike sharing platform built on the Etherium blockchain and smart contracts. It focuses on the parties are involved in making the sharing bike, notably manufacturers and maintenance/assembly company . Other middlemen/centralizing organizations are cut out to allow a focus on users instead. The assumption is that the price is going to be be cheaper because there’s one organization less to feed. It might even be a first step, potentially, towards a universal sharing platform.

Challenges are plenty given this is a highly explorative, experimental development: How to deal with unintended use, theft, attacks on the system? Which hardware securely interfaces with the blockchain setup? How can this be made open source?


“The First Chinese Electronic Commercial Street of HiaquangBei”

At HuaquiangBei, local police removes a whole bunch of rental bikes.


Monday morning, 10:30h. We set up a temporary HQ in a local coworking space.

Wait-a-minute. Something’s not right here!

The documentary team is plotting shots

Oh, just a couple mini robots at the coworking space.

Meetings that the team hadn’t been able to arrange remotely in advance all start to materialize on extremely short notice. Within an hour, the week ahead fills up.

Ahn making meetings happen

We’ll be meeting potential suppliers, many of whom have tremendous experience with bike sharing and smart locks.


Shenzhen Design Week

Design for the future

All the locals were striking a pose, and we didn’t want to be left out

Design Week is a decentralized event, spread out all over the city. There’s a main hub, though, and we visit. Lots of industrial design in a former grain processing factory next to the waterfront, called i-Factory: A China Merchant Group property, formerly zoned for shipping and industrial use, now on the verge of luxury developments. China Merchant Group plays a significant role in the development of Shenzhen, with 160 years of developing the city through commerce.

Street art at i-Factory

Street art at i-Factory

Fantastic perspective play at i-Factory (the bike is real, the riders are painted on the wall)

Street art at i-Factory. Love the contrast between the motif and the “Design is Future” poster.

Signage at i-Factory. My personal favorite is the mysterious superhero, third from left.

The design is presented in a nicely industrial setting, but it’s a little empty; there aren’t any designers to talk to, it seems. It feels very different from the Industrial Design Fair we visited half a year ago: Here it’s a giant showcase, but a little more stale.

Alas, the Future was closed today

MAKE space

Design fair

China Good Design

We discover the connected products section. Let’s put a chip on it! The range goes from temperature-sensing baby bottles to connected speakers and cleaning robots with security cameras.

VR is always big in China

A smart anti-snoring mat. Not pictured: Giant air pump.

Next door, a more traditionally-oriented industrial design exhibition showcases Red Star Awards.

Not everything at the design fair is electronics: Here’s a bunch of fountain pens


As part of the design fair, there’s an information corner on Shenzhen.

What’s the Sandwich class? It’s professionals working in Shenzhen but not financially able to buy an apartment. They’re considered kind of a lost segment on the lower middle class. The housing boom has priced them out of a chance to be home owners, which is hugely problematic in Chinese society.


We visit OCT Loft, a former industrial and now creative/tech/innovation complex.

At the local Chaihuo makerspace we see a smart lamp: It automatically adjusts the light levels, and if nobody is close-by for 10-15 seconds it switches off to save energy. I would have been underwhelmed—this isn’t a big design coup for a large corporate. Then I learn who made it: A group of 3 kids in 5th grade—10 or 11 years old—built this, from prototype to final product. Programming and making skills start in year 1 of their syllabus.

This smart lamp was design by a group of three 5th graders. That’s right: 10-11 year olds made this connected lamp.

There’s been a recent boom in maker spaces, and the local government subsidizes them. This one focuses, in line with the founder’s policy, on building out a wide base of makers, on which large scale maker driven innovation can be built.

The conversation also reveals that the generation between 20 and 30 in China faces lots of pressure, commercial and social alike (think career and family planning). This is in (relatively) stark contrast to Europe, where the decade between 20 and 30 tends to be one of the most free.

We also hear about “bio payments”, contact-less payments via implanted chips, developed by a Spanish startup via Shenzhen. There’s a lot happening here.


We see smart rear-view mirrors everywhere. This one display’s a compass.


More bike sharing:

Cash rewards for Mobike

Mobike, the (probably?) largest Chinese bike sharing program offers “red envelope” rewards, meaning: Cash. You just got to be the first to claim it from any of these bikes. It’s an aggressive customer acquisition scheme.


A quick scan of HuaqiangBei market gives us a bit of an update of what’s happening, and the newcomers a moment to get oriented. We’ll be back with more time and a permit to film later.


Lots of social life–restaurants, bars, etc.—happens in shopping malls. Malls are ubiquitous in downtown Shenzhen. Absolutely everywhere.

The group seems to grow larger and larger with every dinner.

After two nights of mall dinners the group craves a drink in a bar somewhere other than a pub. Tomorrow night we’ll eat outside an air-conditioned shopping complex, somewhere, wherever. But tonight, it’s 9pm and we want to sit outside somewhere with a cold beer. Easier said than done: Our neighborhood, downtown Shenzhen—more concretely HuaqiangBei—is a business district of sorts. During the day, there’s great food to be had. At night, it’s a little empty.

After a quick pitstop on the terrace of a mall bakery with French croissants and Belgian beers, on Tina and Harm’s initiative we venture a walk to another neighborhood. We end up somewhere else entirely, out on the sidewalk with some fried noodles and cans of Tsingtao and fruit juice, and it’s excellent. This is China alright.

Curb drinks in a local spot. Tina’s Chinese language skills save the night.


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