Shenzhen travel log: Day 1


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.

Software eats the world. Nowhere is this move obvious, more graspable than at the Huaqiang markets: You can still feel how diverse a line-up of devices has once existed here. These days, smartphone (and accessories) have taken over huge parts of what was once almost certainly a hugely more diverse market.

That said, there’s a lot of smartphone accessories. And drones. So. Many. Drones.


A guy walks by, whispering in the conspiratorial tone of drug dealers, “iPhone 7?” He won’t be the only one today.


It’s Sunday, 11am. The market is open. It’s quiet, not much going on. But the main floors are open.

Usually the CPARK showroom is a showroom for high-end industrial design of sorts.

Drones, drones, drones!

Beautiful boards

In there’s mayhem of a different sort. An educational DIY robot event is ongoing, and dozens of kids are squeaking with joy as they build and race their robots.

Robo race

A cute little DIY paper robot

On a shelf, a little expo piece has scribbled on it the words “bricks’R’knowledge”.


A salad place called Sexy Salad. A huge wall print sport the tagline “Sexy Life / Salad On”.


The metro is super easy to navigate, and luckily for me plenty of signage is available in English. That said, without being able to pay via phone, you need to stand in line at ticket machines for a long time, with more or less exact change. A single ride in the city runs around 3-7 Yuan (roughly 40-80 Eurocents).

metro plan
Temporary Shenzhen HQ: Huaqiang Bei


More Mobikes.

More mobikes


Quick refreshment to go. €0.40.

Half a year past its Best Before date. But what’s half a year among friends?


Visited Dafen village. In the 1990 it started out as an artist enclave or urban village that produced lots of replica paintings (Wikipedia). (Note: Many of these paintings presumably long have entered the public domain.)

Dafen is in fact situated in between huge residential high rises, see the pic from the metro station:

Dafen metro
This is the view from Dafen metro. The village is a village only in name. In fact, I believe Urban Village is an administrative term in Shenzhen.

Everything in this little urban village revolves around art. Most of it is the making and selling of paintings. But you can also get art supplies. Or frames. So many frames.

art supplies
Art supplies for sale in Dafen

Frameshop in Dafen Village

Dafen Art Museum
Dafen Art Museum

It’s a little hard to tell if this is still the main thing and which role local artists produce in their own right. It’s especially hard since the (supposedly pretty good) Dafen Art Museum seemed to be under renovation, and only one floor was open—and the exhibition there focused on local art students’ rendering of everyday objects:

Note the little info plaques next to the images? They include QR codes so you can follow the artists!

I enjoyed it a great deal, and frankly would’ve bought and hung quite a few of them, but this being the museum they weren’t for sale.

Walking through the village, you can see plenty of artists painting pictures. Right there, out on the street. It’s pretty cool to watch.

Here, some folks are examining a freshly painted canvas


By dinner time, the gang was all here:

The gang’s all here!

Shenzhen travel log. Day 0: Arrival day


These are the quick & dirty travel notes from a 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.

For the first time I arrive by ferry.

View from the ferry

A new terminal opened up. The subway doesn’t connect yet, so shuttle buses are the interim solution. The super short immigration lines make it so worth the extra distance and slightly longer travel time.


Buying a new data SIM for the mobile WiFi hospital I got last time. The fourth shop seems to sell them, maybe. But my request still seems unusual, or maybe the language barrier is too high. Maybe it’s just that they don’t want to sell me anything that not the perfect fit; folks Herr know how it be price sensitivities about the these kind of things. At one point, no less than 7 people are conferring about my case, at least 3 of them using translation apps simultaneously. In the end, 20 Euros buy me 6G and I’m happy.


The large construction site from our last visit has turned into a giant, quite enjoyable pedestrian area.

New Shenzhen pedestrian area


On the sidewalk, under a small quad copter a mini robot balances what looks like a human-sized coffee cup. Turns out it’s a big roll of packing tape.


Old v new: I love the constant contrast in China.

Hand-drawn cart on a construction site


I walk by some urban villages and am surprised to find them surrounded by fences, like a gated community. Who’s keeping whom in, and whom out?


Brightly color share bikes are everywhere. Orange, blue or yellow: Bike sharing is huge in Shenzhen.

Share bikes

Alas, without a Chinese bank account it seems impossible to rent them, or maybe I just haven’t figured out how.


With my non-Chinese bank account, my credit card is often useless. What’s worse, I can’t hook it up with Wechat to pay for things. With cash I’m often clearly a nuisance when it comes to paying: people have to leave the cash register to handle bills, or ask their colleagues for change. In Shenzhen it’s all about in-app payments.


From the hotel’s glass elevator I spot a small urban rooftop garden on a neighboring building:

Urban rooftop garden


The number or drones is mind blowing. There’s a constant buzz along the main street, that special angry insectoid buzz of small quadcopters. Two older men carry still-boxed drones, a mom carries one marketed as “flying car” toy. Young shop staffer show off the their remote controlled airborne wares by flying them over and into the crowd and back.


A club ad on a giant video screen: “Shenzhen. The changes of the times. 21 years of brand precipitation.”


5 o’clock: the selling is done for the day. Shenzhen has shifted gear into fulfillment mode. Boxes, stacks of boxes, piles of boxes wherever you look. On trucks, bikes, hand-drawn carts, or shoulders: the city is digesting it’s electronics and getting ready to excrete them. In neat, tape-wrapped boxes.

Days 12-15: Hong Kong


Note: These are the more personal, non-work related notes to complement the blog posts to this work trip to China which you can find using the Viewsource tag.

Day 12

We’re off to Hong Kong. The border crossing seems a little awkward – you leave the country, sort of, and fill in another immigration card – but then we’re in Hong Kong in less than an hour.

We stay in south Kowloon, near Tsim Sha Tsui station. I picked that neighborhood because I had stayed here once before, about a decade ago. I was a student then, staying at Mirador Mansion, a run-down, somewhat sketchy block of cheap accommodation and sister building to the (then) more (in)famous Chungking Mansion, and was curious to see how it had developed since.

Chungking Mansion (2016)
Chungking Mansion (2016) as seen from a Starbucks across the street

These days, this neighborhood seems properly gentrified with tons of high-end brand stores along Nathan Road, and very touristy.

The evening is just for walking around the extended neighborhood and food, plus a final stop at a dessert place.

Day 13

A long night’s sleep, then off to explore. Swing-by at Mirador Mansion. Not as creepy as I remember it. Maybe it’s been renovated a little, maybe it’s because it’s day time, maybe my take on it just has changed. We discover an absolutely lovely-looking and super popular bakery inside. I still wouldn’t want to stay though, so we head on out to Hong Kong Island.

We take the beautiful old Star Ferry, and head on up the Escalators. It’s a charming, rickety system of escalators that was built to bring commuters from Victoria Peak down into their office and back up. It’s a network of short connected escalator hops, and seems like straight out of a time capsule. It was built in 1993 but looks a lot older. Fun! We jump off a couple of times to have a look around or stop for a coffee.

Escalator signs

Going up the escalators

The escalators get commuters up and down the hill from and to Central

We stroll through the Botanical Garden, but when we arrive at the Peak Tram terminus the lines are too long. It’s Sunday, and all of Hong Kong is out and about.

Near Central, we see hundreds of Philippinas socializing in the long network of connected walkways: It’s their day off (see this article about Maid Day), and this is where you go to hang out. Out of cardboard each group has built a tidy little living room and people are laughing, eating, chatting.

Hong Kong has even more elevated walkways than I remember. All of them are protected from rain, you can get from pretty much anywhere to anywhere else without getting wet during rainy season. We’re lucky: It’s super sunny and nice out.

In the afternoon, off to Causeway Bay for some window shopping and a visit to the Cat Café.

Old school Hong Kong neon lights

Evening is for Temple Street night market, which has crappy stalls but decent street food, then on to Butler, an excellent Japanese whiskey bar.

Japanese bars are the best bars.
Butler is a beautiful Japanese whiskey bar

Day 14

The morning is for work at Starbucks, the only place I don’t feel bad about using up sitting space for longer periods of time.

Then off to Central for lunch and some window shopping. Lunch at Kuroko Ramen (so so), followed by espresso at Coco next door (excellent!).

We check out PMQ, a design/artist quarter in a former police quarter. There’s two buildings full of (often locally design, sometimes well-curated international) design to be had: clothes, jewelry, prints, knick-knacks.

The peak tram takes us up to the peak. It’s totally overrun by the masses. Instead of taking it back down, we take a long slow walk down Old Peak Road, which is much more enjoyable.

Old Peak Road
Old Peak Road

Old Peak Road
Halfway down Old Peak Road, a view across the skyline opens up

By then, with excellent timing, Alper points out that the most excellent Tokyo-based Omotesando coffee has opened a Hong Kong branch: We head there right away.

Omotesando Koffee
Omotesando Tokyo, a few years ago

Omotesando Hong Kong <3
Omotesando Hong Kong

At so-called “toy street” next door, where there supposedly used to be a lot of old school toy stores from back in the day when Hong Kong did manufacturing, we find only one tiny (!) toy store left, next to a lovely (and equally tiny) barber shop. I can’t resist an early 1980s metal wind-up dinosaur.

Toy road
Tiny toy store is tiny

A viewing platform is on the way, so we head on up there before hunting some more Szechuan food, then on a whim decide to go for rooftop drinks at Wooloomooloo rooftop bar. Hong Kong does skylines and rooftop bars really well.

Wan Chai night view
Hong Kong does skyline really well

Day 15

We follow the same morning routine: Work from Starbucks office in the morning, then delicious dumpling lunch.

We buy small gifts, then head on over to the site of the former Kowloon Walled City. Today Kowloon Walled City Park is just a beautiful park. The history of the walled city is super interesting, though, a story about living in interstitial zones, bottom-up organization, and historic anomalies. (There’s a fascinating interactive online project that gives a glimpse into Kowloon Walled City.)

Kowloon Walled City Park
A model of Kowloon Walled City inside the park. Estimates vary wildly, but inside Kowloon Walled City there lived somewhere around 30-50K people. According to the plaque, this model is based on a (Japanese?) research team that went in and did in-depth research about the place just before it was torn down.

On the way back through Kowloon, we pop into a game arcade (m88). As arcades go, this one isn’t in great shape, but we do play a few fun games at about a million decibels.

At Sino Centre we discover a proper nerd mall. Only after we leave Hong Kong do I learn that the NES Classic consoles I saw there were real and that they’re sold out all over the world. Ah well, missed that one.

We look at 1950s Mido Cafe, but opt for bubble tea in the park. Beat from the day, we opt for a massage, dinner, some last minute shopping, then head to the airport with time to spare.

Airport tipp: At terminal 1, “Goods of Desire” is a local design brand that has some cute (and small, hence easy-to-transport) last minute gifts.

Day 11: Shenzhen


This and the following blog posts aims to document a trip to Shenzhen, to the cradle of things. To read all blog posts in the series, click on the viewsource tag.

Please note: These are quick notes typed up while traveling. Apologies for any typos, missing links, etc.

Shopping for 2016 ThingsCon lanyards in Shenzhen from ThingsConAMS on Vimeo.

A video of us shopping for ThingsCon lanyards.


It’s the last full day with the whole team. Today’s plan: Visit HAX, visit World Maker Group. Record our reflections on the week in Shenzhen.


Headed to HAX, we struggle: Navigating the city still is tricky. We get totally lost inside an office building. Then in another. Turns out that a) HAX had moved and b) our Chinese navigation skills are more than sub-prime.

Temporarily lost We tried Google Translate on our Chinese address: It translated it to “cold sore feet”.

HAX is the first and largest hardware accelerator, and a known, well-respected player in the field. Design director Noel Joyce kindly shows us around.

Some quick notes about HAX:

  • Within 4 years from 10 teams/year to 50 teams/year
  • Around 150 teams so far
  • 2-step offering: first accelerator in Shenzhen to build the product, then “booster” in SF to get it to market.
  • Areas: Life, health, robotics, infrastructur, fab

It looks like a great place & community. Lots of energy, ambitious plans and projects, tapped into the local ecosystem. You can tell the benefits of being able to pick from a huge pool of applicants: The projects we see are all top notch.

Visiting HAX Noel Joyce, HAX’s design director

“A week here is like a month elsewhere”

Noel shares some of his insights about Shenzhen (some of my own notes mixed in):

  • Speed & access to supply chain is priceless. From CAD in the morning to finished model the next day at the very latest.
  • It’s possible and highly recommended to tap into the local knowledge. Folks here know how to build things highly efficiently and cost-effectively, know how to reverse engineer, know how to improve them.
  • Noel: “Some see Shanzhai as a problem. We don’t see it as a problem” (and rather as a great talent pool and skill set).
  • “The advantages of this place far outweigh the weaknesses it might have.”
  • It’s important to learn about sourcing and how to build a supply chain.
  • “A week here is like a month elsewhere.”
  • Different storytelling approaches between Chinese and international teams. HAX puts Chinese and international teams on different schedules, especially using more time with local teams on storytelling and branding. (Note: We heard this echoed many times during our time in China.) Also, Chinese teams are often very engineering driven.
  • “What you see in this market shows where the global market is shifting.”
  • It’s a challenge to anticipate the tech pipeline, like which chipsets are going to be available a few months from now. Some things are only made for a month and might never come back. HAX has a person whose primary job it is to be tapped into these conversations and anticipate availability, which products and compontents to use to be as futureproof as possible.
  • Question I ask myself: What are the limits of openness? Where do people draw the line? It seems like (unlike many places in the West) openness is the default, but there seem to be exceptions.

“It’s a challenge to anticipate the tech pipeline”

Noel finishes with a nice phrasing: Good products, even if not financially successful, can “elevate the thought sphere”. Personally I like this turn of phrase much better than demonstrating thought leadership.


We cab it to the next meeting. Our cabs seem to take this as an opportuniy to drive a race across town. On the way there, we have the first incident of a phone misbehaving: Marcel’s phone dies on us. We had been warned this might happen; if it is from some kind of malware, or the phone’s inability to communicate with their respective Western cloud HQs (read: Apple & Google) we don’t know.

As we get dropped at a nearby office park and wait for our pickup, Marcel uses the time to pitch me a new idea. I’m on board. More on that soon, hopefully.


traveling by golf cart today Our pickup shuttle. This is how we get to our meeting in a golf resort in the mountains.

Before we know it, we find ourselves on a golf cart to the next meeting. World Maker Group (WMG), a product realization platform, is based in a former (never fully opened) golf resort, now part of real estate developer Galaxy’s innovation and incubation space. Our kind host is WMG’s CEO Yang Yang.

Everybody on this trip has been incredibly generous with their time.


Shenzhen-443 Visiting World Maker Group World Maker Group headquarters

The word “maker” has a slightly different connotation in China. Just like in the West it is slightly confusing, but in China it isn’t used quite as exclusively for hobbyists. Shenzhen focuses on the hardware making aspect of the term as that is a long tradition here.

WMG mostly does client work, but increasingly look into own in house products: In that way it’s like many Western agencies, too. We see early prototypes, but promise not to share those.


If someone has a promising, futuristic idea, they might have to convince manufacturers to take a risk on this new idea, especially if they are looking at really small production runs.

One example we learn about is Disrupt Surfing, an Australian startup. They make custom-designed surf boards. In a venture like that, initial runs might be just in the dozens. It’s very low quantity, but potentially large margin in the future. Just like in Europe this might be a hard sell, you got to find the right partner.


Some things we see throughout the day:

Lots of medical devices and care devices. Crutches, medical beds, a portable computer for remote diagnosis and video conferencing with the doctor.

contact mic

A contact mic speaker for 65rmb (under 10 Euros). No connection needed, just put the phone on top. A great example of the Chinese “micro innovation” people keep telling us about.

Hard privacy switch

A medical tablet has a physical blocker for the camera. This makes the privacy level easy to read, very secure. The video camera can be disabled by moving a physical shutter across it.


Everything runs Android. Everything.


Shenzhen designers/companies know manufacturing in all its facets, but tend to have deficits in branding and figuring out market fit, compared to their US counterparts. Many US and European companies and designers have great vision, branding, and market fit, but have deficits in manufacturing.

Our host Yang Yang himself has a background from the UK and ThyssenKrupp, hence can translate well between cultures.

This is a recurring theme: Everyone we meet and has leadership group has studied abroad or worked abroad. They’re all not just experts but translators between cultures, too.

Manufacturers locally aren’t necessarily strong in design and branding. WMG helps.

Yang Yang’s founding partners have strong connections to Foxconn. Through established, trusted connections it’s possible to convince Foxconn to take smaller production runs as well, to fill up surplus manufacturing capacity. Yet another example of how business is done here through connections. If you parachute in, there’s no way of getting this type of access. (This might be true everywhere.)


Visiting World Maker Group Creative spaces have the same pleasant vibe all over the globe.

WMG works full scale from makers to universities to startups to client work. They are also involved with an international incubator exchange with universities in Europe and beyond.

We see some slides and schematics about the product realization workflow. It is crazy complex.


Visiting World Maker Group Game time


Government funding is available to boost innovation. There is no restriction of what’s funded, it just depends on who’s pitching. You need to be a maker, but of course that definition is hard to pin down.

This type of funding by the Shenzhen government is relatively slow for Shenzhen standards, maybe 6 months until money is in the bank, and has to go through a local registered, government recognized organization (like WMG). But it comes with no formal strings attached. Follow-up funding usually is available.

If needed, clients can send an engineer to work onsite, or WGM engineers can work onsite at the client’s HQ. Yang relays a story of sending out an engineer to solve a tricky injection challenge the partner to has been struggling with for a month: Because he knows this craft inside out he solves it overnight.

WMG is fully integrated, full stack. from design and manufacturing up to and including Android and iOS dev where needed.


Visiting World Maker Group Kevin Zhang of WMG shares his experiences with Amsterdam bike sharing systems

We learn about bike sharing in China. This of course is highly relevant to the bike project we brought to Shenzhen.

Some stats (proceed with care, I took notes on the fly):

  • Mobike: about USD 150 to make, signup (deposit) is about USD 50. So 3 registered users pay for 1 bike. After that it’s almost 100 percent profit. The bikes are made to be extremely robust: aluminum frame, solid tires etc.
  • Usage: 20% professional bike users (as in “use it for their job”), say as couriers. 20% are mountain bikers. The other 60% of bike riders don’t care about bike looks, just about use and having access to bikes. They are the ones who use locks, too. (The first two groups don’t use locks, they store their bikes elsewhere.)
  • Didi/Uber car sharing is hugely popular.
  • Substitute drivers are a big thing: A driver who’d drive you home with your car, then takes a ride back home. This is due to rigid laws against drunk driving.
  • Private bus services in addition to public buses. Tencent has 35 lines in Shenzhen alone.
  • Public bike sharing since 2010. Centralized. Then one iteration (private? gov-run?). Since 2014 there’s mobike, ofo.so, qibei, and other new generation of decentralized smart bike sharing. Locks are important on these decentralized ones.
  • mobike: 299 RMB for sign-up, 1 Yuan per 30min. Others: 20p sign up, first hour free, then charge (our camera man interjects: “The sensors are really bad!”).
  • ofo: 99 RMB for signup, 2 Yuan cap inside university campus, different cap outside.
  • mobike 0.08 percent of population reached. Sounds like not a whole lot, but that happened within 3 months of launch. But this is China, so we’re talking about 80m people. It’s a crazy steep growth curve.


The reactions to our bike project are always great: in this case a loud, bursting belly laugh. A decentralized, crypto-currency based, autonomous bike rental scheme? Sure, why not!


The margin for companies like WMG isn’t in design. It’s in manufacturing at scale. Here it’s all about the hardware. This makes for a very straight-forward business model.


drone flying area The former driving range is now used for drone flying

Behind the WMG HQ there’s a park: This would have been the golf court’s driving range, had it ever opened. Now it’s used mainly for relaxing and for flying drones. Among the many companies also housed in the incubation and coworking space in the complex is a drone flying academy.


traveling by golf cart today Golf cart number 2 is how we get back to the cab: The black-and-gold cart feels like we leveled up once more.


Recording final wrap-ups

In the evening, we reflect and record final wrap up interviews with the team.

Our final team dinner takes us to a 17-year old western-movie-themed Szechuan restaurant. 17 years is old in Shenzhen, after all the city is only 36 years old. On the wall, in between black and white photos of movie stars, a painting of Beethoven.

Western pop culture inspired restaurant featuring Beethoven.  Shenzhen


I learn there’s a massive train construction project under way to build a China-Germany high speed train connection.


Today concludes our trip. Team Incredible Machine will stay for another day to do a last round of interviews and conduct some market business, but tomorrow Michelle and I will be off to Hong Kong to fly back home.

We got a lot to process, many impressions to let sink in. I learned a lot; we all did. I’ll have some writing to do.


We go sing karaoke till late. There are lots of karaoke places to choose from. We’re one of many groups that night, but the only non-Chinese one.

Day 10: Shenzhen


This and the following blog posts aims to document a trip to Shenzhen, to the cradle of things. To read all blog posts in the series, click on the viewsource tag.

Please note: These are quick notes typed up while traveling. Apologies for any typos, missing links, etc.

In the morning we split up into teams. Marcel takes one team back to Artop to work on the bike project. For me the morning is for more market time. Or so I thought until realizing that most of the electronics market doesn’t open until much later.

Market stalls open whenever they want. Some are open early, others still closed at 12. The distribution of the market is still as confusing as on day 1.


It’s a rainy day. Outside a street restaurant I watch a middle-aged man chop chunks of meat with a cleaver. An electric gate plays a warning sound while opening: An extremely lo-fi digital version of Pour Elise.


From the sidewalk I see a fake Genius Bar. It’s about 8 sqm.


In the afternoon I visit the somewhat luxurious Maker Showcase inside the market: A sort of upscale makerspace or showcase for makerspace-type products.

“The face of the world is changing”

Marcel had shown me a video of a cute robot what ominously repeats this message: “The face of the world is changing.” I can’t get it robot to repeat it to me, but an overall feeling of looking into the void remains.


Robots are everywhere. Book stores would have a little robot at the entrance. They are specially frequent in ads.

Cracker ad. This ad is for crackers. But of course it has several robots in it.


The showcase room offers an immersive VR experience: a hanging bridge across the mountains shows inside the VR goggles, with some catastrophe going on in the background for kicks.

M trying out the immersive VR experience The immersive VR bridge of death

As I’m halfway across the virtual bridge, a part of the real-life bridge breaks under me and I crash down. My leg hurts and I lose some skin. The attendent pretends nothing happened.


We hunt for some small giveaways for ThingsCon. I visit the security mall once more.

We head to the Shanzhai mall, I’d love to see more of the famous/infamous Shanzhai phones I’ve heard so much about.

First impressions: They are not as crazy as I expected. Some knockoff phones, refurbished phones, 80s mobile sized gold phones, Ferrari-shaped phones, ruggedized flashlight power bank phones. OK, maybe a little crazy. We also start negotiations for a dozen or so memory sticks to see what the transaction is like.


That was a lot of malls. We indulged a little for the full Shenzhen experience, our haul includes some memory sticks, a tiny wifi camera drone, some power plugs, clip-on fish eye lenses.


Over dinner, we plan tomorrow’s interviews. We also decide to chase a new lead for the bike project: A seller of smart locks on Taobao, an online market place. (Think of Ebay + Amazon on speed.)

Over the course of a few minutes, our amazing translator Chris arranges that we work our way upstream from seller to the folks who build the hardware and to arrange a meeting first thing in the morning. All via chat, at 10pm.

arranging taobao contacts Out on the street, tracking smart locks upstream.

Tomorrow is “Singles’ Day”: November 11, or 11/11, or four single 1s, get it? It’s China’s take on Black Friday: Online all stores will have massive sales starting at midnight, so everyone’s up late to hit that buy button.

Singles’ Day helps our arrangements as we get even quicker than usual replies to our requests to meet the mysterious maker of smart bike locks on Taobao.

A TV show full of stars will live comment the overall sales record this is going to set, like every year. We learn later that (like every year) all sales previous records are broken.

Day 9: Shenzhen


This and the following blog posts aims to document a trip to Shenzhen, to the cradle of things. To read all blog posts in the series, click on the viewsource tag.

Please note: These are quick notes typed up while traveling. Apologies for any typos, missing links, etc.

Late wrap-up last night and early calls with the US leave me a bit tired, but there’s an exciting day ahead.

The two main action items today: Visit Artop, a strong local industrial design company for a tour, then head on over to an injection molding factory with them.


A Didi (Chinese counterpart-slash-shareholder of Uber) ride brings us to Artop. The cab has almost enough seats for all of us.

Visiting Artop Every parking lot doubles as a basketball court.


Savio Lai, COO of Artop Hong Kong kindly gives us the tour. It’s interesting to learn more about positioning of industrial design companies in China vs Europe.

Visiting Artop Artop has some serious meeting room table.

The role of the design agencies is different here than in Europe or US. In China the offering is more full chain, including design for manufacturing, and coordination of manufacturing, and quality control. But it also extends all the way into branding, etc., so it’s a much more integrated model. The name “design agency” might be a little misleading, it doesn’t capture the range of services offered.

Savio: “As industrial designers we have to be realistic about what works and what doesn’t. So we are involved in the mechanical design as well.”

“As industrial designers… we are involved in the mechanical design”

Artop interestingly tries to position itself almost more after the European model. Yet, they do all the integrations necessary to launch a product. Savio: “You can just give it to us.” This includes IP protection, which they have a whole unit for.


Artop has an inhouse program, “48h”. Within those two days you build a ready-to-make product. Only unlike all the hackathons and design sprints I’ve ever seen in the West, Savio seems to be serious about getting things ready for manufacture in those two days. If this works, it’s damn impressive.


Artop has clients from private companies to police/military to startups.

On working with startups: They frequently get approached by startups who have little or no money. The agency can give massive discounts, invest time and upfront money, take a large share in the risk. The startup would pay only if VC money comes in, and then only part of the “list price” cost. It’s an investment into a long-term relationship.

The importance of investments in long-term relationships in business in China can’t be overstated.


In their design gallery, we spot a Segway-style scooter. We hear it might have been the first of its type, or among the first.

Visiting Artop Maybe the first Segway-style scooter (I didn’t quite hear that bit as I was in the back of the group)

Visiting Artop Prototypes in their design gallery include a bamboo keyboard and a magnetic resonance speaker that turns a glass table into the speaker.


Artop is fairly low profile and can’t talk too much about products in development. “To defend against copies, we try to reach forward.” They also use patents and IP protection a lot, and we hear they’ve used patents to defend their IP successfully in the past.


We experience every day that meetings happen over lunch, or include lunch, and are fairly lengthy affairs for our standards. Lunch break is about 2.5 hours and includes nap time. We hear some folks will eat quickly (i.e. 30min or so) so they can sleep for a full 2h after.

Today, we’re running late for a factory visit and our local host room proposes we just grab a quick bite on the way. We find ourselves at the IKEA cafeteria for an hour.


China’s IKEAs look pretty much the same as everywhere else. Looking closer, though, you’ll find some subtle differences. For example, there’s a more rice to be had, and matcha cake for dessert.

You’ll find people sleeping on the showroom beds and couches: IKEA in China used for have a policy against that but gave up on it. Now it’s considered ok. IKEA is also a bona-fide family entertainment activity for Sundays. Just bring the kids and spend the day.


News about US elections are trickling in. We’re speechless. Yet, there’s no other group I’d rather suffer these news with.

It is related to us that many Chinese supposedly are somewhat in support of Trump: They (allegedly) believe that he might bring the US down, strengthening China in the process.


Some impressions from the drive to the factory area:

Factory visit

Factory visit

Factory visit


After an hour or so of driving north-west towards Dongguan, we reach an injection molding factory. The first part seems pretty old school but well running. Due to automation the number of workers on this campus dropped from 5k to 5-600. To make up for a more competitive, weaker economy the company now also produces their own in-house products to make due. You gotta automate and move upmarket to compete.

Factory visit

Factory visit This motivational poster looks very official.

Factory visit

Factory visit


We see a mini robotic arm reverse-engineered from on a much larger (and somewhat old-looking) Japanese model.


The factory also has 3D metal printing capabilities. 3D printing and the cooling shafts it allows for saves around 20 percent or more of cooling time for molds. This means massive savings. We see sample molds for shower gel bottle caps and other items.

Factory visit Non-straight air shafts help cool down molds by 20% faster. That way 3D printing allows for massive savings.

The 3D printers are very recent, very high-end models from Japan or Germany. These beasts are very, very expensive: Think six-figure Euros.

I get to hold a plastic bottle of stainless steel from Germany. It’s powder, and super heavy.

A bottle of stainless steel for the 3D printer This is what a bottle of stainless steel looks like before it’s 3D printed.

Our host explains that Germany is 5-7 years ahead in 3D metal printing, but China is working hard to catch up. There are collaborations in place between both countries, and local universities are doing a lot of research into the field. This clearly is a high-interest area.


Chinese automotive company BYD is a maker of electric cars. The government supports electric through subsidies for buyers. We’ve seen and heard (or rather, not heard) a lot of electric cars, buses and scooters over the last few days.


All the factories tend to be north-west of Shenzhen. Drive about 1.5h north-west and you’re in the middle of it all.

Factory visit Most factories are an hour or so north-west of Shenzhen.

When we get there the air is OK, but we’re told the wind comes from the sea, goes inland. The smog on the coast isn’t bad while we’re here – we might just be lucky, or it might not be bad generally, or it’s all downwind and inland so quick we never get to experience it.


I’m not an expert in factories, so I’m not sure what I expected. But whatever it was, it was kind of like this.


We meet with Silvia Lindtner of the University of Michigan, who has been researching the Shenzhen maker and manufacturing ecosystem for years, with a focus on the role of openness as well as societal implications. Over dinner, she helps us understand a little better how this aspect of the ecosystem has evolved as well as how the ecosystem came to be in the first place: Announced as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ)—in fact the very first one—in 1979 by Deng Xiaoping, the Shenzhen SEZ was a top down initiative, decreed by government.

Yet, that alone just would not have cut it. The people of China saw an opportunity there and moved to Shenzhen in droves, participating and innovating bottom-up. The government strategically looked the other way, de facto creating a framework for permissionless innovation (within limits). The entrepreneurial spirit and ever-growing opportunities combined made for a fantastically potent mix.


Today way hump day for the big team. We unwind a bit with the team in the lobby. No shop talk allowed.

Day 8: Shenzhen


This and the following blog posts aims to document a trip to Shenzhen, to the cradle of things. To read all blog posts in the series, click on the viewsource tag.

Please note: These are quick notes typed up while traveling. Apologies for any typos, missing links, etc.

Today is market day. This is exciting!

First impressions: The [Huaqiangbei electronics market] is overwhelming, and hard to navigate due to its sheer size.

Huaqiangbei market map This is the outline of the market. A good chunk of it is for electronics.

Huaqiangbei isn’t just big, though. It’s also incredibly dense. You’ll find floors upon floors of sometimes tiny, crammed market stalls selling anything from full computers or robots down to individual buttons, displays, or even just cables.

electronics market This is just one of many floors, in one of many buildings.

This extends over many, many floors in several city blocks. The map above shows the outlines of the last buildings involved in the market, but there’s a clear focus on the center, the area between the orange and green metro lines, and a little north of it.


No filming without a permit. Both of our teams have cameras, and both get approached by security within seconds of entering the building. Partially this seems to be to avoid footage of counterfeit goods: The government wants to clean up the market, and its image. Several people reference a British TV crew that came in under false pretense of shooting positive coverage and using the material for an exposé of fake goods; now security is a little on edge.

We weren’t expecting this and start work on getting a permit on short notice.


While our translater reaches out to his network to reach the building management, we go explore the main building. The ground floor is components: Buttons, resistors, cables. Tons of chargers and USB cables. As you move upstairs, you move downstream: The higher you get, the higher the abstraction level seems to get: It gets a little more consumer grade, finished products replace the building parts of downstairs.

It feels a little like you could work your way up the building and as you start picking up stuff you assemble them; by the time you get to the top floor, you’d have a finished phone in hand.


This place is huge. It’s several blocks, with a core of maybe 3×3 city blocks. All buildings are 5 floors at least, most are much higher.


More and more electronics and goods are replaced by smartphones. If software is eating the world, smartphones are eating the hardware world. (Which of course means that software is eating the hardware world, too.)

From a pure tourist point of view, this is a bit of a bummer: Smartphones aren’t as fun to explore as other, more crazy creations you might have found here 5-10 years ago.


Most buildings and most floors are highly specialized. For example, there’s a whole building for security. When you enter you’ll find thousands of cameras staring at you.


You come to the market to buy prototyping materials and samples, or to buy bulk. The former is acceptable because everybody knows that’s necessary to get to the latter. With every purchase or even conversations, the stall owner will hand out a business card to order more.

My favorite business card was this one:

"Trust me!" Best business card. “Trust me!”


The market is for components, be they cables or complex electronics. This isn’t a consumer market. Unless you really know what you’re doing, what you’re looking for, and how to assess quality, you need an interface.

Quality management is up to the buyer, not the manufacturer or seller (they might be the same person or company: each stall is a window into a whole supply chain of its own).

The same is true for ordering manufacturing: If you want a certain quality, make sure to order and check it. Hire someone to do it. All levels of quality can be done, it’s a question of how much you choose to invest.


Today’s haul: a giant (4″) 1 character LED display (22R MB /3 €). A fabric USB C cable (10 RMB, 1.50 €), a four-outlet USB charger (40 RMB / 6 €).


In the evening we head out for dinner at a Charme Restaurant, which offers a modern take on Cantonese. Over dinner we arrange more visits this week, to Maker World and HAX. The bike team pitches and explains their idea to the various new people in the group: It’s most definitively a conversation starter.


From David Li I learned about the history of the label “Made in Germany” (Wikipedia): “The label was originally introduced in Britain [in 1887] to mark foreign produce more obviously, as foreign manufactures had been falsely marking inferior goods with the marks of renowned British manufacturing companies and importing them into the United Kingdom. Most of these were found to be originating from Germany…” In other words, it was a consumer protection measure, a warning against inferior imported goods.

How wrong and outdated might our current conception of the quality of “Made in China” be? From what we’ve seen so far in Shenzhen, there is a lot of high-quality design work done locally. Plus, we know that the manufacturing can be done in all levels of quality. After all, cheap usb cables are made in Shenzhen, and so are iPhones.

What is “Made in China” going to mean in 5, 10, 50 years?


The Shenzhen market looks like a street market, but it’s a window into a gigantic global market.

These days I’m told a market stall is about USD 1K per month of rent per sqm in these markets. The stalls generate something to the tune of 3 million RMB (USD 430K) revenue per sqm.

In other words, it’s quite expensive to have a market stall here, but they have a tremendous ROI. This is serious business.


We learn quickly that in Shenzhen, making a product isn’t necesessarily about technology. Technology is a commodity. What do you want to make?

David summarizes: “Everything here [in the Shenzhen electronics market] is a component for your creation!”