Makers and Open Source in China

In the process of setting up the right software and hardware for our learning environment in Panna which we build right next to our skatepark I of course looked into open source and the maker scene. In India the maker’s movement isn’t very strong and it’s just in its beginnings. Same holds true for open data. In both cases China is much more advanced. This is why I turn to China in this case – I will go “shopping” for my kids in the village of Janwahr in Shenzen, the heart of the maker scene in China. And I am very happy to have David at my side …

Four years ago I’ve met David Li in Shanghai. It was then when I conducted the interview at the end of this blogpost. David was among the first in China to promote hacker/maker culture and open source hardware. He co-founded XinCheJian the first Chinese hackerspace just for this reason. He has been contributing to open source since 1990. Over the past 20 years, David has started several open source software projects and contributed to many others. He also developed Ardublock, the most popular visual programming environment for Arduino. We worked with Arduino a year ago in a rural village south of Delhi. In the past two years, he has become interested in urban farming and is an enthusiastic proponent of aquaponics, which brings the spirit of open source to farming and gardening.

The following short interview with David and the included links will give you an introdution into China’s maker scene.


Please give us a short overview how the maker scene in china started and how it evolved.

XinCheJian was the first “maker space” in China. We started in 2010. This marked somehow the beginning of the maker movement in China, at least we’ve had an “institution” where we could point at! However, the main growth of maker spaces in China started from 2012 onwards, after the publishing of Chris Anderson’s book “Makers: New Industrial Revolution.”

Currently there are 76 makerspaces in China covering major cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen,r cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Nanjing, Chengdu and others. Here are a few articles which cover them more or less intensively …

xinchejian hackerspace shanghai
Wall Street Journal
The Economist

It can be argued that the “makers” never ever have stopped in China. Clay Shirky has recently wrote a good article on that “There is no Maker Movement in China”.

We (Silvia Lindtner, Anna Greespan and I) have also been working on this about Makers and China under the Hacked Matter think tank we co-founded in 2011.

See also a good read in The Atlantic.

If we would have to define the makers movement globally as the catalyst of a collaborative and open ecosystem, China already has it and its name is Shanzhai.


What kind of people are involved … ?

The maker movement symbolized by XinCheJian usually is all about white collars working in the cities curious to build stuff.

What kind of products are the makers/hackers working on and do these products have any significant market shares?

Makers are all about niche and long tails products globally. But the niche can have a strong impact on an industry. Just look at how Shanzhai has disrupted the mobile phone industries and caused the downfall of Nokia and Motorola.

Shanghai and disruptive innovation
Shanzhai an open platform for innovation
Conference paper

Shenzhen somehow seems to be a “headquarter” – what is Shenzhen about, a city which 20 years ago didn’t exist? Is it the home of make or made in China?

Shenzhen is the manufacture hub in China and now responsible for majority of global electronics productions.
Read more in The Economist about it. Very interesting read!

Recently the Chinese government embraced the maker scene – any implications on the makers work?

See here to articles of the Chinese government ….
article 1
article 2

The support by the highest level of Chinese government came as a big surprise. Not the fact that it happened but how fast it happened! The Premier’s surprise visit to Chaihuo Makerspace on Jan 4th and the State Council announcement on Jan 28 to support “Mass Makerspace” and to encourage startups was a huge step.

What is your take on the European/US maker culture/scene?

The makers movement there was driven by the fast growing availability of affordable embedded electronics such as Arduino at $50 and the nostalgia of “making goods” of the past. Clay Shirky has a good take on this.

Do the maker products intend to solve any societal problems such as environment, pollution?

Makers represent a grassroot innovation force that might lead one day to real solution for environment and pollution issues. Currently those social problems are tackled by large corporations and nation-state actors.

Is there any link between making and sustainability?

Currently, not. Sustainability is a very hot marketing word for paddling expensive products rather then real intention.

We are going to make a major push for this link! The current electronics (PCB) are closed source and can’t be reused easily. The standard process is either the crude extraction of the chips – high economic value but very toxic, just see these picts (pict 1, pict 2, pict 3) or the melting of the products to gain some precious metals like gold. This process is less toxic, but economically it’s of very low value. Watch this video to understand.

We will propose open hardware as a third alternative. Our idea is to make the circuit information available and hackable so that the whole PCB can be recycled and repurposed. As Internet of Things will grow significantly in the next few years, the PCB recycle problem becomes very real!

Do we need global player in this market or will it be a complete decentralised market?

There will be a mix of global players and local players with a new ecosystem of large manufacturers and small brands.

To end with here is the interview I conducted with David 4 years ago – when no one was talking about a maker scene in China.

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