MadLab Makers in China Pt. 1: ‘Things must be made’

Makers in China Pt. 1: ‘Things must be made’

Posted by Asa Calow, about 1 month ago

This is the first part of a three-part series looking at Makers in China and the ‘new hardware’ phenomenon. Parts two and three, where we go deeper into maker-manufacturing and the reasons behind MadLab’s interest in growing its UK—China connections, are coming soon.

Rachael and I are back in China and headed once more for the hacker’s paradise that is Shenzhen! The British Council, along with the AHRC’s Newton Fund, has convened a multi-disciplinary mix of hackers and academics, with the purpose of learning more about making in China, and exploring collaboration possibilities with our Chinese counterparts. The research trip has been organised by David Li (co-founder of the Hacked Matter think-tank, along with Anna Greenspan), who has been on our radar for a while as an international hacker/maker of interest – most recently for his piece in the Paris Tech Review on The New Shanzhai, a theme that I’m personally looking forward to exploring in the next couple of weeks.


As a technologist, Shenzhen is an incredible place to visit. This time last year we took part in Mitch Altman’s Hacker Tour of China, visited a number of hackerspaces – SZDIY, Chaihuo, and Techspace in particular – and met up with some of the people – the Hax team, Ian and Jin from Dangerous Prototypes, Tully Gehan, amongst others – who are involved in the maker-manufacturing ecosystem over here.

Over the past few years I’ve been lucky to have been able to visit some of the world’s tech industry hot spots. Nowhere have I felt more at the heart of where technology is made than the SEG tower in downtown Huaqiangbei market, surrounded by the hectic clamour of buyers, sellers and manufacturers of almost every electronic and mechanical product, assembly and component under the sun.

The best makers are driven by a fundamental need to create. Here in Shenzhen also, things must be made.

There’s something irrepressible and slightly anarchic about Shenzhen that appeals. The many excellent examples of Shanzhai production – mobile phones built into light-up musical skulls, ‘Faux Pro’ cameras and the Wireless Fish Finder (tagline: “Fish, I can find you now”) – a direct result of the pressure to keep the manufacturing lines running, a density of shared manufacturing expertise, and the infamous Chinese Guanxi. (That mobile phone with a radio in it? Most likely came about when Mobile guy and radio guy got drunk together, basically). Much like how the best makers I’ve met are driven by a fundamental need to create, it feels like here in Shenzhen also that given the density of people, expertise, materials and machines that things must be made.


We’ll be spending a week in Shenzhen followed by a week in Shanghai, with Justin Marshall from Falmouth Univerity’s Makernow and myself visiting various hacker/makerspaces, including the newly opened Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab (SZOIL), Shenzhen Maker Village (don’t try and Google it, this is David’s term – less a makerspace, more an area of the city packed with micro-manufacturers), then Xinchejian and Mushroom Cloud (DFRobot‘s new space) in Shanghai. In between, we’ll be stopping at the Shanghai Maker Carnival and taking part in a roundtable over there.

I have some expectations for what I would like to see and do, people that we’d like to meet, and organisational links to be made while we’re here, which I’ll be reporting back on as we go. Stay tuned!

One last very important thing… many thanks to the British Council’s Creative Economy team, and the AHRC for their huge amount of effort in making this happen – Dylan Law and chief BC kitten-herder Rebecca Shoesmith in particular!