Silvia Lindtner: Hello every­one. I’m super delight­ed and hon­ored to be here today. My name is Silvia Lindtner. As you might guess from my name I’m actu­al­ly born and raised in Austria, but I cur­rent­ly live in the United States, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor at University of Michigan School of Information and Art & Design. And today, as Michael was already say­ing, I’ll be talk­ing some­thing that you might’ve heard of more recent­ly, that many peo­ple have begun stip­u­lat­ing that we live in some­thing called an age of the mak­er move­ment.

So what is the mak­er move­ment? Many peo­ple, when they think about mak­ing, they think about spaces like the fol­low­ing. This is a pho­to of a mak­er­space in China. It’s actu­al­ly China’s first mak­er­space. It opened up its doors in Shanghai in 2010. And a mak­er­space, as you might have guessed from the name is a space where peo­ple come togeth­er to make things. They share the tools and machines to do so, and they tin­ker togeth­er and make things includ­ing, for exam­ple, exper­i­ments in robot­ics.

This is a swarm robot that the team of the Shanghai mak­er­space built 2011 and that they sub­mit­ted to a com­pe­ti­tion where they won sec­ond place, couched between Harvard and MIT. But peo­ple also make oth­er things in mak­er­spaces, like for exam­ple pro­to­types of agro­pon­ic plant­i­ng or inter­ac­tive urban designs. And many times, peo­ple who go and hang out in mak­er­spaces, they also present their work at Maker Faires like the one in Berlin, for exam­ple.

Many peo­ple when they think about the mak­er move­ment, they think about this par­tic­u­lar device. This is the Arduino. It’s a micro­con­troller plat­form that came out of a col­lab­o­ra­tion at the Ivrea design school around 2006. And this is the device real­ly that is today often named as sort of the quin­tes­sen­tial device that enabled the rise of a glob­al mak­er move­ment. What it allows you to do in a nut­shell is to tin­ker with hard­ware. So it allows you to tin­ker with hard­ware, espe­cial­ly if you don’t have a degree in engi­neer­ing or com­put­er sci­ence. So it was basi­cal­ly a tool designed for design­ers, for artists, and any­one else who does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have a train­ing in elec­tron­ic engi­neer­ing. And this real­ly helped pro­lif­er­ate ideas and prac­tices of mak­ing, this tiny device that fits into the palm of your hand.

So, what I’ve shown you so far are basi­cal­ly dif­fer­ent exam­ples of what peo­ple have begun to asso­ciate with a promise of mak­ing. So, much of when peo­ple are excit­ed about mak­ing, they think of mak­ing as pre­sent­ing them with the tools and meth­ods to inter­vene in estab­lished struc­tures, be they soci­etal struc­tures or tech­no­log­i­cal struc­tures. So the idea of the mak­er move­ment is real­ly to give peo­ple the tools and to empow­er them to inter­vene in for exam­ple cor­po­rate monop­o­lies. So rather than buy­ing the lat­est iPhone, you would be empow­ered to build your own phones. That’s sort of the fun­da­men­tal promise and idea behind mak­ing.

This goes back to mak­ers sort of posi­tion­ing their work as a sort of revival of the ear­li­er 1960s and 70s Internet and hack­er coun­ter­cul­ture of California. It also includes mak­ing being seen as a form of nov­el engage­ment with new mate­ri­als. So on the screen here is the LilyPad, that allows you to hack fab­rics.

And mak­ing is also asso­ci­at­ed with pro­vid­ing new ways of chal­leng­ing estab­lished gen­der norms. This is for exam­ple a pho­to of a fem­i­nist hack­er­space in Vienna. But mak­ing has also received much broad­er attend. This is a pho­to of the Maker Faire that was host­ed at the White House under the Obama admin­is­tra­tion. So mak­ing is also being cel­e­brat­ed as a way to rein­vent nation­al iden­ti­ty, and in this case bring back Made in America,” as Obama so famous­ly put it.

But mak­ing has also been asso­ci­at­ed with re-envisioning cit­i­zen­ship and empow­er­ing cit­i­zens in new ways. And all of this, what I’ve shown you so far, real­ly comes down to two things. Making took rise at a moment when, espe­cial­ly in Europe and the United States, peo­ple began to talk about and cri­tique the rise of pre­car­i­ous work and labor. Not only for peo­ple work­ing in let’s say fac­to­ries, but also the rise of pre­car­i­ous work­ing con­di­tions for peo­ple in the cre­ative indus­tries.

So mak­ing took rise at a moment when peo­ple began— Not just schol­ars but also media—pub­lic media and peo­ple work­ing in the tech industry—began cri­tiquing ear­li­er visions and ideas of the knowl­edge econ­o­my and say­ing the knowl­edge econ­o­my, or ideas like the cre­ative class as prop­a­gat­ed by Richard Florida, were sharply cri­tiqued because they did not deliv­er what they had orig­i­nal­ly promised. So the promise of mak­ing, and the ideas peo­ple began to asso­ciate with mak­ing real­ly took rise at this moment of a broad­er cri­tique of estab­lished struc­tures, includ­ing neolib­er­al gov­er­nance and pre­car­i­ous work. So that was the first thing.

The sec­ond thing is that this promise of mak­ing that I’ve already told you about was real­ly couched in a way to pro­vide peo­ple the means to inter­vene in the pit­falls of this infor­ma­tion soci­ety. And as you can see on the screen, there’s just these var­i­ous exam­ples of peo­ple in mak­ing chal­leng­ing who gets to do tech­nol­o­gy inno­va­tion. That this was maybe some­thing only for men. Or that the notion here was real­ly that every­one can do it, so the slo­gan of the Maker Faire, for exam­ple, is every­one can be a mak­er.” So that is sort of the promise of mak­ing, that it pro­vides the con­crete tools and meth­ods to inter­vene.

But then we might stop and hes­i­tate here for a sec­ond and ask whose empow­er­ment is this? So even on the one hand, we see how women in the mak­er scene have real­ly chal­lenged estab­lished gen­der norms in the tech indus­try. And mak­ing has also pro­vid­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty for politi­cians and every­day cit­i­zens to engage with one anoth­er. But on the oth­er hand, we still see how many mak­er­spaces are large­ly male-dominated. How most of the peo­ple who end up being cel­e­brat­ed at Make Magazine are dads with their sons tin­ker­ing with robot­ics and so on.

So even though mak­ing is couched as a promise to inter­vene in estab­lished struc­tures, it is still a fair­ly exclu­sive project that con­tin­ues exclu­sions that have actu­al­ly also hap­pened before. So there’s kind of a con­tra­dic­tion there, right? On the one hand there’s this vision that is very very pow­er­ful, to inter­vene in estab­lished struc­tures. And on the oth­er hand the real­i­ty and prac­tice often looks very very dif­fer­ent.

So what I want to do today is basi­cal­ly look at a mak­er cul­ture that isn’t as well known as the one I’ve just shown you. So what you see on the screen are real­ly very famil­iar mod­els of cre­ative prac­tice when you’re sit­ting some­where in Europe or the United States. So it’s kind of a Western view of mak­ing. And I want to show you today an alter­na­tive to how we can think about cre­ative pro­duc­tion and tech­nol­o­gy prac­tice, and mak­ing in par­tic­u­lar. And to do so I want to take you to a city in the south of China. Can I get some­body in the to audi­ence tell me where this par­tic­u­lar place is, or what the city is?

So this is the city of Shenzhen. You might not see very clear­ly, but here is a map and this is Hong Kong, and the city of Shenzhen is just north of Hong Kong. And I’m talk­ing about Shenzhen because I’ve con­duct­ed research in China—mostly ethnographic—over the last sev­en years. And this research in China start­ed out with me spend­ing a lot of time in the ear­ly hack­er and mak­er mak­ers in China, but then took me in 2012 to the city of Shenzhen. At that time a lot of atten­tion sud­den­ly moved to Shenzhen, espe­cial­ly in the mak­er scene and the mak­er move­ment in China.

So, to most peo­ple Shenzhen is known—if it is known at all—through images like this. This is a pho­to of the Taiwanese con­tract man­u­fac­tur­er Foxconn that pro­duces for exam­ple for com­pa­nies like Apple and HP. So Shenzhen is the place where more than 90% of our elec­tron­ic devices have been designed and made. So the Apple phone in your pock­et or the com­put­er in front of you was made there.

But more recent­ly, anoth­er image of Shenzhen began tak­ing shape. This is a screen­shot of a 2015 Wired doc­u­men­tary that came out of the UK. And you might see the head­line here. So Shenzhen, the city that was large­ly known as the site of pro­duc­tion and cheap labor is now cel­e­brat­ed as the Silicon Valley of hard­ware.

So we might want to ask what hap­pened here. And in order to under­stand what hap­pened in this sort of tran­si­tion from peo­ple not know­ing Shenzhen or just know­ing it as a site of cheap labor towards a Silicon Valley for hard­ware, we have to go back about thir­ty years ago. The kind of city we know today, Shenzhen as a twenty-two-people [sic] metrop­o­lis that pro­duces all our iPhones and oth­er devices was a very very dif­fer­ent place thir­ty years ago. It was most­ly agri­cul­ture, but it was declared in the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping as an exper­i­ment.

So this region (you can see Deng Xiaoping here) was meant to help China tran­si­tion or exper­i­ment with the tran­si­tion of open­ing reforms, and exper­i­ment­ing with a mode of cap­i­tal­ism and what that would mean for China. So this is what hap­pened in the 80s. China began open­ing up towards for­eign direct invest­ment through Shenzhen. This began with invest­ment from Hong Kong and Taiwan first, and lat­er dur­ing the out­sourc­ing boom in Europe and the United States also attract­ed investors from the West. And so to say, the mod­el was a suc­cess and cap­i­tal­ism expand­ed to the rest of China.

So what hap­pened in the years to fol­low was real­ly expan­sion of the man­u­fac­tur­ing indus­try in the south of China. This was in the 1990s, basi­cal­ly, with the expan­sion of orig­i­nal design man­u­fac­tur­ing and large con­tract man­u­fac­tur­ing. The best-known exam­ple that’s prob­a­bly famil­iar to most of you is the HTC phone which was basi­cal­ly a phone brand that was owned by the man­u­fac­tur­er them­selves. So the first time an orig­i­nal design man­u­fac­tur­ing process that took shape in Shenzhen.

But what is less well-known about what hap­pened in Shenzhen at the same time as large con­tract man­u­fac­tur­ing grew in size is a cul­ture of infor­mal pro­duc­tion, an entre­pre­neur­ial cul­ture applied to man­u­fac­tur­ing. This cul­ture is very often referred to in Chinese as shanzhai.” Shanzhai trans­lates into English some­thing like moun­tain fortress,” and has a lit­tle bit of a Robin Hood fla­vor to it. So when peo­ple think about shanzhai, they often think about these sto­ries of 108 rebels who were hid­ing in the moun­tains and tak­ing from the emper­or and giv­ing to the poor. So it’s kind of like a Robin Hood spir­it of sophis­ti­cat­ed rebels who basi­cal­ly inter­vene in the estab­lish­ment.

So this term began being applied to an infor­mal pro­duc­tion cul­ture that began grow­ing as these large con­tract man­u­fac­tur­ers began pro­duc­ing for Apple and so on. So, how you can think about this is this all began in Hong Kong when family-owned busi­ness­es start­ed to pro­duce copy­cat retail like the fol­low­ing. Like the copy­cat Nike shoe and the copy­cat Gucci bag. These fac­to­ries migrat­ed to Shenzhen with the rise of elec­tron­ic pro­duc­tion. And some of those items were pro­duced in Shenzhen in a sim­i­lar kind of spir­it.

What you see on the screen are actu­al­ly mobile phones. These are fea­ture phones that come in unique shapes and sizes. And the idea here, that these entre­pre­neurs in man­u­fac­tur­ing had was that there was a gap in the glob­al econ­o­my as large-scale con­tract man­u­fac­tur­ers were pro­duc­ing for Apple and Nokia, nobody was cater­ing for niche mar­kets of peo­ple who could­n’t afford nec­es­sar­i­ly a cool phone. So these phones were basi­cal­ly designed for migrant com­mu­ni­ties, migrant work­ers who could oth­er­wise not have access to anoth­er phone.

And this lat­er expand­ed to new kinds of cre­ation. You can see here on the screen for exam­ple a phone on the right that’s also at the same time a radio and a flash­light. Or the one on the left, shaped like a Chinese alco­hol bot­tle.

Or this is my favorite. I found this three years ago in the mar­kets of Shenzhen and the ven­dor was jok­ing that this was the lat­est iPhone 6. I bought it.

But more recent­ly this infor­mal econ­o­my that has built around man­u­fac­tur­ing in Shenzhen has also begun part­ner­ing with oth­er regions. This for exam­ple is a smart­phone pro­duced for the African mar­ket. Tecno Mobile is now one of the largest phone brands in Africa. And this phone comes with a spe­cial fea­ture, as the adver­tise­ment here tells as well. It comes (as it says, cap­ture the beau­ty of dark­ness”) equipped with a cam­era that cap­tures dark-skinned sub­jects par­tic­u­lar­ly well in low-light con­di­tions. So this is a very afford­able smart­phone, designed for a very spe­cif­ic mar­ket. And this kind of prod­uct design came out of this very infor­mal kind of piracy/copycat kind of cul­ture in Shenzhen that is now real­ly a billion-dollar indus­try.

So I was curi­ous in my research to under­stand what enabled these entre­pre­neurs to work in such ways. Like what actu­al­ly shaped their prac­tice. And what I found was an open source cul­ture that was applied to man­u­fac­tur­ing.

What you see on the screen is the board that goes into pro­duc­ing a mobile phone. In this case this is an old­er fea­ture phone device. And basi­cal­ly this board here, the resources, the bill of mate­r­i­al, every­thing that goes into design­ing this board is pub­licly shared amongst the man­u­fac­tur­ing and fac­to­ry enti­ties in Shenzhen. So you can kind of com­pare this open man­u­fac­tur­ing board to the Arduino. It’s basi­cal­ly an open source plat­form, but applied to mass pro­duc­tion, applied to man­u­fac­tur­ing.

So they kind of share the same spir­it, but one is typ­i­cal­ly the one on the left—the Arduino board is usu­al­ly cel­e­brat­ed now as the enabler of the mak­er move­ment. As the enabler of new forms of cre­ative prac­tice. As a very cutting-edge inno­va­tion kind of piece. Versus very few peo­ple know about the board on the right. Most peo­ple think about the board on the right as being part of a copy­cat indus­try that does­n’t have any­thing to do with inno­va­tion. And why I’m con­trast­ing these two here is to real­ly show you that the rea­son why we don’t see the the one on the right as inno­v­a­tive has much to do with our own per­cep­tion of what we think counts as coun­ter­cul­ture, of what we think counts as inno­va­tion or inter­ven­tion into the estab­lished [sta­tus quo].

So basi­cal­ly what the board on the right rep­re­sents is a kind of inter­ven­tion that hap­pened through prod­uct design. So the shanzhai pro­duc­er, these infor­mal entre­pre­neurs and man­u­fac­tur­ers, were able to inter­vene in estab­lished struc­tures to say, It’s not only Apple that can pro­duce prod­ucts that will be suc­cess­ful in a large-scale mar­ket. We can do the same thing with these small-scale entre­pre­neurs in China who have not real­ly grown in size.”

So, again I want­ed to come back to this image of Shenzhen. So, Shenzhen is today cel­e­brat­ed as the Silicon Valley of hard­ware. And I argue it’s cel­e­brat­ed as such by mag­a­zines like Wired not because it is nec­es­sar­i­ly like Silicon Valley (the one in the United States) but because it’s actu­al­ly in many ways dif­fer­ent and unique. So when peo­ple who are active in the mak­er indus­try, when they go to Shenzhen these days, they don’t go there because it looks like Silicon Valley, or it acts like Silicon Valley. Because then they could just stay in Silicon Valley. They go there because of this unique shanzhai open man­u­fac­tur­ing cul­ture. They go there because they see in shanzhai and in this infor­mal prac­tice a kind of promise to inter­vene in the struc­tures that they find are hard­er to inter­vene in in the United States or in Europe.

So espe­cial­ly what I’ve wit­nessed over the last year is that a lot of European mak­ers, design­ers, and artists, as well as American mak­ers, design­ers, and artists, go to Shenzhen because they see a pos­si­bil­i­ty to inter­vene exact­ly because Shenzhen still con­cen­trates the kind of pro­duc­tion cul­ture, the kind of messy informal/formal kind of design and man­u­fac­tur­ing prac­tices that the West has replaced with the build-up of the knowl­edge and infor­ma­tion econ­o­my. And so they kind of see a promise con­cen­trat­ed in Shenzhen’s abil­i­ty to point to a past that the West so to say has giv­en up.

And so you see this rep­re­sent­ed in artic­u­la­tions like the fol­low­ing. This is a quote from Joi Ito, the Director of the MIT Media Lab. The MIT Media Lab now has a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the city of Shenzhen. So they take their stu­dents to Shenzhen, most­ly the stu­dents in engi­neer­ing, to learn from Shenzhen. And Joi Ito, the Director, went him­self and this is what he said after he returned. He said,

What was hap­pen­ing in Shenzhen…they were not mak­ing PowerPoints or pro­to­types. They were fid­dling with the man­u­fac­tur­ing equip­ment and inno­vat­ing right there, on the fac­to­ry floor… The kids in Shenzhen make new cell­phones like kids in Palo Alto make web­sites. So there is a rain­for­est of inno­va­tion going on. What you thought you could only do with soft­ware, they are doing with hard­ware.
Joi Ito, Want to inno­vate? Become a now-ist”, TED 2014 [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

And a sim­i­lar quote from Dale Dougherty, who is one of the key fig­ures in the Western mak­er move­ment. He start­ed Make Magazine and Maker Media. He was in Shenzhen in 2014 and I inter­viewed him when was there, and he was say­ing the fol­low­ing. He was say­ing, I start­ed Maker Faire in Detroit, and one of the events I did the first year I had mak­ers come up and they’d say, Well, I live in the man­u­fac­tur­ing cap­i­tal of America but I can’t get things made.’ ” So part of this is that American man­u­fac­tur­ing is geared towards large com­pa­nies and for small­er enti­ties it’s much hard­er to get access to them. And then he goes on to explain that Shenzhen is dif­fer­ent. Shenzhen is a place that rep­re­sents where a lot of things get made. So you can still have access to these kinds of infra­struc­tures and pro­duc­tion sites there.

I start­ed Maker Faire in Detroit. One of the events I did the first year had mak­ers com­ing up and they’d say, I live in the man­u­fac­tur­ing cap­i­tal of America, and I can’t get things made.” Part of it is a lot of American man­u­fac­tur­ing is geared towards large com­pa­nies, and so those inter­faces aren’t there for a small com­pa­ny or a small busi­ness. Shenzhen is dif­fer­ent. It rep­re­sents a place where they still make lots of things. That exper­tise is con­cen­trat­ed and detailed there. Not only sourc­ing parts, but peo­ple who know what they’re doing.
Dale Dougherty, Maker Media, April 2014, inter­view with Lindtner [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

And what we see here is that Shenzhen in these artic­u­la­tions of espe­cial­ly Western European and American mak­ers, Shenzhen came to be seen at a moment where peo­ple began to real­ly talk about the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of ear­li­er visions of the infor­ma­tion soci­ety, of the knowl­edge econ­o­my like neolib­er­al gov­ern­ment and pre­car­i­ous work and labor. As peo­ple were talk­ing and cri­tiquing these sys­tems in place, they saw promise in Shenzhen because Shenzhen had­n’t yet turned into the same kind of knowl­edge econ­o­my that they had seen on the rise in the West. So Shenzhen became seen, so to say, as an ide­al lab­o­ra­to­ry to pro­to­type alter­na­tive futures.

And so I just want­ed to return for a moment to where I began my talk. Typically we think about to mak­er move­ment as a very hope­ful kind of prac­tice that inter­venes in exist­ing struc­tures, right? And a lot of that has real­ly in some ways remained an idea and an ide­al that I think many of us sup­port. Many of us do believe in the idea that with open­ing up estab­lished struc­tures and expos­ing how things work from the inside out, we can actu­al­ly change how peo­ple think about the world and how they engage with the world. And basi­cal­ly what hap­pened is a lot of the peo­ple who were dri­ven to do this saw Shenzhen as a place where they could actu­al­ly do that on a larg­er scale.

So rather than doing it in a mak­er­space or in a hack­er space where the inter­ven­tion hap­pened per­haps more on a pro­to­typ­i­cal lev­el or the inter­ven­tion remained with­in the kinds of fair­ly elite prac­tices— You know, if you are in a mak­ers space, most like­ly you have a high­er degree, most like­ly you’re not a fac­to­ry work­er. So the oppor­tu­ni­ty that peo­ple saw in Shenzhen was that it made them direct­ly engage with the kind of fac­to­ry work, with the kind of peo­ple who pro­duce these devices of which we actu­al­ly know very lit­tle of these days. So Shenzhen in that sense came to be seen as a place where espe­cial­ly peo­ple in the West can see a future, can see an alter­na­tive that was much much hard­er to see in estab­lished cen­ters like Silicon Valley, for exam­ple.

And with this I would like to thank you and take any ques­tions from the audi­ence.


Audience 1: Silvia thank you so much for the talk. It’s real­ly great. And I hap­pen to just come back from Shenzhen not long ago, that when you talk about this alter­na­tive future thing that how Shenzhen is ren­dered as a dif­fer­ent image of the dif­fer­ent future, what I’d like to know is is this real­ly the alter­na­tive future? Because what we do know is it’s still based in China. That there is this gov­ern­men­tal kind of inter­fer­ence into the mak­er scene now, ever since Li Keqiang the Prime Minister has vis­it­ed the mak­er­spaces and made this a kind of agen­da of China ever since 2014. Do you think this would actu­al­ly change the fla­vor of Shenzhen from this point onwards? And is this real­ly the alter­na­tive future or, also I guess where is the future [?] for Shenzhen specif­i­cal­ly?

Silvia Lindtner: So that’s a great ques­tion. So what Ding is refer­ring to is that just as the Obama admin­is­tra­tion was very very sup­port­ive of mak­ing, and the European Union also has sup­port­ed maker-related Internet of Things prac­tices, the Chinese gov­ern­ment has become real­ly excit­ed about mak­ing and has endorsed offi­cial­ly mak­ing as part of a new pol­i­cy called, loose­ly trans­lat­ed into English, mass mak­ing, mass inno­va­tion.” And the idea behind that is that mak­ing will enable cit­i­zens to become entre­pre­neur­ial. So cit­i­zens will be empow­ered to start their own busi­ness­es. So it’s a very sim­i­lar kind of vision to what we see in the United States of what gets politi­cians excit­ed about mak­ing.

So Ding’s ques­tion’s about does this kind of polit­i­cal endorse­ment of mak­ing change the very fla­vor of mak­ing? And in some ways it does. What I found fas­ci­nat­ing to see in China is that from its incep­tion the mak­er move­ment was very much so invest­ed in inter­ven­ing from with­in. So a lot of the peo­ple who start­ed China’s first mak­er­spaces began actu­al­ly work­ing with pol­i­cy­mak­ers, began talk­ing to politi­cians. And this is a strat­e­gy and tac­tic that you see often in China, where polit­i­cal protest and resis­tance often comes in the nature of a more par­a­sitic kind of engage­ment where peo­ple are rather than out­right oppos­ing the sys­tem, because that’s real­ly hard to do, they inter­vene from with­in and inter­vene from with­in these estab­lished struc­tures.

And so actu­al­ly the kinds of terms that the Chinese gov­ern­ment is using today for mak­ing, the Chinese terms were actu­al­ly invent­ed by the mak­ers them­selves. So you see this real­ly inter­est­ing sym­bi­ot­ic, par­a­sitic rela­tion­ship between cit­i­zen and gov­ern­ment. And Shenzhen again is an inter­est­ing exam­ple here. Because Shenzhen as I men­tioned in the begin­ning was real­ly an exper­i­ment, right, where the gov­ern­ment on the one hand declared top-down that this region should be the place where China’s mod­ern­iza­tion project has been imple­ment­ed.

And then there was a lot of top-down urban plan­ning that hap­pened lat­er, but at the same time because Shenzhen is far from Beijing, it’s far from the polit­i­cal cen­ter so to say. So Shenzhen was always also at the same time allowed to devel­op its own infor­mal prac­tice. So you see a kind of illic­it exper­i­men­ta­tion hap­pen­ing in Shenzhen. A kind of for­mal cul­ture and infor­mal cul­ture mix so there’s this con­stant dance between con­trol and grass­roots activ­i­ty, and that exists in Shenzhen until today. And this is the very rea­son I would argue why so many Western mak­ers and hack­ers find it so intrigu­ing, because it’s this con­stant play and exper­i­men­ta­tion in between offi­cial and infor­mal cul­ture.

Audience 2: So in the mak­er move­ment there are plat­forms that mak­ers use to share files, share infor­ma­tion, Github, Thingiverse… Can you com­ment at all on what the shanzhai— What are the mechan­ics of how the shanzhai com­mu­ni­ty exchanges infor­ma­tion?

Lindtner: Sure, yeah. That’s great ques­tions. The kinds of shar­ing prac­tice that are cen­tral to shanzhai work through a…I would say very infor­mal net­work that com­pris­es a mix of both tra­di­tion­al forms of networking—so peo­ple going out for din­ners, drinking…but also the usage of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies. So there’s a very well-known I would argue, but not well-known in the West, social media app called WeChat that real­ly shapes inter­ac­tion and also busi­ness cul­ture in China these days. So, WeChat is actu­al­ly one of these plat­forms where peo­ple share in many ways sim­i­lar­ly to how we would share in the West as well when we col­lab­o­rate with one anoth­er. So there’s a lot of file shar­ing and knowl­edge shar­ing that hap­pens both offline in these sort of very infor­mal gath­er­ings as well as through the WeChat app.

And then there’s plat­forms like Taobao and Alibaba that sup­port the kind of trade rela­tion­ships that basi­cal­ly make shanzhai cul­ture hap­pen. So you can think of this as small-scale entre­pre­neur­ship that basi­cal­ly exists online and through which peo­ple infor­mal­ly con­nect as well. Is there a follow-up ques­tion?

Audience 2: Yeah. It’s just inter­est­ing that you say that because WeChat, if I under­stand cor­rect­ly, is more of an exclu­sive plat­form; you have to be opt­ed into that, right? So you’d have to be includ­ed, where­as any­body can log onto Github and down­load some­thing. So is that the stan­dard, you have to know some­one to get into—

Lindtner: Yeah. It basi­cal­ly goes through your social net­works, you have to know some­body— There are oth­er mech­a­nisms in WeChat to broad­cast. So there is some real­ly inter­est­ing exper­i­men­ta­tion hap­pen­ing with sort of microblog­ging and writ­ing that you can actu­al­ly send out again, but through your net­work but that pro­lif­er­ates very quick­ly.

Audience 3: Thank you very much for a very inter­est­ing talk. I once heard the for­mer chief econ­o­mist of the World Bank Justin Lin speak about Shenzhen. And in his opin­ion it had kind of grown beyond its own— It suc­ceed­ed so much that it was sort of going to— It could­n’t car­ry on because the cost of real estate is so high and so on. And in his talk he was say­ing that he antic­i­pates that a lot of the com­pa­nies that are there are going to have to move out to new mar­kets and so on. And he thinks Africa might be a very good place for some of those com­pa­nies to go. Could you com­ment on this, and do you see this hap­pen­ing?

Lindtner: Yeah. So thank you for that ques­tion. So the ques­tion of how Shenzhen part­ners with Africa is a real­ly inter­est­ing one. You might have heard the Chinese gov­ern­ment has a new pol­i­cy called One Belt One Road which is basi­cal­ly an expan­sion of the Silk Road that takes you all the way to Africa. And in part, this is an expan­sion of infra­struc­tur­al build­ing expand­ing China’s capac­i­ty to build roads and infra­struc­tures and cities.

But while this is kind of top-down, at the same time what I’ve seen emerge in Shenzhen over sev­er­al years now are part­ner­ships that hap­pen more on the entre­pre­neur lev­el where for exam­ple some peo­ple in man­u­fac­tur­ing who I’ve fol­lowed for many years are now part­ner­ing with peo­ple in Ethiopia to set up man­u­fac­tur­ing sites there. So this is hap­pen­ing real­ly on the grass­roots kind of lev­el where indi­vid­u­als are strug­gling with some of the eco­nom­ic changes in China and are sort of seek­ing new mar­kets. And this is large­ly hap­pen­ing through part­ner­ships between entre­pre­neurs.

So these are not the kind of entre­pre­neurs that usu­al­ly are the kind of Silicon Valley, ven­ture capitalist-funded kind of ven­tures. But these are entre­pre­neurs who work through get­ting loans from the bank and these kind of infor­mal entre­pre­neur­ship net­works where peo­ple meet up for drinks and so on. And that’s now hap­pen­ing increas­ing­ly so inter­cul­tur­al­ly, and so I antic­i­pate there will be way more hap­pen­ing in these kinds of trans-regional net­works between Africa and the south of China.

Audience 4: Great talk, thanks for that. You said that the com­pa­nies kind of open­ly share the designs for the devices. Is there any legal frame­work for that, or do they do that lib­er­al­ly?

Lindtner: So as I said, these shar­ing prac­tices are com­ing out of real­ly infor­mal econ­o­my prac­tices. So there is in that sense no legal struc­ture around that. So I would say in many ways this unfolds through a kind of gray you know, half-legal, some of it is legal, but not all of it, a kind of gray zone of exper­i­men­ta­tion which allows actu­al­ly a lot of this tin­ker­ing on a mass scale to hap­pen.

And so again, a lot of the peo­ple who are com­mit­ted to open source shar­ing and rethink­ing the kind of legal struc­tures that are in place that usu­al­ly pro­tect the large cor­po­ra­tions, they are drawn to that because they’re say­ing okay, this is a kind of mod­el that could per­haps also lead or pro­vide insights for the kind of open shar­ing prac­tices we do else­where. But yeah, there’s no for­mal­ized struc­ture on it, which is exact­ly what allows it to hap­pen, basi­cal­ly.

Audience 5: Thanks for your talk. It was very infor­ma­tive. I would like your opin­ion about how do you view these devel­op­ments in Shenzhen? Do you think the peo­ple that let’s say will ulti­mate­ly ben­e­fit a lot? Because right now we see these hor­ri­ble work­ing con­di­tions and that. Do you think this mak­er move­ment will change that for the bet­ter?

Lindtner: So for that we real­ly have to see what has already hap­pened in Shenzhen over the last twen­ty years. I would say now there’s a lot of atten­tion towards Shenzhen as this kind of new place. But I think the biggest trans­for­ma­tion that’s hap­pened in Shenzhen real­ly was sort of in the 2000s, you know, espe­cial­ly when there was a lot of oppor­tu­ni­ty in man­u­fac­tur­ing, a lot of migrant work­ers, and peo­ple real­ly com­ing to Shenzhen to make them­selves, to make a bet­ter liv­ing for them­selves, and for their fam­i­lies back home. And that was always some­thing that was­n’t avail­able for every­one. And there’s a gen­dered aspects to that as well. It was also very often avail­able for young men who tried to remake them­selves.

So I think when we look at Shenzhen today there’s this real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing blend hap­pen­ing of a younger gen­er­a­tion who grew up in Shenzhen. So there’s now a first gen­er­a­tion of Shenzheners, right, of peo­ple who real­ly sort of iden­ti­fy with the city. And there’s a lot of wealth that grew over the years in that city. So I think we will see the con­tin­u­a­tion of both hap­pen­ing. There will be more oppor­tu­ni­ties. There will be the con­tin­u­ous prob­lem, as much as it is in the West, of who gets these oppor­tu­ni­ties. Like whose inno­va­tion is this, in many ways. Who real­ly has access to these struc­tures.

And so I think it will be a con­tin­ues kind of strug­gle, espe­cial­ly for peo­ple who aren’t espe­cial­ly by the Chinese gov­ern­ment con­sid­ered these kinds of entre­pre­neur­ial cit­i­zens that they now want to real­ly pro­lif­er­ate across the coun­try.

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