“Hackerspaces are really taking off in China”, writes Mitch Altman. The co-founder of Noisebridge hackerspace in San Francisco, has been travelling there for more than a decade, organizing Hacker Trips to visit universities, manufacturers and new hackerspaces. Makery asked him to deliver his point of view on the emerging hacker/maker scene in China.
Text and photos Mitch Altman
Big news!: in January the Chinese Premier, the head of government of the entire country, made a big show of visiting a popular Chinese hackerspace in Shenzhen, a big city in the south, and the largest electronics manufacturing center. He used his visit to stress the role of innovation in the development of the Chinese economy. Hackerspaces are really taking off in China!
Though unprecedented in Chinese history, this has been a long time coming.
Since my first trip to there in 1998, when the social and political environment was quite closed, I’ve seen China opening way up, and heading in positive directions, economically and socially.
Because China has resources galore for manufacturing and creating just about anything, I chose to manufacture my product, TV‐B‐Gone universal remote controls (a simple keychain that turns off TVs in public places) there. I chose a place that treats their employees well, pays them well, provides good quality, and gives me a price that makes my product viable. I’ve visited my manufacturer every year since 2003, and each time travel around, meeting people.
These annual visits have given me unique opportunities for creating personal annual snapshots of how China has been changing. As co‐founder of Noisebridge hackerspace in San Francisco, these trips also gave me the opportunity to talk to many people about hackerspaces and their benefits. China needs hackerspaces! And is ready for them. To show what China has to offer, in 2009 I began bringing a group of ten hackers from around the world with me on my annual trips. For my first two Hacker Trips to China, we visited my manufacturer and other manufacturers. There were no hackerspaces then. But, everywhere we went, we got shown around by local geeks. And, of course, we talked to everyone about hackerspaces, some of whom started them!
In 2011 we also visited the first hackerspace in China, XinCheJian in Shanghai, and Beijing Makerspace. We also visited the first open hardware company: Seeed Studio. Everywhere we gave talks and workshops. I continued to talk about the need for hackerspaces, with their supportive communities. I talked about the need for education. I talked about the need to explore and do what you love, rather than just do what you think you’re supposed to do, or just do things merely to make money. The more talks I gave, the more talks I was invited to give. I met educators. I met education bureaucrats. I met other bureaucrats. For the first time in Chinese history the time was ripe for bureaucrats to experiment.
China has a millennia long history of conformity. Centuries of Confucianism solidified aspects of obligation and conformity. In more modern times, the Cultural Revolution destroyed any possibility of creative exploration for generations. After those economically disastrous and creatively empty decades, the economic openings that followed filled much of the vacuum with the capitalism and consumerism. Some aspects of the slow healing from the Cultural Revolution started to become apparent in 2010, after the influx of people from the Olympics. Citizens were more open in conversation. People were talking candidly about the pluses and minuses of their society. People were talking openly about politics. There were openings for experimentation by bureaucrats, with encouragement from above through silence (rather than being fired, or worse, as would have been the case in the not‐too‐distant‐past). Some of the experimenting bureaucrats get promoted. Other aspects of culture began to flourish. The economy grew. More people had opportunities.
Some aspects of innovation and creativity require ways of seeing and being that can be challenging under some features of traditional Chinese culture. There is a fear of experimenting, since failing at something is considered “losing face”.
In the past couple of years, bureaucrats up the pyramid have been taking notice as experiments in supporting hackerspaces in China and elsewhere have been shown to be effective for education and economy.
China needs to encourage people to explore and create, to innovate, to try things, to see what works, and what doesn’t –to come up with goods and services that are perfect for China. And hackerspaces are perfect for this.
Tsinghua University, considered one of the most prestigious in China, is now building a 16,000 square meter building that will become the biggest hackerspace in the world. It will be used as a center of curriculum for all students at the university. Due to the prestige of Tsinghua, the president of Tsinghua hopes this will spread. To help celebrate the creativity and innovation that hackerspaces have to offer, Tsinghua created the annual Tsinghua Maker’s Day, the first of which was last year.
I was invited to meet with the president of Tianjin College of Mechanics and Electricity. They are also creating hackerspaces as a center of their curriculum. Other universities and schools are following.
Many small businesses have grown from hackerspaces. This is why local economy is often kickstarted through hackerspaces. For these reasons and more, the government in China is keen on helping create more hackerspaces.
As hardware startups continue to grow and proliferate everywhere in the world, hardware startup companies are seeing the benefit of utilizing what China has to offer. HAXL8R, for which I’m a mentor, is the first hardware accelerator to encourage international entrepreneurs to come to China. As well as help these peoples’ startups become established, the hope is also that outside creative influences will be contagious for people in China. It is working well, as there have been Chinese companies, such as Makeblock, that have grown out of HAXLR8R.
Larger industry is also jumping on this bandwagon, and pushing it forward. In November 2014, the group of hackers I organized to travel in China were invited to 3nod, a large Chinese consumer electronics company. We met in the CEO’s office, and discussed how 3nod could create a hackerspace in his company. He wants this hackerspace to be a resource for all of Shenzhen.
Things in China are moving fast!
While visiting Chaihuo hackerspace earlier this year, Premier Li Keqiang pledged to “establish a new platform for innovation and cultivate a ‘maker culture’ in the country.” This was big news on all major media all over China. And now it seems that all Chinese bureaucrats feel they need to jump on the hackerspace bandwagon.
China is a top‐down culture. To create change, bureaucrats at the top are wanting to push change from the top‐down to encourage creativity, innovation, community, and entrepreneurship from the bottom‐up. By providing a few resources from the top‐down, people who want hackerspaces can create hackerspaces, from the bottom‐up, that will be fantastic, unique, communities. This works so well, for so many, for so little money!
This will help education. This will help encourage creativity and innovation. This will help individuals. This will be good for the local economies, and Chinese economy as a whole. And, since China is a seventh of the world’s population, I am hoping this will be good for the world –especially, since other places around the world will see these successes, the rest of the world will follow China’s example.