Mass Making in China: Cultivating an Entrepreneurial Mindset

OR: “The opportunity of the majority to realize a life-long dream”
 –Wan Gang 万钢, Minister of Science and Technology, PRC, Oct 27, 2015

by Silvia Lindtner

October 27-28, 2015, Shanghai held its 8th Pujiang Innovation Forum 浦江创新论坛, focused on “communicating innovation strategies” and a global perspective on innovation in China today. Jeff Ding 丁峻峰 from Tongji University 同济大学 invited me to participate as a speaker in one of the Forum’s sessions on 创客和社会革新 (maker and social innovation/social impact) and talk about the diverse cultures of making and open manufacturing I have been studying in China since 2010 (click here for more info about my research). Some of the other invited speakers were people, from both China and abroad, who had been instrumental to what is now often characterized as “the global maker movement:” David Li, Mitch Altman, Thomas Diez, John Klein, Memet Unsal, Hyun Park, Chen Zhengxiang, Fiona Ching, Ricky Ye, Leo Lee, Justin Wang, and Guo Qiang. This was the first time a “maker perspective” was included in the Pujiang Innovation Forum, as such constituting a unique moment to witness how policy makers, government officials, educators, individual makers and entrepreneurs come together today to discuss how they envision innovation, entrepreneurship and making in and beyond China.

While the Forum has been held in Shanghai since 2008, its topic has only this year become a central concern to other local governments all over China; in January 2015, prime minister Li Keqiang 李克强 visited a local maker space Chaihuo 柴火 in Shenzhen, in the South of China. At Chaihuo, the premier met some of China’s makers, who had turned their experiments with open source hardware and DIY maker tools into productive businesses and flourishing companies by partnering with Shenzhen’s unique open manufacturing ecosystem (see more of my writing on this topic here and here). Soon after his visit with makers in China’s manufacturing capital, Li Keqiang announced a new national initiative called “mass makerspace” 众创空间, followed by a series of policies entitled大众创业 and万众创新, which translate loosely into mass innovation and mass entrepreneurship. The underlying vision – as articulated in numerous government speeches, texts and also at the Pujiang Innovation Forum – is that entrepreneurship will help democratize innovation, technology and scientific advances beyond a set of privileged few – the “mass” in mass innovation and mass entrepreneurship, in other words, stands for the goal to cultivate a broader mindset of entrepreneurship and mobilize many – if not masses of – people in China to start-up their own businesses.

Making and open source hardware tinkering are considered one of the key mechanism to help cultivate this new attitude of what the brochure of the Innovation Forum called “self making” and “self entrepreneurship.” In his opening speech at the Forum, Wan Gan 万钢, Minister of Science and Technology, described this as:

“This is part of the new normal; we need to better transfer academic research into commercial products; science should serve our economy. And we need to better promote the great scientific achievements of China and let them be known all over the world… we have a new technology revolution, which will help restructure old patterns… open source and open hardware can help realize this innovation strategy. We encourage crowdsourcing and mass entrepreneurship in society so that resources are better distributed… It’s the opportunity of the majority, rather than just the privilege of the few, to realize a life long dream.”

The Chinese term for maker 创客is not an invention by the government, but was coined by China’s makers themselves, when back in 2012 they organized China’s first international maker event: the Maker Carnival. They chose the term to distinguish their work from the more negative 黑客 or hacker – 创客 has the benefit to connote related words such as 创新 (innovation), 创业 (start-up a business), and 创意 (creativity). The character 创 features in all of these words and so the meaning of 创客 itself is flexible and can be used in a variety of ways.

Since the announcement of China’s mass makerspace initiative, funding has been made available to local governments across regions to set up makerspaces, incubators, and fablabs. Middle and high schools, universities, but also companies and somewhat ironically factories have opened up such new spaces. The goal is not only to train the next generation of entrepreneurs, but also upgrade traditional manufacturing and industrial production companies through digital technology, innovative thinking and automation, which is more widely known as the “InternetPlus” 互联网+or “Industry 4.0” initiative, that has also rolled out in Europe. What the Forum brought home was how making in China currently functions as a strategy to both upgrade old industries and cultivate a mindset of entrepreneurship. This move does not come from nowhere. Media coverage on China over the last months, especially in the US, has heavily centered on shifts in the Chinese economy, with its rapid growth slowing and previous pillars of the economy such as construction and manufacturing responding accordingly. The cultivation of an entrepreneur mindset is seen as a central strategy to address these shifts in the economy. In particular, the government fears high unemployment rates (especially amongst college graduates) and social instability. The excitement that making has generated in China is envisioned to be productively morphed into alternative occupations for the passionate and self-driven members of Chinese society, as was addressed in numerous talks at the Pujiang Innovation Forum.

The big unanswered question that was haunting the grand conference halls with their dark wooden panels and golden ornaments was who will in practice benefit from the considerable amount of resources currently distributed in order to enable this mass maker entrepreneurship. In many ways, the opening up of makerspaces all over the country and the upgrading of old industries reminds considerably of a policy initiative that was similarly aimed at transcending China’s reliance on manufacturing and transform the country from “made in” to “created in:” China’s creative industry policy, which since China’s entry into the WTO 2001 has concrete material manifestations such as the urban redesign, most prominent in Shanghai, of old factories and industrial buildings into creative industry parks, trendy design and art boutiques and galleries. To which degree, I kept wondering, is the recent mass makerspace initiative just a new, fresher name for China’s creative industry initiatives that did not lead to the economic success envisioned by its policy makers? Is the build-up of maker spaces all over China at risk to just become one of China’s many urban construction projects that benefit the already wealthy?

One of the big complaints about the creative industry clusters was that, while aimed at boosting creativity, many of the artists, freelancers, and entrepreneurs who would have greatly benefit could not afford the high rent the creative industry parks ended up charging. When the government talked about creativity back then, it mostly referred to established firms including for instance international corporations, film and animation studies, and architecture firms – which were the ones that ended up occupying most of the creative industry clusters in Shanghai, for instance. Those starting out their own ventures were rarely supported. This appears to be different now: the government specifically emphasizes the importance to move beyond supporting the selected few on the top. And yet, in its implementation, we see very little change. Who is considered a maker and innovator remains limited in ways similar to how creativity was construed back at the turn of the century: While makers from all over the world travel to China to learn from China’s expert makers in factories, street shops and electronic markets, the official rhetoric – even when it comes to making – portrays China as “lagging  behind the US.”  China looks – once again – towards the West as a model (and the US in particular), with making being understood through the lens of venture capital, Silicon Valley start-up culture, and MIT Media Lab Fablabs. Just as the creative industry policies back at the turn of the century, the mass makerspace initiative today runs risk to dismiss alternative forms of making and entrepreneurship cultures that are visible in China today: the workers, engineers and designers in China’s manufacturing businesses, the small craftsman and repair workshops that still make up much of China’s urban fabric are in the eyes of China’s decision makers rarely synonym with the kind of making and entrepreneurship culture they now endorse.

Leo Lee, from Southwest Jiaotong University and a makerspace in Chengdu, in his speech at the Forum, crystallized this for me, when he said: “In China, we are not in shortage of makers. Actually we have makers all around us, the makers who build our infrastructures, who repair our phones, and build our homes. China has so many makers, we just don’t have a mechanism to identify them. We don’t see them.”