Design and Making in China

What role do makerspaces play in China? How do they relate to the vast making ecosystem of Shenzhen, China’s famous manufacturing city? Why does China need makerspaces at all when making is a ‘national specialism’ and so embedded in both the culture and economy? These were among questions considered at a salon titled ‘On Design and Making in China’ held at the ICA, in London, on 22.4.16

The conversation was moderated by Professor Guy Julier. Distinguished panelists included David Li, a leading voice in the maker movement in China, Lit Liao the founder of Litchee Lab, one of the most international makerspaces in Shenzhen, as well as Tom Saunders a Senior Researcher at Nesta and  Zara Arshad, the founder-editor of the Design China blog.

Guy Julier opened the session by conveying a vivid sense of the overwhelming scale of making activity in China and the pace of change. He reported that China is currently producing the staggering number of 300,000 design graduates per year and that the number of HE institutions has more than doubled in the 10 years to 2010.

Tom Saunders, in describing the findings from the recent Nesta report titled: ‘Made in China: makerspaces and the search for mass innovation’ explained that the desire for makerspaces is part of a vision for the economy that includes encouraging entrepreneurship within co-working spaces. Government interest and support for makerspaces is driven by a search for innovation-led development. More generally, makerspaces are viewed as places that can spark creativity and encourage playful innovation with technology, as well as meeting a growing middle class need for recreational facilities.

The Nesta research identified five types of makerspace: community makerspaces, government-backed hardware incubators, kids education clubs in schools, university labs that promote open access for students (mainly aimed at encouraging hardware startups), and makerspaces within companies.

David Li described the Shenzhen making ecosystem of as one that worked on the values of an open culture, rapid sharing and digital fabrication. This was contrasted to a proprietary IP-driven model of design culture

It was suggested that designers in the West should use Shenzhen as a making resource and that in some respects - for example, the emphasis on openness, agility, access and collaboration – Shenzhen was a global model for makerspaces. However, industrial designers in China have little time to consider critical theory, expand brands or develop a fan-base for products.

Lit Liao explained how the Litchee Lab worked in part with schools and families, and said that many families still wanted their children to acquire craft skills. She described the text-book heavy education system where students are required to work long days. This has long been seen by commentators as a key reason creativity can become stifled. David Li added that social pressures to settle down early prevented young Chinese designers from experimenting in their 20s. When these pressures were lifted, however, creativity flourished.  Li Liao saw a future role for makerspaces in civic innovation, working with the community on local issues.

Among the issues raised by the audience were questions about the gender balance in makerspaces, the role of craft, and the market for luxury goods in China.

More details of the event are available from the ICA website.  The event was organised as part of China's Creative Communities: Making Value and the Value(s) of Making an AHRC/Newton Fund research project led by Kingston University, Falmouth University and the University of Brighton. Picture source: the Litchee Lab page of the project.

The Nesta report Made in China can be downloaded from the Nesta publications webpage.