In 2010, China’s first makerspace, XinCheJian (which means “new workshop”), opened its doors in Shanghai. A year later, the Shanghai Science and Technology Commission proposed the Chinese Makerspace Initiative, where the government would fund the building of 100 “Innovation Houses,” each at least roughly 328 square feet and equipped with lathes, saws, drills, milling machines, and other tools.
These spaces were to be open at least 200 days a year and be free for the public to use. That same year, Phil Torrone wrote this great piece on Make: titled “Why Every Maker Should Learn Chinese.” By 2012, 45 government-sponsored makerspaces had opened their doors in Shanghai and more were in the works.
Nearly a thousand miles up the coast, in Shenzhen, China’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ), Eric Pan, founder of hardware innovation platform Seeed Studios, opened the first makerspace in Shenzhen: ChaiHou. Pan had travelled to three Maker Faires in the U.S. and recalled the enthusiasm he felt at the opportunity to connect with other Makers and see creativity showcased. He met with the Maker Faire team at World Maker Faire New York 2011 about organizing China’s first Faire in Shenzhen.
In 2012, he and co-organizer Kevin Lau did just that. They had about 50 Maker exhibits and drew 3,000 attendees. Word traveled at lightening speed and by 2014, they had more than 120 Maker exhibits and attracted 30,000 fairgoers. For the fourth annual Maker Faire Shenzhen, taking place this weekend (June 19–21), they’ve organized 228 exhibits and are estimating 50,000 friends will be joining them. They’ve even extended the Faire to three days this year, adding an Education Day on Friday.
Seems only natural. After all, in Maker circles the world over, Shenzhen has become known as a “Shangri-La for hardware startups,” as Gareth Branwyn wrote in a recent issue of Make: “Shenzhen is a relatively new Chinese city purpose-built to cater to electronics manufacturing. If you’re serious about taking any type of consumer electronics product to market — robots, microcontroller-based projects, mobile phones, laptops, internet appliances, 3D printers, etc. — there is only one city where you need to be, and that’s Shenzhen.”
According to Pan and Lau, there are currently about 10 makerspaces in Shenzhen and at least 10 school-based makerspaces in the works. “Shenzhen is a city-sized TechShop. CNC mills and laser cutters are so easy to find,” says Lau. The city has even declared June 18–22 as Maker Week, with a host of Maker-friendly events taking place in various locations, as well as competitions where teams have 48 hours to prototype new products. Lau adds:
It’s really great that the government supports the Maker Movement. In 2012, when we were organizing the first Maker Faire Shenzhen, we ran into a lot of issues because they couldn’t understand what a Maker Faire or the Maker Movement is. And now it’s become much easier to get permits for the venue and get support regarding logistics. The process of evaluation is also shorter. The Chinese Makerspace Initiative is encouraging local governments and citizens to build makerspaces, to dare step into the world of startups. Some local governments are also providing economical or infrastructure support for makerspaces.
As for how being a Special Economic Zone affects Shenzhen, Lau says, “The SEZ provides both the citizens and the government with an open attitude towards new things. They can embrace Maker culture in an open manner. As a SEZ, Shenzhen also enjoys a lot of benefits like easy access to overseas Makers and interaction with the overseas community.”
Amid the growing support for Makers, what effect has hosting the Faire had on the Shenzhen community? Lau says:
Maker Faire Shenzhen has been the most important Maker event in Shenzhen, as well as China, providing a platform for Makers to showcase their creativity and communicate with one another. Through the Faire, we’ve introduce local resources to international Makers, as well as spread Maker culture on a wider scale in China. Some schools, including Shenzhen America International School, have built makerspaces in their schools after participating in workshops at Maker Faire Shenzhen. The Shenzhen government declared Shenzhen International Maker Week after the mayor of Shenzhen saw a video from Maker Faire Shenzhen 2014. So it affects the government supporting the Maker community.
Maker Faire Shenzhen has a very international attendance and has almost become a tourist destination. Lau explains:
Many people have heard of Shenzhen and would like to explore this “village turned mega-city” to find resources and possibilities for turning their ideas into reality. Organizing a Maker Faire in Shenzhen provides them with an opportunity to know about this city and get the chance to visit makerspaces and Maker companies and factories, as well as meet potential partners during their visit to Shenzhen. The percentage of international attendees at each of our Faires in the past years has been almost 40%. The main affect is that the promotional materials (poster/brochure/guide) have to be both in Chinese and English, and the forum needs to be equipped with simultaneous interpretation to ensure that our participants, as well as our visitors, understand.
With 228 Maker exhibits lined up, there will no doubt be something for everyone. Here are just three highlights to whet your appetite.