At Nanjing Makerspace on the east coast of China, large crates arrive each week, containing fridge-freezers and other white goods, solar panels and, on our visit, a bathtub. These may not be the kind of things you’d expect to see at a makerspace – open workshops providing access to a range of tools and resources for making physical objects. You’d more likely expect Arduinos, 3D printers and maybe a hacksaw (though they’re here too). But these and other everyday consumer products are sent to Nanjing Makerspace by some of China’s top manufacturers, in the hope that Nanjing’s young makers – typically amateur tinkerers – might be able to improve on their designs or solve a problem that’s vexing these companies’ own in-house R&D teams.
The ‘smart ball’ used in Haier’s latest washing machines is one example. At a recent hackathon (an event where people collaborate and compete on hardware challenges) organised at Nanjing Makerspace by Haier, one of the world’s largest white goods manufacturers, one member came up with the idea of placing absorbent balls between the inner and outer drum of the washing machine, to keep it clean and so extend its lifespan. Haier went on to commercialise the idea, compensating the inventor for his work.
What’s going on here is part of an exciting new chapter in the story of how things are made in China. The country remains the global headquarters for making things; whether it’s smartphones or air conditioners, a staggering proportion of the things we use every day are manufactured in the country. But as China’s manufacturing sector matures and the economy grows, companies are beginning to move their factories abroad to take advantage of cheaper wages. As a result, the way that China makes things has to change – from low-cost components, assembly and labour-intensive processes associated with an often pejorative ‘Made in China’ label, to higher-value, innovation-led activities that could see the label develop into a mark of quality.
Against this background, makerspaces - open workshops that provide access to a range of tools and resources for making physical objects - have spread rapidly across China in the last five years. For many, they signal a new age of grassroots innovation and promise to revolutionise ailing economic and educational systems.
The excitement around China’s makerspaces reached a peak in early 2015 when China’s Premier Li Keqiang visited Chaihuo makerspace in Shenzhen and spoke of the significance of the country’s burgeoning ‘maker movement’. Since then many local governments, companies and schools across China have sprung into action, capitalising on central government interest and committing to opening makerspaces.
Much has been written about the potential of China’s makerspaces, and many claim that they have a lot to teach their foreign counterparts – yet they are still little understood outside the country. From basic questions, such as how many makerspaces are there in the country and who uses them, to questions about business models, relationships with businesses and universities, and how and why they differ from their counterparts abroad, remain so far unanswered.
To answer these questions, Nesta and its partners – the British Council and Hacked Matter – came together to carry out the first systematic survey of China’s makerspaces. Our new report – ‘Made in China’ – analyses the prospects and dilemmas of China’s makerspaces. It is aimed at those within China, as well as makerspaces around the world, and those who wish to understand how they can better support them.
Building on Nesta’s 2015 survey of UK makerspaces, we surveyed almost 100 makerspaces in China and the resulting dataset represents the most comprehensive picture of China’s makerspaces to date. We visited makerspaces across China, interviewed their founders and makers, and held two expert workshops, in London and in Shenzhen. The resulting dataset and report represents the most comprehensive picture of China’s makerspaces to date.
A changing economy means the way that China makes things has to change – from low-cost, labour-intensive manufacturing to innovation and design-led production. For companies, makerspaces have the potential to release the creative energy of their employees.
A search for innovation-led development is key to the Chinese government’s interest in makerspaces. No longer satisfied with ‘made in China, designed elsewhere’, the government hopes that makerspaces can help foster grassroots innovation and entrepreneurship.
Makerspaces represent a desire for radical reform of the education system. An innovation-led economy requires more creativity and problem-solving skills. For schools and universities, makerspaces represent a way to bring creativity and hands-on, project-based learning into China’s education system.
China’s urban middle class are looking to reconnect with craft, just like their western peers. While manufacturing is still a major part of the Chinese economy, millions of young Chinese graduates will never need to work with their hands. For them, makerspaces reflect a desire to be creative and make physical objects.
China’s makerspaces face a range of challenges. Half of the makerspaces surveyed highlighted funding as an issue, and maintaining membership was a major concern for many spaces. Many makerspace founders lament that few people in China understand maker culture, making it difficult to recruit people interested in making. Another challenge is in skilling up: new members rarely have the skills to use the tools in makerspaces, so makerspaces have to spend time and resources training them.
Theses findings are based on our report Made in China: makerspaces and the search for mass innovation. The report was produced in partnership with the British Council.
Photo credit: Mitch Altman. Licence CC BY SA 2.0