British Council Creative Economy

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17 March 2017

Guest blog: Exploring the ecosystem of Shenzhen’s urban villages

Katrine Hesseldahl and Victor Strimfors are half-way through their residency with Future+ as part of Hello Shenzhen. Below they're sharing some of their experiences of exploring the urban villages within Shenzhen.

In the past week we have been spending a lot of time exploring “Sha Wei”, one of the many urban villages in Shenzhen located in the southern part of the city. We chose this area because we wanted to start manufacturing a sofa we are working on, and this urban village is known specifically for the scale of manufacturing that happens there.

Manufacturing workers on the street in Sha Wei

The sofa is our “vehicle of thought” for testing our developed logic for how products could be perceived, designed and even owned. In this project we aim to design with the different life expectancies/ paces of the different parts of products in mind. The logic is based on the theory of “pace layers” originally by Steward Brand. We are interested in exploring how the “recipe” or “protocol” of our designed product works and is interpreted in different contexts of manufacturing. Sha Wei is a unique urban village in a unique city, and it will be interesting to see what a product created super locally, with only materials, skills and machines found within Sha Wei, will look like. A big part of this residency, besides developing our design through “Shenzhen speed”-prototyping, is the case study of this particular type of production. With this, our project becomes about designing interventions rather than just a specific object. 

Making and manufacturing happens everywhere you look in Sha Wei: In the middle of the pavement a guy is welding a big metal structure (wearing thin rubber shoes and an A4 piece of paper shoved under his glasses for protection), another guy is hammering at a wooden cabinet, and yet another is working at a computerised CNC machine inside the shop next door.

Alternative safety gear: A guy wearing A4 paper and glasses for protection during welding

High-tech fabrication: computer controlled CNC machines in a workshop in Sha Wei

Within the same square kilometre, we manged to find all materials and manufacturing we plan on using. The different material suppliers and workshops are conveniently placed close together. If the first guy we ask does not have what we need his neighbour surely does, otherwise he will ask his friends on WeChat. It is a wonderful feeling ordering 8 meters of steel tube for under 10 pounds, having it cut on the spot and then taking it, literally, next door to have a group of welders take over the work of producing the joints. This whole process is made possible by our Chinese helpers Adeline and Felix, the 3d drawings we sent earlier on WeChat - viewed on smartphones, some quick scribbled sketches and various translation apps. With this mix of primitive hand-craft solutions and high-tech computerised production methods, it will be interesting to see what Sha Wei’s manufacturing system will look like in the future, as technology becomes increasingly advanced and available.