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18 October 2015

Justin #LivingTheResearch: Week 1

Dr. Justin Marshall presents his key findings from week one of 'Living Research: Making in China'.

I have seen so many things and places during our first week and my thoughts have yet to settle. I certainly have not got a real sense of what defines the Maker movement in China or seen all I can of the open work spaces and closed businesses that all are claiming the fashionable mantle of ‘makerspace’. It is clearly a term that will at some point soon be contested or settle on a much broader definition in China than it currently holds in Europe and the US. 

Beyond our organised visits as a group, we have taken an open and broad approach to trying to uncover making in Shenzhen and have sought to scratch the surface of the context in which the Maker movement sits. There have been two visits that have stood out for me; visiting two of the many Urban Villages that are situated within the heart of the city, and our time at Rone Design Studios.  Neither of these fitted into my preconceived idea of what might be relevant to thinking about makerspaces and Maker communities, but both were fascinating and exciting in their own way.

The possible role of makerspaces in growing neighbourhood resilience

Urban Villages are owned by the original farmers that formed part of the small population of Shenzhen before its rapid growth in the 1980s rather than the state. They are not governed by the same planning laws and have yet to be developed to the same degree as the surrounding areas. So amongst the high-rise, high-value properties and commercial activities that define large areas of Shenzhen there are hidden areas (literally) of lower rise, lower value buildings. These are tightly packed with narrow streets and passages, creating a maze of shops and homes that reminded me of both the old markets of Delhi and images of immigrant neighbourhoods in early 20th century European and American cities. Turning down side streets, no wider than the span of my arms, and away from the usual grocery shops, restaurants and household goods stores, we were shown a variety of micro businesses, none with more than three people working, and occupying ‘units’ rarely bigger than 25m2 . However, these businesses had their own small-scale informal networks, internal to the village. For example, the calling card business was split into designers, paper stock and ink suppliers, the printers, the die cutters, the couriers and, interestingly, a very well developed recycling system in which all paper offcuts were collected and sold on. All these businesses where located within a few small streets of each other and self-organised to construct a production, distribution and finance system in which they all appeared to benefit. However I would emphasise that most of this activity results in relatively low value products that can only produce limited incomes for the workers involved, this is not a model for rapid economic growth and wide prosperity.

Economic networks such as this are by no means unique to the Urban Villages of Shenzhen, however what really brought things into focus when we visited these communities was their juxtaposition against the surrounding commercial contexts; new shopping malls with some of the most exclusive and expensive retail outlets in the city, an environment that is defined by a very limited range of very high value products.

Walking through one environment into another the contrasts were stark and it was clear to all of us that the Urban Village, within its limitations of economic weight, demonstrated a host of characteristics that could not be found in the generic globalised shopping mall, including more flexibility, more localised and bespoke production, more repairing, more local services, more recycling and more open timeframes.

These areas of the city are unsurprisingly under increasing threat of complete redevelopment i.e. complete demolition and rebuilding. We were asked by Funar, an urban planning expert that has been studying these areas for over five years, to visit these spaces with her and start to think about how the Maker movement might support new kinds of higher value production or help provide a new narrative for the villages and grow new skills within the community. It seemed clear to me that many of the ways in which the villages structure their productive activities can easily be recognised in Maker communities; the flexibility, the small production runs, both self-reliance and collaborative working. At some level there are some possible shared understandings and ethos.

The aspiration of using this Maker movement, which is currently in vogue with the Chinese government, to help the villages expand their skill base, and perhaps more significantly, rebrand these areas to highlight their unique qualities and promote their status, is potentially a valuable one. However we all recognised the risks of simply setting up new Makerspaces in these communities with pre-established structures and external staffing; ‘flying in’ the possibly unwanted cavalry. We discussed a more ground-up approach based on community consultation and education, which although we agreed that this would be a more sensitive and appropriate strategy, it would undoubtedly be a more time consuming one, and time is not something that Urban Villages have.

This tension between rapid, externally driven development and slower more incremental advances can be recognised in many other contexts and it is not an easy one to resolve. As China is currently investing heavily in opening new makerspaces and many have only recently opened, it would be interesting to track their acceptance and impact on the local communities in which they are situated.

The space between the one-off and the mass-produced

In our 6 days in Shenzhen we have experienced making on various scales and very different contexts, from the bespoke and one-off in the tailoring back streets of Shenzhen city centre, to injection moulding mass-produced parts in the intensive and extensive factory areas on the outskirts of the city. But perhaps most interesting to us, and others who aspire to develop products aimed at niche markets or limited runs, is the ways in which Shenzhen companies are offering the potential to batch produce at levels which (in principal) lower the entry level for UK designers.

In visiting Rone Design we were given a really interesting overview of how they work with a range of Chinese and international clients to support design for manufacture, manage supply chains, and even identify funding for getting new designs to market. This inclusive support across all stages of the product development process came at a cost, but it appeared to address many of the common concerns of those who are new to working with Chinese companies. These include worries about IP, managing complex supply chains and quality control at distance, having to commit to large volume production in order to make any production viable.  In other conversations the prospect for short-run batch production of electronic products has been positively received. The concentration of components, materials, production processes and flexible labour, together with quick turnarounds all appears to offer exciting opportunities, and if all goes to plan some of our group may be testing this service in the near future.  

Justin is a practitioner/researcher who works within the ‘Autonomatic’ research group at Falmouth University.