British Council Creative Economy

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22 November 2015

Fiona #LivingTheResearch: Week Two

Maker Fiona Dowling shares her experience of Shanghai Maker Carnival and some of the incredible makerspaces visited in the last half of the trip.

Young maker at Shanghai Maker Carnival

And so to the Shanghai Maker Carnival!

Fuelled up on yak (we think!) hot-pot from the night before, we arrived at Jiangwan stadium in the Yangpu district of Shanghai, and after a coffee pit stop we were herded straight onto the sun-drenched stage for a roundtable style discussion. Our interviewer (and co-ordinator for the whole trip) David Li, of Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab, threw a variety of questions our way, asking us to reflect on our thoughts so far on the Chinese maker movement, and how this compared to the UK.

Although a lack of Chinese counterparts made our debate rather one-sided in it’s outlook, it proved to be a valuable exercise in distilling the research we’d done so far into coherent sound bites, summarizing our individual points of view. As a group, it was fascinating to really take in just how different each one of us is, both in our connection to making in the UK, and in terms of what we were hoping to get out of the trip. We stepped off the podium with renewed motivation to forge these distinct paths going into our second week. 

For me, this meant finding evidence of making in a more experimental and creative context, encompassing art, craft and design alongside new products and technologies. I wanted to identify where workshops and training were available, to see if the maker culture in China was providing the wider society with the same accessibility and opportunity to develop new skills as in the UK. This was alongside my original plan to embed myself on the ground in a Chinese Makerspace and, finally, track down the makers using these spaces to discover more about the actual user experience in China.

Shanghai did not disappoint, with a visit to cultural quarter M50 revealing a hidden pocket of hands on making, independent business, and public workshops, in activities spanning silversmithing, bamboo weaving, woodworking, ceramics and leatherworking. We were introduced to the lovely Mr Ding, who since having to leave a communal craft space after funding dried up, had managed to set up his scale model making business and traditional woodworking tools within a recently opened government-funded space known as Maker Collider, thanks to the infamous David Li, surrounded by 3D printers and teaching sessions in Intel software and hardware.

Another eye-opening tour to XinCheJian, the first ever Makerspace in China, and the adjacent fabrication lab XinFab, offered up a vibrant and buzzing space that catered for a diverse membership base, feeling a lot more similar to what we’d expect from a UK Makerspace, and it was telling that in it’s early days the members were around 90% international and only 10% Chinese, although this has levelled out to approximately 50/50 over the 4 years of its existence. Was this why we weren’t finding the sort of making we’d expected? Did it mean something entirely different to be a maker in China compared to the rest of the world? Certainly, one man I spoke to at the Maker Carnival had suggested this to be the case, backtracking on his claim that he’d hardly come across any making in his time at Nottingham University when I explained what the term meant to me.

A trip to the recently established Interactive Media Arts course at NYU Shanghai, after meeting the lecturers at the Carnival, also went some way in highlighting this difference, as the first course of it’s kind in China looking to challenge students to use the technology available to them more creatively, and blur the boundaries between different fields of practice. The fact that it was not expected to attract more than 4 students in its first year, but smashing this with 40 sign ups, and now at full capacity in its third year of existence with 250 students, indicates how this way of thinking, inherited from an international institution, is completely new and yet increasingly appealing to the next generation of Chinese makers. 

Overall, Shanghai presented itself as a sophisticated and well-oiled machine of a city, peaking with the sensational views from the Bund (or Waitan) over the Huangpu river. On one side are grand structures in familiar Western styles, documenting the history of the International Settlement, heavily contrasting the towering kaleidoscopic futuristic landscape that lies just across the river. Once again, like the circuit board aerial view of Shenzhen, I recognised that the aesthetic of a city is often hugely symbolic of it’s nature; in this case the cultural diversity, international reach, and embracing of both past and future that I’d come to see in Shanghai.

At Shenzhen's international school

 It was this idea of the parallel between the visual and the cultural within urban areas that I took back with me to Shenzhen to explore artistically, with the next task to work out which Makerspace I should install myself in. A visit to the mass maker exhibition, an event set up by the government in a move so last minute that the event had no official English language name, came up trumps with a space known as Litchee Lab. Set up independently by Lit, after leaving her position as Head of Productisation at Seeed, and now helped by James, a Silicon Valley native, Litchee Lab is tucked away behind now disused factories close to Shenzhen University. Over two days, we observed a variety of makers confidently using the open plan space in different ways, and sharing an outside area with a woodworking workshop gave added value as a mixed use co-working space. I even managed to use their laser cutter, despite the software only being in Chinese!

Part of Litchee Lab’s ethos is to teach children the process of project-based design and engineering, through workshops and their weekend ‘Make Club’, and encouraging them to document their journey into instructables that they can publish online. James also introduced us to Shenzhen’s only Makerspace in a school, set up at Shenzhen American International School by James’ wife Carrie, where the kids could not only take part in sewing, jewellery making, electronics, gardening and building all under one roof, but were also learning about the whole design process from idea conception through to pitching and presenting, and creating business plans based on their products. It was hugely refreshing to see these highly valuable skills for the future becoming ingrained in the minds of Shenzhen’s youth, although this was again as a result of international involvement.

By the end of the trip, we were almost more confused than when we started about what making truly means to the people of China. It seems like the government has one very fixed idea of making as the doorway for the next wave of technological products, into which they are currently ploughing their funding streams, in contrast to an underbelly of independent and often international spaces that operated under a similar banner to the UK, where making is a broader term that advocates experimentation, skills and knowledge sharing, and a crossover of disciplines. Coming from a Western perspective, we need to be careful not to preach that our approach is somehow right or better, but instead look at how the two varying mindsets can be taken forward in a way that is mutually beneficial.

From a background in graphic and product design, Fiona now runs her own business in Bristol - The Laser House, offering laser cutting, engraving and design services. Read more about her work here.