Connecting Across Impervious Boundaries

My participation at the ID Strategy World Tour in Hong Kong earlier this month was motivated primarily by my curiosity about design and innovation in east Asian economies. We are a strategy and innovation firm based in India and for most part our collaborations and partnerships are with individuals and organisations in the West — mostly US and Europe. I would suspect that is the case for most young global professionals in India for whom recognition, growth and professional advancements has come through sustained partnerships with the global north. The professional class I am referring to includes designers, first generation entrepreneurs in the service sector (software, healthcare, medicine), cultural entrepreneurs (curators, artists, photographers) and development professionals. It’s worth asking questions about why the same engagement does not exist between India and its east Asian counterparts chief amongst them being China but also other significant economies such as Taiwan, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong and others.

And so with great enthusiasm and excitement, my colleague Babitha and I decided to be a part of ID’s Strategy Tour in Hong Kong, eager to get a few answers. In as much as a 3 day tour could pack, ID’s SWT did not disappoint. Also perhaps good to get one thing squared off right at the beginning — great hospitality, ample space for serendipitous conversations and hosting these at the heart of action — are almost certain to drive a memorable experience. Our cohort of 15 and the tour that followed was no different.

There were a few things that stood out for me and continue to brew in my consciousness as I look to share this experience with my colleagues back home and piece together something valuable from it. These are hypotheses that are open to be challenged and tested and so if a conversation can be the means to do that, please do write to me at ayush@quicksand.co.in

There are three aspects that I want to touch upon in this post:

1. At what stage of an economy does mainstreaming of innovation happen?
2. The political and cultural narrative in India around China and the possibilities for the innovation economy beyond it
3. Who is asking the difficult questions around sustainability?

At what stage of an economy does mainstreaming of innovation happen?

It is perhaps apt to start with the last stop on our tour which was a visit to a small studio called SEEED in the technology manufacturing hub of the world — Shenzhen. SEEED and its founder Eric Pan, along with a close knit group of dedicated evangelists and enthusiasts (David Li at Szoil amongst others), are credited with ushering in the maker movement in China. SEEED bridges the global community of makers with the mind numbing array of technology manufacturing that Shenzhen has become synonymous with. Starting with pre-fab modules for the IoT (Internet of Things) revolution, down to handling a short production run for 200 odd units of a maker’s invention, SEEED services the global community of hobbyists and enthusiasts that are powering the maker movement across the globe. Spread across four floors of an old warehouse and with about 300 employees averaging an age of 24–26, SEEED could well be located in any innovation hotspot of the world and you’d never be able to tell. And yet, it is its place in Shenzhen that makes it unique and exciting. SEEED has been working tirelessly to reposition China as an innovation economy, a statement that is bold and visible on the endless array of cardboard boxes ready to be shipped that say “Innovate with China” and not “Made in China”.

A visit to the Police Married Quarters a day before our visit to Shenzen reinforced this sense we walked away with that the innovation discourse in China is a growing one. It is perhaps poised at a point in time where it can challenge the overwhelming narrative around passive manufacturing that the country has become synonymous with. PMQ is an old government building that, with the Hong Kong government’s support and the generous contributions of a private philanthropy, got rehabilitated into a design incubator. The building is home to several design startups, a majority of which are run by expats settled in HK making use of the opportunity to tap the incredible manufacturing prowess of China that is a short subway and a road ride away. The access these designers and innovators have to the dizzying array of components, prototyping tools and processes is paving the way for world class products and startups (in our short visit of a few hours, we saw presentations on a smart home, IoT accelerator, personal audio start up et al).

And while this may be discounted as a drop in the ocean of Chinese manufacturing, there’s reason why the recent conversation around making is centred in Shenzhen and nowhere else. Sylvia Lindter’s article on Shanzhai — the folk art of Shenzhen — describes the thriving open source innovation that drives the prolific customisation that happens at the low end of the technology food chain. A closely connected community of small and medium scale manufacturers are sharing IP and through collaborative manufacturing tools and processes creating the endless assortment of “tech proletarianism” that is flooding the un-catered markets of the world. There are no surprises then as to why SEEED is located in Shenzhen, tapping this incredible pool of highly localised manufacturing wizardry. Shenzhen is also the site for China’s first global maker event that saw China’s premier Li Kequiang make a personal visit and announce a national policy on maker spaces shortly thereafter.

This brings me to the original question about the stage of an economy at which mainstreaming of innovation can begin to happen. I see several interesting parallels with India and the recent surge of a startup ecosystem in the software space that has captured the imagination of global and domestic investors and first generation entrepreneurs in India. Internet services startup on the mobile and web are India’s equivalent to the hardware revolution that is happening in China. And both these movements have happened on the back of large traditional businesses that catapulted these economies on the global stage and perhaps created the right environment for innovation to take centre stage.
 In India it was the software services that flourished on the back of labor arbitrage and an educated English speaking workforce. In China it is the manufacturing sector that got its boost from a resource arbitrage in terms of land, raw materials, cheap labor and the government’s unilateral, uncontested efforts at developing an appropriate infrastructure. Against the backdrop of these capacities, the efforts of a few leading entrepreneurs has triggered the next stage of growth and perhaps global recognition for these economies that is premised on the new mantra of innovation. And this has happened no sooner or later than it had to.

A closely connected community of small and medium scale manufacturers are sharing IP and through collaborative manufacturing tools and processes creating the endless assortment of tech proletarianism that is flooding the un-catered markets of the world.

The political and cultural narrative in India around China and the possibilities for the innovation economy beyond it

Continuing from the previous point, I wanted to reflect on a certain gap that I believe exists amongst a section of young professionals in India and how they relate to China. As a caveat, I must also add that this may be true only of an industry and sector that I have seen up close over the last decade — that of design, cultural entrepreneurship and international development. What is also true is that several Indian entrepreneurs have capitalised on imported goods from China in the last decade to build multi million dollar businesses in India. To that end, my observations about this seeming gap could perhaps be erroneous and misjudged.

But I would still risk the hypotheses that the young global professional of my ilk is ignorant, and perhaps consciously so, of the cultural forces that continue to transform and shape the Chinese mainland. Back home, these are clouded by the narrative of an authoritarian Chinese state that is unilaterally focused on powering mega businesses, economic development and expansion. The liberal, rights-based discourse, that most of us either openly or discreetly support, gives us a convenient excuse to distance ourselves from this mega economy, somehow deluding ourselves to believe that all that China has come to represent, stands on the shaky and questionable grounds of violation of basic rights and an insensitive governance. And while that is perhaps part truth and part propaganda, the inexcusable reality is that we have no hands-on, contextual knowledge of this fascinating country. Our pre-occupations for most part have been with the West and therefore China and the opportunities it presents for the new economy that we so often are the purveyors of, remains unexplored.

I harp on this because this visit in some sense demystified China for me and illuminated the possibilities there are for collaboration and cooperation. For one, I felt almost instinctively that the software and hardware revolution that is happening in these countries and the interdependence of these two was so obvious, it almost felt stupid that we don’t as yet have a more active bridge for exchange and collaboration. Both Babitha and I came back energised by the idea that we could perhaps make a beginning by curating an UnBox tour of China with close friends and partners this summer. More on that as it shapes up.

The second possibility lies in the art and cultural space. Both countries are, even today, vibrant manifestations of several thousand years old traditions, crafts, rituals and practices — perhaps the reason why these two cultures continue to retain their unique identities in the face of a uniform, impersonal, globalised aesthetic that is sweeping almost every aspect of contemporary societies. On that late evening bus ride back from Shenzhen to Hong Kong, my mind was flooded with images of craft exhibitions, theater, art installations, festivals — and all that cultural goodness that could come out of a truly empathic exploration and expression of each others history and traditions. I believe there are several similarities between these two cultures that can provide a great springboard for this collaboration to happen.

Both countries are, even today, vibrant manifestations of several thousand years old traditions, crafts, rituals and practices — perhaps the reason why these two cultures continue to retain their unique identities in the face of a uniform, impersonal, globalised aesthetic that is sweeping almost every aspect of contemporary societies.

Who is asking the difficult questions around sustainability?

At the end of the presentations we heard at Police Married Quarters that day, I asked a question to the presenters — mostly young design entrepreneurs working on new technologies and products — about how active the debate around sustainability was, given that they were now located at the heart of world’s manufacturing hub. This was the place feeding world’s consumptive greed around products, devouring in its wake more resources, energy and materials. You’d imagine that the rising call for more responsible production and distribution systems would start in China and that the new generation entrepreneurs would have a say in that or at least a perspective to share. I asked because the absence of that was startling for me. Coming from India where sustainability and social equity are part of the business and governance discourse — still far from being implemented but definitely creating the right or wrong noise, depending on which side of the debate and ideological allegiance you are on — I was hoping that the entrepreneurs we met in HK would throw some light on how they have seen the beginnings of change in China. I must admit though that the question was half-leading and the answers that came were not surprising. The difficult questions around sustainability did not make an appearance in our 3 day tour. I’d like to believe that we were only scratching the surface of what is a complex and massive force at work and that there are several layers to uncover which a 3 day trip wouldn’t allow.

What stuck with me however was a response that one of the designers gave, and which resonated somewhat with what I have often thought about. That of co-locating production and consumption and how it could perhaps drive more responsibility and accountability both on the part of manufacturers and consumers. The designer in question said that the fact that they were located in Hong Kong gave them unprecedented access to the manufacturing process. They were privileged that they could ride across the border and get first hand access to the materials, processes, sourcing et al. In my mind that was powerful, given how designers are typically removed from the repercussions of the design choices they make. And while most of the products that the world consumes today may be manufactured in China, they are designed by professionals who are far removed from the realities that their choices are impacting. This new found access for designers may still be addressing only a part of the design-production-consumption value chain, and for most part, designers may still be left to operate on their own judgment without regulation or a public discourse on sustainability. But it a provided a ray of hope nonetheless, within an otherwise relentless eco-system.

Co-locating production and consumption could perhaps drive more responsibility and accountability both on the part of manufacturers and consumers.

The SWT travels to Mumbai on the 7–8–9th of February 2016. As Quicksand and UnBox, we would have the privilege to curate a small part of the tour and perhaps unpack the stories around Indian innovation and design for the DWT participants much the same way that ID and its host institution Gold Peak Industries did for us in HK. The beauty of a connected world lies in these serendipitous discoveries that lie at the end of a short flight and a few emails.

Originally published at quicksand.co.in on June 8, 2015.