Making as National Transformation?
Living Research delegates Kat Braybrooke, Jon Flint and Ingrid Murphy explore the relationships between makerspaces and government policy in China.
A series of strategic policy shifts is setting the scene for widespread social change in China — but who is it really affecting?
In China, makerspaces are not just building new things. They are also building a new world in their image. From inventing the abacus to working with the world’s first hot air balloons (Dinke 2005), China has always experimented with new technologies — but as we learned from the many creatives, makers and innovators we spoke to in our tour of sites for making and craft in Chengdu and Xi’an, China is experiencing an especially transformative moment in its history — and making is the focus.
Government strategies to enable mass making
The making and innovation policies that lead to the creation of today’s government-supported makerspaces started to emerge around 1988, when the Ministry of Science and Technology launched its first ‘Torch Programme’ to help foster new R&D spaces across the nation such as software parks and science and technology industrial parks — a prioritisation of new kinds of research sites that was also occurring in the UK around this period (for more on this, see Massey et al 1991). This was the beginning of a national focus on the importance of spatial form and function in fostering creative sociotechnical development. For the Chinese government’s Five-Year Plan from 2001–2005, R&D funding was then raised to 1.5% of GDP, with Premier Hu Jintao’s state address in 2004 postmarking increased government investments in design and innovation (Justice 2002). This led to the creation of many new art enclaves, innovation parks and university design programmes in universities, especially in second-tier cities like Chengdu. By 2006, a longer-term plan had been unveiled to build an ‘innovation-oriented’ China, with cities competing to reach the new targets by opening creative clusters and technology parks to foster further innovations (Wang 2016, p.6).
It was not until 2015, however, that a series of strategic government policy shifts toward enabling design thinking and entrepreneurship, typically referred to as 大众创业万众创新 (mass entrepreneurship and mass innovation), lead to the ‘makerspace’ (or a site for making and learning with digital tools) becoming a central priority, with the aim to transform the next generation of Chinese youth not only into doers but also into entrepreneurial, business-minded innovators, or makers. Premier Li Keqiang visited the Chaihuo Makerspace and Seeed Studio in Shenzhen for the first time in this year on a heavily publicised public relations tour aimed at “giving a boost to China’s innovators”, citing the space as one of the frontiers of a maker revolution in China, and propelling terms like ‘maker’ and ‘design thinking’ into formal government discourse. In a speech to students of Tsinghua University (what David Wang has referred to as the “Chinese MIT”), for example, Keqiang famously stated that “making and creating is no longer a privilege reserved for the elites, but an opportunity afforded to the greater majority of people”.
From made in China to designed in China
With this statement, Keqiang signified the government’s new focus on creative industries that would no longer be top-down but instead focused on ‘mass’ activities, built from creative grassroots efforts based on open innovation practices, where ‘Made in China’ becomes ‘Designed in China’. “The ‘mass’ in mass maker space, in other words, stands for the goal of cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset and mobilising many — if not masses of — people in China to start-up their own businesses” (Wang 2016). This approach to maker culture helps address government fears of future unemployment for the many students who are currently graduating from higher level education across the China, as making skills are seen as useful for other occupations beyond technical and creative industries, while helping shift responsibility for that employment from the government onto the individual.
This was evidenced by our experience at North West Polytechnic, where we met with engineering students who identified themselves as makers. They presented work to us that was in equal part scientific research and entrepreneurial project, and were keen to join the wall of alumni who succeeded through the university’s renowned Accelerator programme. In this, they were clearly being educated not only to seek employment, but also to make employment.
China’s 13th Five Year Plan of 2016 further reinforced this prioritisation towards a maker mindset — along with generous subsidies for new making-focused spaces to go alongside it — by stating its aim for China to become an “innovation nation” by 2020. Very little time has been wasted since then. Last year, the government reported it had helped over 7,500 makerspaces and incubators open — more than anywhere else in the world. It aims to ensure over 10,000 such sites have been opened by 2020.
Makerspace imaginaries versus realities
This prioritisation does not mean there necessarily is a corresponding amount of demand for such a widespread proliferation of new spaces, however, or that the data matches up with realities.
In our tours of sites across both Chengdu and Xi’an, for example, we encountered many sites that were either completely empty or under-used, despite reportage of very high membership statistics. This is consistent with reports of too much competition between makerspaces and makerspaces that lie empty for most of the day (other than during delegate tours, of course) in other cities like Beijing and Shenzhen. The site managers we spoke to also cited high turnover amongst sites, saying that real community engagement was a struggle to sustain in such a money-focused and fast-paced environment. They also said many people still did not have an understanding of what becoming a ‘maker’ even meant, and that this caused challenges for actually building a grassroots movement.
As we learned in our time with makers in China, and as our colleagues Gemma Latham and Ingrid Murphy will discuss in a future piece of this series, the term 创客 chuangke or ‘maker’ has many different meanings depending on which culture you happen to be situated within — and this results in unique circumstances for makers in each nation. These evolving linguistic and regional diversities have exposed Western technomyths about making as a seemingly homogenous and universal phenomenon originating from the likes of Chris Anderson to be increasingly inaccurate (Braybrooke and Jordan 2017). In China, we learned, the term ‘maker’ had been invented not by the government, but by makers themselves, in an effort to distinguish their work from the more negative 黑客 or hacker. Made to be deliberately flexible, chuangke brings together words used for 创意, or creativity; 创业, or business mindset and entrepreneurship; and 创新, or innovation (Lindtner 2015).
Making with Chinese characteristics
In her five year study of Chinese makers Silvia Lindtner found that the essential elements of Chinese making and hacking that had emerged in the 2000s at spaces like XinCheJian, China’s first hackspace, were centered not on casual activities done for fun as had typically happened in the West, but instead on “making-do, mass production and re-use” (2015, p. 855), choosing not to adopt Western maker logics except where applicable. These initiatives merged the professional making traditions of large-scale Chinese manufacturing in cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen with the hobbyist-style making of Western hackers, challenging dominant visions of making that saw manufacturing and innovation practices as unrelated (Lindtner 2015, p. 855). This kind of technology expertise, Lindtner explains, is dependent on “historically, socially, and economically specific processes” situated in China, allowing its makers to “hack dominant ideologies of hacking” by linking manufacturing to creative innovation as befits Chinese history (2015, p. 871).
To better understand the implications of Chinese government policies and their effects on this maker mindset, we interviewed several makers we met in Chengdu and Xi’an about their experiences. As Lorraine Justice (2012) explains, unlike the previous generations who lived through the Revolution and the Cultural Revolution, this generation, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s, have more freedom to consume (and create) than those who came before them, and are influenced by a diverse combination of inspirations, from Confucius to Mao, from communism to capitalism and from nationalism to cosmopolitanism. Kevin Lau is a former VP at Seeed Studio, CEO at Chaihuo Makerspace in Shenzhen and founder of the MakerNet platform. He is also the founding producer of Maker Faire Shenzhen and Maker Faire Xi’an, and was central to Premiere Keqiang getting involved in China’s maker culture, having invited him to visit Chaihuo Makerspace at the beginning of 2015. “The original plan,” he explains, “was that the government could get involved in makerspaces to help individual innovations interact more with those of giant companies and government-owned research labs.” It is here, he feels, that relationships between makers and governments are at their strongest.
Makerspaces that need to be good for business
Zhu Chunwang is an education manager at the 指尖新空间 (Finger Maker) makerspace in Xi’an whose work has benefitted from this new relationship. Finger Maker was founded in 2013, and now has about 30 employees who serve more than 300 users across Xi’an, ancient city of the Terra Cotta Army and capital of the Shaanxi Province that Kevin points out has been increasingly active player in the Chinese maker community since the planning of Maker Faire Xi’an started in 2016. Like many other education-focused makerspaces, Finger Maker’s primary revenue comes from its student trainings, which are viewed as ‘good business’. Being an education-focused makerspace is also deemed good business, and sites of this kind are typically given priority for government support. This has lead to many sites modifying their casual community focus to instead use their spaces to provide targeted trainings and other offerings for learners. In a model common to makerspaces in Xi’an, Finger Maker gets a generous government rent subsidy to operate from a mixed-use building that also rents spaces to other technology and education-focused start-ups and other initiatives.
Zhu feels the maker ethos in China is still a new tendency. “Here”, she said, “there have been many engineers, but very few artists… people haven’t learned how to be creative. Students have not been encouraged to follow their own ideas.” Zhu explained to us that although she is a maker-educator in Finger Maker makerspace, she does not self-identify as a maker yet, because she feels she only has basic skills. In her heart, she said, she would love to follow the career life of the “artist maker”. But first, she explains, it is important to earn money. “This period is a great one, and in time, China may not be the same,” she said. “It is developing very fast at the moment, so you cannot know what is going to happen… but [what we do know] is you need to build your country. And I am proud of this country. So there is no time right now to be creative… no time for that kind of life… not yet. Financial support is needed first for people involved in the maker career. We need to make people [in China] feel more comfortable, because more of them would like to be more creative, but here [they] need to worry about life first.”
Practical funding for practical making
Kevin, meanwhile, has been a maker since his childhood, when he first hacked a clock to make its alarm more convenient. He first became aware of a maker community in 2008, however, when he was studying in Germany, and joined maker-related workshops with titles like “How to hack a toy?”. These events and related books and magazines like Makezine got him involved not only in making itself, but also in the conversations that surrounded it. “I think this is not a typical experience yet,” he says. “But I believe it can be something that our education system employs to inspire more people. This is a big reason why I am facilitating maker culture in China now.” Kevin explains that Maker Faire Xi’an got a great deal of support from the government to run in 2017. “If you have experience running events in China,” he adds, “you would know how difficult it can be. So with government support, we could make things happen much more smoothly. The maker ecosystem in China is still in its developing stage, so support from businesses is still not very positive. This makes the role of the government very important — and not just for financial support.”
Perhaps, as Zhu has observed, China’s high tech industry is doing so well right now because the government gives it that power. This has lead to a situation where it is deemed practical to continue funding it. After all, she points out, “Money always grows where you can produce money”. Zhu was born in the Hunan province, where every day she needed to study at 5am in order to keep up with her studies. China is very competitive in some regions, she explains, because of its burgeoning population. “The reason I am grateful to this country,” she said, “is because opportunities are increasing.” She has seen herself how supporting makerspaces helps build these opportunities.
A creative future for Chinese makerspaces
What is next for China’s makerspaces? “I think makerspaces of the future will be different,” Zhu feels. “Maybe more like small companies that make profit, or transfer intangible cultural heritage into products… China is big, so they can have many different uses.” Kevin has expressed similar thoughts regarding the future of China’s makerspaces. “Perhaps the makerspace will play more diverse roles in society,” he says, “and this can [allow] the support of the government to become more case-by-case, with deeper support [for business, educational or grassroots sites] than we see now.” Kevin looks forward to seeing makerspace collaborations between cities like Xi’an, Shenzhen and Chengdu. In this final stage of makerspaces, Zhu thinks that maybe people will be able to “enjoy their life more, do it for fun” like this. But for now, she feels, the makerspace scene needs to first be more business-oriented. “We need to make money first… then it can be fun. Everything needs a financial foundation. I think the shift [to more creative making for fun] will happen in 20 years. But first, the economy will need to change. And second, the education system will need to change.”
We witnessed the seeds of this change on our visit. Chinese higher education has typically been highly competitive, subject specialised and hierarchical. In this, it has not necessarily been conductive to the ‘play of creativity’ long associated with maker culture. A 2017 study cited that the “current maker education in China universities [still] has the limitations of closed innovation, efficiency-driven, focal product [and] specialized organization.” We saw the effects of China’s closed history in our visits — especially evident in the struggle of many spaces to integrate elements of traditional craft or cultural heritage into making practices. However, in our encounters with students and educators in both Xi’an and Chengdu, we also witnessed the emergence of new pedagogies and methods that were deeply engaged with more interdisciplinary and maker-focused thinking.
Makerspaces that break the mould?
At the Makerfun space in Chengdu, for example, the team is proud to organise workshops that not only focus on incubating new businesses, but also on having fun. Makerfun started out as a purely public-focused community space, but like many other sites it has turned into a educational business, providing workshops aimed at instilling design thinking in its students rather than teaching them advanced technical skills. “If people do want to incubate we will help,” Makerfun educational manager Hongmei Leio explains, “but if they don’t want this, we let them be. At the beginning, when we were still new, we had to achieve many goals and push them. Now, we can deepen the focus of our initiative on quality.” Upstairs in a nondescript office block in Xi’an, meanwhile, we viewed the DMT makerspace, which started in 2013 as a private venture and receives no government support. Here, traditional practices and ancient tools like abacuses were being cleverly integrated with new methods like 3D printing and laser cutting. Yet DMT told us they suffered from the same challenges faced by other kinds of makerspaces, such as a lack of footfall and public engagement.
We also discussed interdisciplinary futures with students and staff at maker-related programmes affiliated with universities like the new Southwest Jiaotong University makerspace. We spoke to the founders of Burns Interactive, who are leading the development of a new Art & Technology degree at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music. At the Burns Interactive studio, we saw many creative and innovative projects that linked strong physical making skills and material knowledge together with new technologies. In Xi’an, meanwhile, we met the first graduating cohort of a new Interactive Arts course at the Xi’an Academy of Art, and saw their presentations of a series of imaginative year-end projects that merged ancient crafts, stories and superstitions with new sensors and technologies. When we asked them to raise their hands if they engaged with a local makerspace, only a few did. They told us they “didn’t feel welcome in places like that”, not yet, despite their obvious skills.
It may well be the graduates of these new maker-inspired courses that end up occupying China’s 10,000 makerspaces once they feel ready. The ethos of creativity and risk-taking cultivated by their experiments will certainly help foster China’s desired transition from its economic model of ‘Made in China’ to one of ‘Designed in China’. This pathway, however, also requires a new kind of makerspace that is not only a gateway to accessing new technologies, startup culture and an entrepreneurial mindset, but is also an open and truly collaborative hub of creativity — where subversion, remix, exploration and freedom of expression are fostered instead of mere obedience. He Renke, Dean at Hunan University, has expressed the belief, shared by many we spoke to in the field, that the future of design in China will be “more diverse, more green, more open, more confident, and more global […] and when this happens, the rest of the world will recognize China’s design renaissance” (Justice 2012, p.97). By learning how to pioneer these qualities, the new generation of makers we met in China may play central roles in the renaissance. Only then can the echelons of empty makerspaces we saw come alive as the centres of grassroots innovation they hope to be.
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The Living Research programme is a partnership between the British Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
In China, the British Council has partnered with MakerNet to co-develop the project in Chengdu and Xi’an.