Reflections: Guy Julier, From shanzhai to social innovation via makerspaces?

The study of shanzhai design and production in Shenzhen is, by now, crowded territory. The objects and spaces of shanzhai are compelling:  a young, modern city that is awash with components and tooling; at its centre, the intensity of the Huaqiangbei electronics market; and then, countless product variations built initially on copies of mainstream brands. These provide good starting points for the copious amounts of anthropological studies of the shanzhai ecology (Lin 2013; Lindtner and Greenspan 2014; Chubb 2015) and also how this may, or may not, lead to a stronger culture of creativity and innovation (Lindtner and Li 2012).

Behind the objects of shanzhai, however, it is important to map out the economic, cultural and social structures and norms in which they exist. In summary, these include:

  • systems of social connections that are maintained through gifts and favours (known as guanxi);
  • ambiguous, multiple and layered workings of property rights, including intellectual property rights;
  • notions of ‘distributed success’ as drivers of business and innovation;
  • close relationships between local state and entrepreneurs.
Entrance to Hua Qiang Bei International Maker Center, Shenzhen
Entrance to Hua Qiang Bei International Maker Center, Shenzhen. Photo:  Guy Julier

Neoliberal conceptions of individual property and individualism, free-trade, marketisation and the absence of state intervention require critical reconsideration in the very different context of China (Nonini 2008; Keith et al 2014). Furthermore, we might take on board that the concept of ‘creativity’ often functions differently in China than we are used to in the West. Keane (2013: 56) shows that in the Western philosophical tradition, ‘creativity is inevitably wedded to originality, in particular, the imaginings of the iconoclastic artist’. By contrast, in China, ‘creativity’ in this sense of originality and individual authorship does not figure in its philosophical tradition. The word ‘to create’ was zuo in ancient Chinese texts. This means, literally, ‘to make’ or ‘to cultivate’. This confirms a Confucian view that people should model themselves on and reproduce patterns from nature (Keane 2009: 434). Creation is therefore aligned with crafting and reproduction rather than originality.

In China a more recent word denoting ‘creativity’ in its Western sense of innovation and originality is to be found in the word chuangyi that began be used through the advertising industries in the 1990s . It literally means ‘to make new ideas’. In everyday life chuangyi embellishes shopping malls, cultural institutions, art zones, new housing developments and media production centres (Keane 2013: 67 and 56).

At other times, the English term ‘creative industries’ is also frequently employed (O’Connor and Xin 2006: 272). This reflects a government policy turn towards alignment with Western concepts of intellectual property, innovation, trade and markets. The much-used refrain ‘From made in China to created in China’ coined in 2004, carries a general message of a policy shift towards a value-added, knowledge economy. This was rapidly absorbed into economic planning and soon became a key branding slogan for China (Keane 2007: 84-6).

As this blogsite and many other publications show (Hartley 2015; Saunders 2016), the recent interest in Chinese governmental support of makerspaces is part of this turn from a production to an innovation culture. They are regarded as important interventions into the creative infrastructure in their fostering of innovation, material invention and testing as well as learning through doing. From a policy point of view, these appear to be, currently, mostly directed, though, at their medium-term economic benefits. They help China be a competitive nation in a global marketplace.

At our Design Culture Salon, held at the ICA on 22 April, David Li established a strident view onto the benefits of taking a Shenzhen model seriously. Elswhere (Li 2014), David has referred to ‘new shanzhai‘. This is where innovations, coming out of an open source culture, are produced in medium-sized batches. These are close to market, responding to real needs, are in iterative re-development and re-issue and are not necessarily branded. He sees this flexible system as being a way by which design can contest the dominance of global brands and corporations. David Li’s vision goes beyond the mere economic, to claim that this model can engender greater ‘distributed success’ — more people can benefit from ‘new shanzhai‘ infrastructures and outcomes than in the power and finance concentrations of global corporations. Not just people from Shenzhen can benefit, he argues. Shenzhen, with its amazing capacity for prototyping and short-run manufacture of high-technology products shoud be taken as a global resources for designers and entrepreneurs.

Design Culture Salon at the ICA, London, 22 April 2016: l to right: Guy Julier, David Li, Lit Liao, Zara Arshad, Tom Saunders. Photo: Cat Rossi
Design Culture Salon at the ICA, London, 22 April 2016: l to right: Guy Julier, David Li, Lit Liao, Zara Arshad, Tom Saunders. Photo: Cat Rossi

Policymakers and entrepreneurs around the world seem immensely keen on incubators, fablabs, accelerators, and catapults. We visited several of these in Shenzhen. It felt almost ironic that such things should exist — with their rhetoric of ‘speeding things up’ — in a city that runs at lightning speed already. But their chief purpose of these was in the sharing of material and knowledge resources between entities, be they start-ups, design studios or dreamers. The functions of some of the makerspaces we visited overlapped with these.


Let’s make a handbrake turn at this point and speculate on how these things observed and learnt in Shenzhen may be translated into the UK context. This is where this blog becomes more of a speculative opinion piece.

I don’t think for one minute that there could ever be another Shenzhen. At least, not in terms of scale and reach. Shenzhen connects to global marketplaces which includes, most importantly, the Global South. The speed from development of complex products to market to be found cannot be reproduced elsewhere. Of course there are similar clusterings in the world around different, perhaps more niche, products. The apparel industries of Los Angeles (Moon 2014) spring to mind here, for example. However, I think it is worth taking some of the broad features of the Shenzhen ecology, including the role of makerspaces, and seeing how they might be applied into the UK context.

Makerspaces fulfill a variety of functions in the UK. It is fair to say that they are less singularly focused on tech, creativity and innovation issues than those we saw in Shenzhen. Three very prominent makerspaces are closely entwined into local government policy with regards to such issues as regeneration, community development, wellbeing, education and skills. Namely these are the Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol, MadLab in Manchester and MAKLab in Glasgow. They share the same ethos with their Chinese counterparts of centring their activities around working and learning with your hands. And yet, these UK makerspaces are not always so much as filling a ‘creativity gap’ in pursuit of political economy goals as creatively providing ways through which social and other policy aims can be fulfilled.

A next step from here could be to open out further the kinds of ‘making’ that goes on in makerspaces. Rather than be the conduit of policy, why can’t makerspaces be the places where policy is made? The plethora of governmental policy labs around the world has shown how taking an experimental, prototyping approach to policy development engages the construction of understandings through material processes (model making, user journey mapping etc.). They also pay closer attention to the material features that policies exist within. This is well documented and presented through Lucy Kimbell’s work at the UK Policy Lab.

Currently, it seems that such labs, while developing very important work, exist in specialist spaces of policymaking, undertaking a largely civil service role. In the USA, a number of civic innovation labs have come along (some, such as Chicago’s CivicLab have been and gone). These work at more grassroots levels to network a range of interested actors such as nonprofits, foundations, social entrepreneurs and community groups. The extent to which these involve local, political deliberation is difficult to tell at a distance. However, as interfaces between civil society and governance, the idea is interesting.

What would it be like for makerspaces to play a more decisive role in the downscaling of governance? How could they act at the interface between everyday life where policy decisions impact and the accountabilities of government? Could makerspaces give more definite form to aspirations towards localism and grassroots activism?

Here, and in partial answer to these questions, I invoke some lessons from (new or old) shanzhai.

  • The ethos of open innovation that underpins shanzhai (new or old) works in localised ways, through social systems of recipricocity. It is not tied up in complex legal-contractual arrangements between actors.
  • New shanzhai perhaps stops short of a headlong embracing of Western instrumentalisation of creative industries policy aims in terms of the foregrounding of intellectual property as the base measure of value and economic contribution.
  • It emphasises iterative and incremental developments over ‘break-through’ or disruptive innovations.
  • It operates in an environment where a knowledge and material resource infrastructure is to hand to grow these developments.

The key, binding issue here is to seek embedded ways of working, that draw on and contribute to localised ecologies of creation, production and exchange. At the same time, transparency and the free movement of information between actors is vital here.

Much has been said about a move from top-down government to an era of open or networked government where greater attention is paid to participatory and inclusive co-production processes of public policy development and service delivery (e.g. Dunleavy 2006; Boyle and Harris 2009; Campbell 2011). But much less has been done on actually thinking about the actual locations, interfaces, exchanges or infrastructures where these take place.

It could be that makerspaces might be positioned as interfaces between publics – third spaces, if you like – that sit between the different actors and institutions with interests in civic innovation. While it seems that makerspaces are currently the darlings of China’s policy moves towards a knowledge economy, perhaps their UK counterparts could be instrumental in setting new directions for the functioning of civil society and governance.




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Christie, Campbell (2011), Commission on the future delivery of public services. Scottish Government.

Chubb, Andrew (2015) ‘China’s Shanzhai Culture: ‘Grabism’and the politics of hybridity’, Journal of Contemporary China, 24(92), 260-279.

Dunleavy, P., Margetts, H., Bastow, S., & Tinkler, J. (2006). New public management is dead—long live digital-era governance. Journal of public administration research and theory, 16(3), 467-494.

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Keane, Michael (2009) ‘Creative industries in China: four perspectives on social transformation’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 15(4): 431-443.

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Lindtner, Silvia and Greenspan, Anna (2014) ‘Shanzhai: China’s Collaborative Electronics-Design Ecosystem’, The Atlantic (

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Moon, Christina (2014) ‘The Slow Road to Fashion Fashion’, Pacific Standard, 17 March, (,

Nonini, Donald (2008) ‘Is China becoming neoliberal?’, Critique of Anthropology, 28(2): 145-176.

O’Connor, Justin and Xin, Gu (2006) ‘A new modernity? The arrival of ‘creative industries’ in China’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 9(3): 271-283.

Saunders, Tom and Kingsley, Jeremy (2016) Made in China: Makerspaces and the search for mass innovation. London: Nesta.




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