Silvia Lindtner: The Future of Maker Culture

"What comes out of these makerspaces isn't just technological innovation but is also social intervention."

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Kommt Ihr Smartphone vielleicht aus Shenzhen? Gut möglich, denn in China hat sich seit zehn Jahren aus Bastelbuden im Hinterhof eine milliardenschwere IT-Industrie entwickelt. Silvia Lindtner von der University of Michigan hat diese Entwicklung untersucht und Erstaunliches festgestellt: Während im Westen die Maker-Szene sich als Gegenkultur begreift, hat ihr Entstehen in China einen völlig anderen Grund.

Is your smartphone from Shenzhen? In China a billion dollar IT industry has evolved from backyard tinkering workshops. Silvia Lindtner of the University of Michigan has some amazing insights into this development. While the western DIY scene considered itself a counter-culture Chinese makers took a completely different approach.

Das Gespräch wurde am Rande der re:publica 2017 in Berlin aufgezeichnet.

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Transkript des Videos

We really have to look at what has happened in a region like Shenzhen over the last 30 years.

What we know best about Shenzhen is large scale contract manufacturing. Companies like Foxconn, Taiwanese contract manufacturer that produces for companies like Apple. But at the same time what happens as these grew in sizes, these large contract manufacturers grew in size was that what was at first a very, very small practice of entrepreneurs began taking shape. So these were people who saw a gap in the global economy to emerge. So they started their own factories, started partnering together to then design devices that the big western corporations weren't doing yet. So, for example, the early cheap smartphones that came on the market were designed by these kinds of informal entrepreneur manufacturing practices. And they were mostly designed for a niche market, so migrant workers in China who couldn't afford an Apple iPhone. Or industries in Africa, in India and so on. So these were basically markets that hadn't really been tapped yet by the western counterparts. But this all happened in a kind of half formal, half informal economy that developed in the shadows of the more familiar story of Apple and Foxconn. And it is exactly this informal manufacturing culture that today draws makers and creatives from Europe and the west to China because it's a culture that really constitutes the practice of openess applied to manufacturing. It's constant experimentation with new ideas. And a lot of the makers and tinkerers from the west see a lot of themselves in these kinds of entrepreneur practices in manufacturing.

What we have seen happening over the last 10 years, and this was really at its peak in 2008 was that other kinds of devices came out of Shenzhen and this ranged from things like copycat iPhones, affordable iPhones. People, you know, choice of people who couldn't afford the actual iPhone. But also new creations included phones like a phone that would come equipped with 8 built-in speakers, so this was a phone that was designed specifically for construction workers so that workers could listen to music while they were on the construction site. Or included phones that came in interesting shapes like a phone that was shaped like a car or a phone that was shaped like a Hello Kitty. And these very often small batch productions catered for particular niche markets, and in the beginning these were kind of like these companies that produced them tested out the market. Which product would fly? And over the years what came out of these sorts of experiments was actually a big industry. So today Shenzhen produces for example products like the Tecno mobile phone. The Tecno mobile phone is a leading phone brand in Africa and is designed specifically for the African markets. If you look at the advertisement of the Tecno mobile phone it reads that it comes equipped with a particular camera that captures dark-skin subjects particularly well in low-light conditions. So this phone was specifically designed for a non-white audience, right? And this is a huge market, you know. It’s a big market, it’s a billion dollar industry of shipment between not just the west and China, but really these are markets in Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Latin America. And you see anything there now, you know, from smartwatches, mobile phones to famous hoverboards that were discussed heavily in the west, tinkering with new health devices. You see a range of phones but it has really moved way beyond. Just a couple of interesting sort of copycats that were, you know, unique combinations between an Apple phone shape and an Android operating system, right? It has really turned into a big professional industry at this point.

People there, you know, really try to position their work as a counter-culture to top-down consumer culture. And this has, you know, really happened both on a hobbyist level but has also turned into its own industry. So making itself, you could argue, is its own industry now where people sell maker-kits, and maker-kits are used in education to help students and young people learn about the inner workings of technology. But it has really sort of being driven by a kind of hobbyist practice. Now the same exists in China, so there are makerspaces and hobyist hackerspaces in China, and that really started taking shape around 2007, 2008 and 2009 when these first ideas around DIY making as much as they were on the rise in Europe and the U.S. were also on the rise in Asia and also in China. So similar kind of practice in both China and the U.S., you see. You know, the kinds of people who are attracted and who spend time in makerspaces, these people have better income, have higher education. These are people who can afford to spend their free time in a makerspace and just play and have fun, right? So the same happening in both regions. What is different about China is that it has at the same time also a maker-culture that really grew out of a kind of making out of necessity spirit. So, what you see when you go into any Chinese city, not just Shenzhen but really most Chinese cities, you can find little shops that repair your phone or your air-condition, pretty much any kind of device that you have is easily repaired. There's a whole infrastructure of making-out-of-necessity repair culture that's mundane in practice where people make a living out of it and that goes all the way from street level repair and tinkering culture to of course manufacturing which is then a large scale kind of mass production culture, right? And everything in-between with like small prototyping facilities. So in some ways, you know, and this has been in places as mentioned earlier for the last 30 years, so there is a kind of maker culture that developed in parallel in China but it was always driven by a kind of intervening and interstatus quo by necessity, right? By people who were eager to make a better living for their families. So a lot of people who came to Shenzhen as migrants, they were really driven, you know, to make something out of themselves. These were people who came with nothing and started out working in manufacturing, and some of them managed to work themselves up and start their own companies. And so this a kind of, it's a very mundane form of making that isn't driven by the same ideological principles of counter-culture while the same time you have of course also, you know, a younger generation in China who was, you know, raised in a kind of middle class kind of lifestyle, and they too subscribed to similar principles as western makers. But in China both still exist at the same time, and they interact. So you now see a lot of companies that have emerged in Shenzhen over the last 7 years who basically position themselves as intermediares between the Chinese manufacturing and mundane making-out-of-necessity maker culture and the more global hobbyist maker culture. So these are companies like Seeed Studio, for example, who helps makers who don't know much about manufacturing but are fascinated by it, translate and bridge in to manufacturing, so this has become its own business in China now that people are translating and bridging between these two maker cultures.

In, I think, this was in 2010 I was doing fieldwork, ethnographic research in the hackerspace in Shanghai, and there was a group of people who was experimenting with swarm robots. So swarm robots are basically these tiny robots that aren't very intelligent each one of them, but together they are smart and move together and can coordinate. And they built these robots and entered an international competition on robotics and actually won second price right in-between Harvard and MIT. So this little hackerspace in Shanghai that was just around for a year had managed to actually win an international competition. So it just shows you in some ways what is possible in terms of a success story. But then you also see new partnerships evolve, so what we've seen a lot happening recently over the last years is that makerspaces and hackerspaces and other kinds of experimental spaces begin working with politicians and bureaucrats, social workers, policy makers to intervene and establish structures of how other people get access to work.

What is actually new, relationships are being built between people who shaped the city in policy and government and people who know much about technology, engineering and designs. These new alliances are being formed. And I find it really interesting if you think about what comes out of these makerspaces isn't just technological innovation but is also social intervention. And in some ways even political intervention, and that's really interesting I think.