Maker culture in China blurs distinction between design and production


UMSI assistant professor Silvia Lindtner has been invited to the 5th Decennial Aarhus Conference August 17 – 21 in Denmark to present her paper “Designed in Shenzhen: Shanzhai Manufacturing and Maker Entrepreneurs.” The paper is co-authored by Anna Greenspan of NYU Shanghai and David Li of Hacked Matter in Shanghai, China and will be presented on August 20.

This year’s Aarhus conference theme is “Critical Alternatives,” with a focus on developing new agendas for alternatives with computing technologies related to the quality of human life. 

In their paper, the authors examine how the city of Shenzhen, a manufacturing hub in the South of China, is transforming from a place known for cheap and low-quality production into a global innovation hub. 

Shenzhen is celebrated as the “Silicon Valley for hardware,” attracting government and corporate investors as well as hundreds of maker start-ups who are drawn to the region’s unique practices of open design and manufacturing. Start-ups and manufacturers form alliances to develop new electronic products from IoT (Internet of Things) over virtual reality and robotics to smart home and smart wearables.

The paper describes how Shenzhen’s open manufacturing culture (called shanzhai in Chinese), developed over the last 30 years alongside Western outsourcing and contract manufacturing, shapes hardware entrepreneurship today. Shanzhai refers to the component producers, traders, design solution houses, vendors, and assembly lines that “operate through an informal social network and a culture of sharing that has much in common with the global maker movement,” explain the authors. 

Aligned with the conference’s theme of “Critical Alternatives,” the paper critiques a prevailing myth of technological production that design is a creative process separate from the manufacturing process.

“Our findings challenge the common binary of ‘made in China’ versus ‘designed in California’ that inherently associates the West with creativity and innovation and China with low quality production,” state the authors. “We argue that what we see unfolding in Shenzhen today has an important impact on understandings of the relationship between making, manufacturing and design.”

The paper further contributes a discussion of the current state of participatory design and critical computing: “The central argument [of the paper] is that ‘participation’ in the design process does not only include the social context of the end user, but also, crucially, the material, socio-economic and cultural context of production.”

The full paper is available here.

Traditionally recognized for setting new agendas for critically engaged thinking and information technology, the Aarhus Decennial series has been central in the development of research in critical computing and interdisciplinary approaches. The conference is held every ten years and will take place on August 17-21, 2015 in Aarhus, Denmark (

Posted on August 6, 2015