Made in China: The Boom and Bust of Makerspaces
SHANGHAI — The concrete jungle of Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park was once thronging with investors looking to finance China’s burgeoning tech whizzes. But these days, few people visit 38-year-old Xia Qing’s lab, once a haven for innovators.
“In its heyday three years ago, we had 50 to 60 visitors coming to our makerspace every open night — around 10 were investors looking for businesses,” says Xia, the co-founder of Mushroom Cloud, one of the first makerspaces in China, as he uses a giant laser cutter. “Now if 20 [visitors] show up in a night, that’s not bad.”
Times have changed for makers — people who like to tinker, experiment, and create electronic hardware from scratch — and their communal workshops, or makerspaces. The maker culture originated in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-2000s, while China’s maker movement began in 2010 with Taiwanese startup entrepreneur David Li opening China’s first makerspace Xinchejian in Shanghai. In the ensuing five years, China’s maker culture largely flew under the public’s radar, known only to the community’s hobbyists, tinkers, and hardware engineers.
But in 2015, the central government heralded this once-underground movement as part of an ambitious plan to bolster China’s innovation and entrepreneurship. This prompted a stampede of dubiously named makerspaces hoping to take advantage of the investment surge. Now, however, the bubble’s burst, the money’s evaporated, and many authentic, original makerspaces like Xia’s are left in similar straits: with mountains of resources, but almost no one to use them.
A Call to ‘Make’
“When was the last time you saw ‘maker’ or ‘makerspace’ mentioned in any government report?” Xia asks me with a shrug.
Makerspaces are workshops that offer components, machines, and training to makers. They can operate independently, funded by rent and membership fees, or within sponsor schools or companies. Xia’s co-creation Mushroom Cloud, for example, was backed by a robotics company. Xia, who was one of the first to join China’s first makerspace Xinchejian, describes original maker culture as being “about democratizing manufacturing,” referring to how commercialization has taken away people’s ability to make things on their own. “We feel it’s especially crucial to spread maker culture in China,” Xia tells me. “We want to revive interest in hands-on making among exam-oriented Chinese people and encourage them to think outside the box. We want a makerspace to be a place where everyone can come, create, and communicate.”
But the central government had loftier ambitions — and a different definition of the concept. To officials, makerspaces weren’t just about hobbyists “learning by doing”; they had the potential to create wealth and jobs, and realize a much-touted policy goal of “mass innovation and entrepreneurship.”
On Jan. 4, 2015, Premier Li Keqiang and a team of around 20 scientists and business leaders visited Chaihuo Makerspace in the southern city of Shenzhen — a visit that would change the course of China’s until then little-known maker scene. “Premier Li was very excited,” says the makerspace’s manager Ye Yu. “Looking at the makers’ projects in the makerspace, he kept repeating the words ‘mass innovation and entrepreneurship,’ over and over.” Two days later, China Central Television broadcast the visit. A clip of Premier Li interacting with a robotic arm in the tiny, packed makerspace sent a strong signal: The government wanted makerspaces to be a driving force for China’s economic growth. “Overnight, everyone knew the words ‘maker’ and ‘makerspace’,” says Ye.
The government’s Made in China 2025 strategy, published in 2015, laid out a plan to promote innovation-led economic growth, and to change China’s focus from low-cost manufacturing to innovation, creativity, and design. “The government wanted to persuade people to stop copying and build their own things,” says Ye. “Makerspaces were a big part of its plan to make that happen.” The government also saw makerspaces as a potential way to address the growing numbers of unemployed graduates. As Li says in the CCTV clip, “Startups and entrepreneurship are one way to solve the employment problem, and makerspaces could be where such startups are born.”
After Li’s visit, China’s maker culture received unprecedented attention. Not only did the term “maker” make its debut in the central government’s annual work report in 2015, it was ranked one of the top 10 internet buzzwords that same year. “The word ‘maker’ was suddenly heard, known, and even misinterpreted by the country,” says Ye. “People thought makers are the same as entrepreneurs, and makerspaces are the same as ‘startup factories.’”
Fueled by this interpretation and their emphasis on entrepreneurship, central and local governments rolled out favorable policies that required makerspaces to demonstrate that they were supporting this goal. Makerspaces, for instance, were required to show how many startups and patents they had helped register and how much venture capital the startups had received. All of a sudden, companies, schools, and individuals jumped on the bandwagon. “Everybody became a maker overnight,” says Takasu Masakazu, a Japanese engineer and maker-culture evangelist. “If you walked around Shenzhen, you could see maker cafes, maker barber shops, maker restaurants, maker bakeries … Maker! Maker! Maker! Of course, there was a bubble ballooning behind them.”
The Burst Bubble
The government’s push to turn makerspaces into moneymaking schemes saw a swarm of investors flood the market. But it didn’t boost innovation in the way the government might have hoped.
After the government’s maker push, the previously quiet makerspaces were flooded with unfamiliar new faces, says Xia, the Mushroom Cloud co-founder. “A lot of investors showed up either to look for projects that they could monetize, or to build their own makerspaces. It was quite weird and overwhelming, because we’re not incubators.” Xia points to a model solar system made out of a shoebox and an electric harp. “Why would investors want to commercialize that? We just made it for fun.”
Over in Shenzhen, Chaihuo Makerspace’s Ye grew concerned about the sudden surge in so-called makerspaces that hoped to take advantage of the buzz and government subsidies. Although one of Chaihuo’s former makers went on to found Makeblock — a robotics company now worth $367 million that helps educate children in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — Ye has never been focused on pushing her makerspace members to make a profit. “We never helped a maker in the hopes of making them a unicorn [a startup valued at over $1 billion]. We just want to be a nursery garden of innovators.”
By contrast, Ye believes many self-identified makerspaces are really incubators, accelerators, or co-working spaces — useful spaces for the startup community, but hardly spaces for like-minded creators to encourage hands-on experimentation and tinkering. While official figures put China’s makerspace numbers at 5,500, with a predicted increase to 11,640 by 2021, a 2016 report by the British Council found there were closer to 100 spaces in China that could realistically be called makerspaces — the others provide little-to-no access to tools.
In Huaqiangbei, Shenzhen’s electronic and manufacturing hub that makers call the “Silicon Valley of Hardware,” I stumble across a makerspace company called Segmaker Space. The veteran makers I talked to for this story all describe makerspaces as looking like a messy workshop, but this space looks more like an open-plan office, fitted with rows of cubicles.
“We’re essentially an incubator and an accelerator,” says its manager, Ji Jialin. “Although Segmaker has a small room with three 3D printers, most renting the space are software startups.” When asked why they had called Segmaker a makerspace rather than an incubator, Ji replied that it was to “respond to the government’s call,” adding that in 2015, it was easy to get government funding if you registered to open a makerspace. According to her, most of Shenzhen’s makerspaces, including Segmaker, were built in 2015 after Li’s visit to Chaihuo Makerspace. But since many spaces didn’t offer equipment, training, or other services, they struggled to attract members, Ji tells me, sitting in a spacious, empty lounge intended for her makerspace’s members.
At a café in another suburb of Shenzhen called “Optical Valiey Public Cheative [sic] Space” which also purports to be a makerspace, the waitress is baffled when I ask to see the hardware facilities. “What is a 3D printer? We’re just a café,” she says, looking at me as if no one has ever asked that question before.
Takasu, the Japanese engineer, says that while maker movements in Japan and the U.S. have grown organically, China’s movement developed differently. “In China, much of the maker movement was [due to] an aggressive push by the government using policies and subsidies, but the foundation of making and innovating is still lacking,” he tells me. Xia refers to a well-known Chinese idiom, describing the government’s attempts as being like a gardener yanking on a plant to make it grow faster, but instead killing it in the process.
The negative effects are already becoming apparent, according to Xia, Ye, and Ji. During last month’s three-day Shanghai Maker Carnival — an annual fair to showcase makers and makerspaces — participation numbers fell by 25 percent compared with the year before, according to the carnival’s organizer. When I visit, a few parents who’d just picked their children up from school are perusing the stalls, while one staffer plays idly with her phone. “2018 has been a tough year for makers and makerspaces,” says Carina Lin, PR manager of DFRobot, a Shanghai-based robotics company that organized Shanghai’s maker carnival. “Many makerspaces have closed down. I heard it’s even worse in Shenzhen.”
Reacting to the oversupply of so-called makerspaces, the government and venture capitalists began tightening their purse strings. In October, the Ministry of Science and Technology delisted 24 disqualified makerspaces that lacked equipment and services, or hadn’t made progress on incubating startups. Media commentators warned it could be the start of “a makerspace winter” since, without government subsidies and venture capitalists’ investments, many makerspaces could only scrape by from the rent they got from their members. According to a report released by Beijing Makerspace Alliance last year, around 55 percent of makerspaces were experiencing a financial loss, and the average occupancy rate of makerspaces was only 30 percent — well below the 60 percent many makerspaces need to break-even.
“There are already too many so-called makerspaces, but there aren’t enough makers or startups. Such projects might survive in a rising market, but as capital diminishes, many of them will die out,” says Ji, pointing at one of the few hardware startups in her incubator — a guy controlling a Segway-like scooter with a remote. “I don’t know how long he will hold up: It has no edge in the scooter market,” she says.
But it seems that authentic makerspaces like Mushroom Cloud — spaces which truly encourage members to innovate — have never benefited from the government’s maker push. Subsidies have only been available for those focusing on commercial aspects of making, like incubators, accelerators, and communal working spaces. Even Xinchejian, the makerspace responsible for introducing maker culture to the country, hasn’t received any support.
“If those so-called makerspaces don’t provide facilities, services, and training, are they any different from Starbucks? And yet, it was those spaces that got government funding,” Xia says. “We want the real maker culture to grow, but first we need to figure out how to survive.”
Back on Track?
As he sits in a café across the road from the Shanghai maker carnival, Takasu explains that makerspaces are hardly the first concept to be whipped into a bubble by Chinese officials and investors: “When they see an opportunity, they want to milk it for all it’s worth. In 2014, it was shared bikes. In 2015, it was makerspaces — now it’s AI.” Grabbing my notebook, he draws a chart showing a slow-but-steady curve — the normal development of technology or industries. He draws another chart: exponential growth, followed by a ruthless nosedive. “This is how China is,” Takasu says. “The capital is exhausted, but luckily, maker culture will be back on track.”
To original makerspaces and their founders like Xia, the burst bubble could be a good sign. “The whole maker movement in China moved too fast these past three years, pushed by the rush of capital. Now it’s time to rethink what kind of maker culture is best for China,” Xia says. Although he’s worried about a lack of money, he remains positive about where the movement is headed.
While we talk, a young man in glasses walks in, puts down his backpack, and heads into the laser-cutting lab. “He’s one of our makers,” says Xia, showing me a model of his project. It’s a wireless iPhone charger designed to look like a glowing spell-circle used in witchcraft rituals. The maker, a 30-year-old engineer named Sun Haoqin, tells me he got the idea from YouTube, but no one has yet successfully made it. “I wanted to make a real one that could work,” he says, cutting wood components in the lab.
“This type of maker has always existed in China — we just need to find them,” Xia says. “They’re not a community of hungry entrepreneurs motivated by capital.” He doesn’t believe there’s a lack of innovation and entrepreneurship. Instead, he thinks such things require years of practice and reflection: They don’t just happen overnight by having money thrown at them.
Even a bit of imitation can help, says Takasu, referring to China’s history of making counterfeit, copycat goods: “If you want to start a good rock band like The Beatles, you first need to write 100 songs that sound exactly like The Beatles. Then, maybe when you write your 101st song, you’ll start to be inspired yourself, and add things to your song. This is innovation.”
As I leave Mushroom Cloud, a group of teenagers in school uniforms arrive at the makerspace to take their first maker-education course. Maker education that teaches children hands-on creativity, critical thinking, and freedom to experiment has been springing up across China over the past two years, though even Takasu admits it has the potential to be another bubble. The students look around, their faces glowing with curiosity and excitement. Xia runs over to greet them: “Welcome! Let me show you our equipment room. But first, a quick question: What is a ‘maker’?”
Editor: Julia Hollingsworth.
(Header image: Maker supporters attend an open house at Xinchejian, in Shanghai, June 21, 2017. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)