Dubbed the “Silicon Valley of Hardware,” Shenzhen has transformed from a small fishing village to a metropolis booming both technologically and economically. Today, the tech giants who call Shenzhen home include Tencent, Huawei, ZTE, and BGI. Located in Southern China, right next door to Hong Kong, Shenzhen‘s fast-growing electronics culture is becoming the global leader in innovation.
From Rags to Riches
Today, entrepreneurs, programmers, and engineers around the world drool over the vast amount of resources Shenzhen provides. However, the allure of the city’s tech culture is only a recent development. Historically, Shenzhen was merely a small fishing village, with its population of 300,000 people suffering in a prolonged era of extreme poverty. Today the population has climbed to roughly 12 million.
Prior to the 1980s, China’s population faced extreme poverty, with very little wiggle room for entrepreneurial ambitions or freedom for that matter. Because of the stagnation of industry, many were restricted to working in the fields and living on food stamps. To lead the country out of this poor economic state, leaders from Beijing decided to create economic reforms through what is known as China’s four special economic zones: Shenzhen, Shantou, Zhuhai, Guandong Province, and Xiamen, with each located next to a city with a pre-existing, well-developed economy.
The purpose of these economic zones was to generate jobs and stimulate the economy. Deng Xiaoping, a Chinese Prime Minister, introduced economic reforms in China, which led to the Shenzhen we see today. The historical mission behind the development of this city was to introduce and absorb knowledge, ideas, and technology from around the world. The rapid rate of innovation enticed those who wanted more freedom from around various corners of the world: entrepreneurs, makers (Shenzhen’s preferred term for inventors), engineers, programmers, you name it. Consequently, Shenzhen began to evolve far faster than any of Shenzhen’s developers and planners had ever anticipated. Now, it’s one of the global leaders in technology.
The Hyperactive Startup Scene: Tech Paradise
The technology scene in Shenzhen is unlike any other in the world. There’s no time to dilly-dallying. Each maker in the city is determined to produce the best product or prototype in the cheapest and quickest way possible. While a product may take eight months to a year from idea to market release anywhere else in the world, this same process only takes roughly three months in Shenzhen. Now that’s fast…
But what exactly differentiates Shenzhen from any other tech hub in the world?
Meet Huaqiangbei Electronics Market, located in the Futian district of Shenzhen. Here, there are over one hundred shops and vendors who sell, repair, and modify electronic components and devices for other inventors and consumers. It’s every techie’s paradise. Forget waiting in line for hours or sitting impatiently for a shipment of hardware supplies to arrive at your doorstep. Here, every piece of hardware you could imagine is at your disposal. New, modified mobile phones can be created in a matter of days by picking up components from around the market and tweaking them, specific hardware for a prototype can be found and tested by scouring the market’s immense supply of resources, and a cracked phone screen can be fixed in a matter of minutes. As a result, Huaqiangbei Market is now a source of inspiration and discovery for makers, engineers, and consumers.
A Culture of Rapid Innovation
However, it’s not only the supply of technology readily available to anyone that sets Shenzhen apart. It’s the community, the ecosystem in which the technology industry operates.
Shenzhen is an engineer’s paradise: Seemingly unlimited resources of electronic parts are available for startups and inventors to easily buy in bulk at cheap prices. As a result, these makers can go into production at a very quick rate, while it could take months to create the very same prototype in the U.S., Europe, or anywhere else in the world.
Skilled electrical engineers span the entire city: on the streets, in startups, in large corporations, in schools. The culture of Shenzhen encourages its young demographic to invent, to innovate, and most importantly to be creative. Many of these talented engineers are products of Shenzhen’s apprenticeships programs: students learn the necessary skills from a mentor and eventually become the owners or vendors in the popular Huaqiangbei Market.
As the hub of innovation and inventions, Huaqiangbei Market is where new inventions are created each and every day. Makers take a look at products currently on the market and find a way to improve it. They often create their own prototypes by combining various parts and products they find to create a completely new piece of technology. This eagerly innovative mindset is what drives Shenzhen. It’s what separates Shenzhen from the rest of the world, where innovation is trumped by legal battles of intellectual property.
Is it Called “Sharing” or “Stealing” Ideas?
In Shenzhen, the community strongly believes in the principle of the freedom to create, explore, and invent. Shenzhen’s makers live by open source hardware and software, where people share information online on how to build the inventions they have released on the market. That information is then used by the rest of the community to modify and improve upon. The whole purpose is that everyone has access to the information, and everyone and anyone can modify it. This is what is referred to as the “Maker Movement.”
Now, drop this idea in any other tech hub in the world: their take on this philosophy won’t coincide with that of Shenzhen’s. The main issue these other cities and technology communities face is: How do we protect the intellectual property of ideas, while also profiting off of those ideas?
While Shenzhen does not differentiate those inventing products in the spirit of pure curiosity and interest versus those creating products as a business, the rest of the world does. The mindset of any other city is to create an idea no one has thought of, obtain patents to protect their idea, and sue any company or engineer who tries to copy them in any way, and dominate the market with their product. Consequently, an obscene amount of money is spent and made through the patent system and copyrights, by hiring lawyers to protect their intellectual property. However, in the end, products are often not even made. Merely an idea is created and protected legally. Rather than sharing ideas to create a culture of innovation, many are protective of their designs and ideas and keep it to themselves. This creates a monopoly. Now only one company has the legal right to sell and manufacture a specific technology globally. But how exactly does that spur innovation? How does that encourage the evolution of modern-day technology?
In Shenzhen, nobody has the time for jumping through legal hoops. With their open source mentality, the city’s makers invent with the expectation that their projects will be open source, thus available to be copied and modified by the rest of the community — “the more the merrier” as they say. They believe in the improvement of products and in innovation, not the legal attachment to their creations. The open source philosophy does not support or believe in monopolies; it believes in building networks and collaborating with other inventors. Thus, Shenzhen’s strong network of people who collaborate and share ideas have created the industry’s unique ecosystem of ideas and innovations.
Shanzhai — imitation of trademarked brands or electronics
Shanzhai are knock-off consumer goods, which look very similar to those created by trademark brands, but are produced at a lower price and quality for the public. The term “Shanzhai” is written as 山寨, which literally translates to “mountain village”, where so-called outlaws were far from any acting authority or government control. These Shanzhai products began when workers quit their jobs at manufacturing factories and created and sold a very similar product faster and cheaper on the streets or markets of Shenzhen. As a result, it has led to the empowerment of the lower classes to take part in the development of technology’s latest advancements.
The Shenzhen community doesn’t call those who modify products “copycats,” because improving technology is the philosophy that drives the city and its people. They expect to create and innovate faster than those with similar or identical products: it’s a cycle of constant innovation. It’s not stealing ideas, it’s sharing ideas. So how do they answer the question: How do you stop people from copying you? They say, “Make your product better.”
Shenzhen’s rapidly growing technology industry and the talent driving it is the reason why the city is ahead of the curve, by roughly a year ahead of the rest of the world. Most likely, in the upcoming years, the term “made in China” will be proof of Shenzhen’s technological prowess. But how will the rest of the world keep up with Shenzhen at the rate they’re evolving?
A Guide to Startups in Shenzhen
Below is a guide to startup accelerators for techies looking to join in on the ever-growing startup scene of Shenzhen:Home – Shenzhen Valley Ventures
A hardware accelerator that provides startups access to exclusive engineering and hardware testing equipmentsvv.ioThe World’s First and Largest Hardware Accelerator – HAX
Build, launch, and ship your product at super speed with help from the world’s first and most prolific hardware…hax.co