Tech Innovation in China

A quick report from the LIFT China conference & maker tour of Shanghai and Shenzen.

Anyone following high-tech innovation in Europe also needs to follow what happens in the US (mainly Silicon Valley) and Israel (mainly Tel-Aviv). We know things are happening in China but does it need to be on this watchlist? In September 2014 I headed to the LIFT China conference and LIFT’s tour of the maker/kickstarter ecosystem to better understand what’s happening there.

I’d been to Shanghai 6 years ago (when we were setting up manufacturing for Poken). It’s still the same city but I think since then it feels that there’s a lot more Chinese who have exposure to the west (speaking excellent English, easy to have in-depth discussions about China vs. the West, etc.). There’s also about 1M Westerners in China, many of these working in high-tech.

We had a tour of DFrobot in Shanghai. DFrobot sell robot kits (and related things) online, distributing worldwide. Because their cost base is lower than Europe and also because they are in such a big efficient manufacturing ecosystem, they can design & build products so much cheaper, they can just throw them out there (like this DIY spider bot http://www.dfrobot.com/index.php?route=product/product&path=37&product_id=913 for $6) and because it’s great value there’s a market. Whereas the Swiss approach would be to beautifully engineer something and then struggle to sell a few of them at $200 each.

I started to think that maybe in the same way that Silicon Valley has built an engine which sucks in data, capital and brains, China has built an engine which produces electronics.

When we moved on to Shenzen, we met some of the team from Seeed studio. Seeed in an electronics manufacturing operation which helps design and manufactures hardware products for many of the Kickstarter startups. Again, a very efficient organisation.

We were invited for a tour and discussion of Foxconn. Usually it’s impossible to get a tour of Foxconn, but now they have decided to reach out to the kickstarter/maker community. Foxconn say they want to be innovators, not just assemblers & copycats. They want to enable some of their 1 million employees to start prototyping ideas (as people would in a hacker space), and to also have makers bring ideas to them. They have set up a site where anyone can pitch ideas to them called work2blah.com. This site is in Chinese only because they are not ready to process world-wide applications.

Clearly Foxconn is in a dominant position for doing large scale high-tech manufacturing. When you see the scale of what they have, it seems possible that Foxconn and Shenzen could turn this manufacturing dominance into an engine which sucks in innovation and progressively more of the value chain (and finally rid themselves of their employee-exploitive past).

So maybe the US and China both have powerful engines which increase their dominance in tech, and Europe will be powerless to compete.

Thanks to the LIFT conferece and David Li  from the XinCheJian hacker space for organizing the tour.

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