Tag Archives: shenzhen

Becoming one with nature

 

Known both regionally and internationally as an economic experimental city, Shenzhen is a busy mix of sleek, modern development contrasted to the seemingly chaotic urban villages- the epitome of mixed-use space- full of multi-unit dwellings hovering over a plethora of commercial fronts: green grocers, bike repair shops, meat markets, electronics stores, restaurants…the list goes on. Regardless of the type of development, Shenzhen’s economic experiment has quickly put the city at odds in finding developable space and it is probably the last place where you might think to find a space for nature.

A father and daughter fishing in the park.

Western culture typically views nature as a coveted resource that must be protected and preserved. Think of any US National Park or Forest. Despite the Western reverence for these natural environments, there remains a tension with this perspective and the equally valued desire for recreational access to our national treasures. In contrast, the Chinese perspective of the relationship between humans and nature is one of harmony among all things, both organic and inorganic. This Confucian and Taoist outlook has informed the high degree of “urbanization” in many natural spaces. From paving concrete paths to building hotels and restaurants, all have been done in an effort to create accessibility and accommodation for more people to enjoy the beauty in nature. The 11th Century Chinese literary tradition, shan shui, says that humans can play a role to enhance nature in a way that acknowledges the sacredness of what is natural if the development is consistent with a valued heritage.

Massive skyscrapers and modern buildings envelop the park.

Badminton matches surrounding a park temple.

This perspective of nature has become much more visible to me after spending the last couple weeks here in Shenzhen. I have taken to early morning runs through a nearby park (as it is one of the only times during a Shenzhen summer day that is semi-tolerable for being physically active). Each morning, I am amazed by the number and array of people who fill the park, occupying the planned sections to cultivate their own sense of connection with nature.

Enjoying a peaceful moment before a demanding workday.

One of many groups in the park practicing meditative movement.

I shuffle alongside many other runners/walkers/yoggers as we move around the path, circling the perimeter. It’s hard to not get lured in by all of the other side paths and outlets of activity I see as I pass by: people playing badminton around a temple; a group of color coordinated women practicing dance; and many clusters of people practicing meditative movement.

Team of ladies practicing their choreography.

One of many groups in the park practicing meditative movement.

Despite my first (Western-oriented) impression of this park being a manicured and superimposed reality of nature, I now realize and observe people finding authentic connections to this form of nature and the people they share the space with.

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Shenzhen: a city of cranes, construction, and ongoing conformations

Walking around Shenzhen construction and adaptations are on every street corner. It may not be shocking to most, as the city is the same age as Michael Phelps [just over 30 years old], so it is still establishing as a place to this day. However, the city has strict environmental provisions limiting its buildable land to only 7% of Shenzhen’s total land area (Zhou, 2014). City authorities have been greatly practicing the “out with the old and in with the new” across the city as it demolishes urban villages, tears down a 20 year old skyscrapers to replace it with a massive world-record-breaking buildings like Ping An Finance Centre at a towering 115 floors. Just down from Difu Hotel and UPDIS lies a superblock-sized, 50+ foot hole that I have been yelled at for attempting to photograph. It’s plans are unknown to me, but I imagine it will be a massive development towering over the 15-floor buildings adjacent.

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Ping An Finance Centre to open doors in late 2016.

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Mary Ann O’Donnell, anthropologist, curator, blogger, and urban village activist, stands in a demolished area in Langkou Urban Village.

It’s not to say all construction is of massive scale. Sometimes we see one or two people jack hammering away at the sidewalk tiles to replace them with mismatched cement. I always wonder how this coordination works for maintenance of things like this? Are people assigned an area and find random things to tear apart and return to the next day to repair? Is there a list of small projects to be repaired? How does this coordination fit within the larger picture?

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Cement truck forces pedestrians to the street in Futian District.

As it seems, construction vehicles are not regulated like other freight vehicles in the city. At any time of the day, a sidewalk could be blocked with a truck dumping tons of cement into the site, laying a brand new foundation. Additionally, many of these construction sites house workers which are usually migrants from rural communities within greater China. They live in temporary shipping container like housing that leaves a mark on the redevelopment when it is torn down. These migrants move from one job to the next just to make a living – they could be gone overnight.

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Sidewalk torn up to lay new lines underneath – not closed to pedestrians or cyclists though.

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On a Sunday, these workers do not see a day of rest.

Shenzhen Bay Super Headquarters is visible from our tandem bike ride along the water. From afar, you can see 20+ cranes in the skyline. Before redevelopment began, the area was home to only 30,000 residents. Whereas now, it is expected to employ and house nearly 10 million people and 500 enterprises. The plan calls for high-quality construction that can last up to a century, but many people in Shenzhen argue that developers take a cheaper approach to save time and money to be able to move on to the next project. As you can imagine, this will lead to a lower quality of building in need of redevelopment in one or two decades. How ‘sustainable’.

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Across Shenzhen Bay, you can see the many, many cranes across the new skyline of Shenzhen Bay Super Headquarters.

So my questions I still ponder are: When will construction be tapped out? At the quality of design being implemented, can we ever expect to see a significant decrease in construction? How does coordination of authorities, developers, maintenance, water and sewerage services compare to that of the United States [something we are most criticized, our coordination between departments and services]? And of course the affordability component – all of this construction and redevelopment is making Shenzhen well on its way to a very expensive place to live. How will people survive here? Will a young person like myself, making an entry-level professional salary of maybe 8,000CNY be able to afford 4,000-6000CNY a month for rent? Urban Villages are being demolished right and left – where do these people go? Especially if they do not have urban residency, are they forced back to rural China? Will Shenzhen continue to conform to modern gentrification and displacement hardships we are trying to recover and mitigate in the United States?

I am anxious for people’s input regarding the topic, so please comment with your suggestions, theories, opinions, questions, etc.

Olivia H

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Hardware Manufacturing in Shenzhen: An Expatriate Maker Space Spurs Innovation

By Eric Rutledge

After learning about my research on start-up businesses in urban villages, Hans Stam graciously invited me to visit him at Troublemaker, a shared maker space he co-founded in the Huaqiangbei Subdistrict of Shenzhen. 

Hans Stam says he discovered Shenzhen just like most other expatriates now living in the city – by accident. But for the Holland native who sold his first tech start-up to Microsoft for €500,000, his run in with China’s buzzing computer hardware capital seems less fortuitous than he leads on. As the Chinese Central Government pushes for innovation and entrepreneurship to lead the country into the future, Shenzhen is competing with other major cities like Beijing and Guangzhou to be recognized as China’s Silicon Valley. And by many measures the southern Chinese city of 20 million has a good start, including a vertically integrated computer hardware industry, a blossoming cloud computing industry, and leading universities like the Harbing Institute of Technology (Graduate School at Shenzhen) and Tsinghua University (Graduate School at Shenzhen). The city is also home to tech giants like Huawei, the largest telecom manufacturer in the world and Tencent, the company behind WeChat instant messaging with over a billion active users.

In the Huaqiangbei Subdistrict of Shenzhen, Stam and three other co-founders are helping young expatriates turn their ideas into products in a shared work space called Troublemaker. Troublemaker rents desk space to start-ups, independent inventors, and anyone else trying their hand at creating something new. The rent includes access to an adjacent “micro-factory”, business consulting services, and an introduction to angel investors. “I saw a problem and I wanted to solve it,” Stam told me during an interview in the shared space. The problem Stam saw was the difficulty of prototyping and manufacturing products. Troublemaker solves this problem by allowing its customers to turn over a hardware prototype in a matter of hours or days, not weeks or months. By locating above the world famous Huiqiangbei Electronics Market, Troublemaker users have access to abundant, high quality, and inexpensive hardware parts. The innovators simply purchase their pieces downstairs, then come back up to the seventh floor and use the micro-factory, better known as a maker space, to create their prototype. Stam explains, “If you want to build a prototype in Europe, your first prototype is going to take 3 months. Here, it’s one week.”

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Stam (front left), talking to a colleague in the “micro-factory”

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Prototypes on trays

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Huaqiangbei Electronics Market below Troublemaker

But for new innovators and entrepreneurs, navigating the start-up process and taking their  gadget from prototype to mass production can be difficult. This is especially true for expatriates, where building a relationship with factories and understanding the business culture are common barriers that lead to failure. For start-ups that need business support, Troublemaker is ready to help. Robert Mavatne, CEO of Troublemaker told me, “We know plenty of angel investors.” And although Troublemaker doesn’t take equity in new start-ups itself, if a young entrepreneur is interested in obtaining seed capital in Shenzhen, Mevatne can make the introduction. After an introduction, a start-up firm is likely to receive funding. According to recent Financial Times survey of Shenzhen-based start-ups, 92% of respondents said they had received some sort of venture capital funding and only 16% said they had trouble accessing it.

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The front lobby of Hua Qiang Bei International Maker Center, where Troublemaker is headquartered

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A start-up down the hall from Troublemaker, at the Hua Qiang Bei International Maker Center
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A list of businesses that have office space at the Hua Qiang Bei International Makers Center

But back at Troublemaker headquarters, Stam seems less focused on seed money and more focused on bringing people and ideas together. “The maker space is not a space, it’s a community… Troublemaker is about the network,” Stam explained. That network includes mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, printed circuit board specialists, and more. By bringing together the right people in the right environment, Stam believes innovation will happen, “It shouldn’t be all about entrepreneurship, it should be about fun and solving problems”.

Despite catering to expatriates, Troublemaker and other maker spaces around Shenzhen play an important role in developing the innovation and entrepreneurship that the Chinese government is aggressively pursuing. Maker spaces allow students and other emerging innovators to gain practical skills. According to Stam, manufacturing a tangible product is very different than dreaming up a design on a computer screen. Troublemaker’s micro-factory offers an affordable, accessible place for aspiring hardware designers to develop their skills. The company is planning to bring on interns from Chinese universities and Stam and other experts already teach free innovation lessons at local grade schools. “Shenzhen Middle School No. 2 is my favorite… kids speak good english there, so its easy,” Stam said

Looking to the future, both the Chinese Central Government and the expatriate micro-factory have growth on their mind. As local governments across China continue to pour money into innovation and entrepreneurship, Troublemaker has already opened up shop in Norway and is planning new maker spaces in Berlin and Seattle. Stam is planning to fly clients from the German capital to Shenzhen, introducing them to the ease of turning out new prototypes in Huaqiangbei. With regular flights from Germany to China, perhaps the next Hans Stam is just one flight away from discovering Shenzhen like most other expatriates – by accident.

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A young inventor assembles an electronic piece at Troublemaker

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Stam (right) and a visitor to the micro-factory

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Troublemaker customers talk over a beer

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A seating area in the Hua Qian Bei International Maker Center

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Desk space at Troublemaker

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