Xinchejian Hackerspace Shanghai
Emily Parker writes:
“Xinchejian, founded in 2010, means “new workshop.” It occupies a rented room in a Shanghai warehouse. Members pay around $16 a month to use the space and tools, and on Wednesday nights it is open to the public. The Taiwan-born David Li, a 40-year-old programmer and a co-founder of Xinchejian, wants to lower the barriers for experimentation and play. “It’s not about getting together a group of geeks doing something. It’s a conduit for people to say, ‘This interactive stuff is not that scary, not that difficult.'”
One of these tinkerers might develop the next groundbreaking technology, or at least that is the hope of Chinese policy makers. “Chinese industry has to change. It has to migrate to the next stage. Right now it’s purely contract-based. We execute what other people design,” says Benjamin Koo, an associate professor of industrial engineering at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Others wonder why China doesn’t have more internationally celebrated brands or a homegrown innovator like Steve Jobs.
The Chinese government has taken an interest in the maker movement. Not long after Xinchejian opened its doors, Shanghai officials announced a plan to build 100 government-supported innovation houses. Last November, according to Mr. Li, the Communist Youth League of Shanghai helped to attract over 50,000 visitors to a Maker Carnival, where makers exhibited their creations to the public.
Officials have also visited Xinchejian, and for now, Mr. Li sees their involvement as a positive development. He notes that the lack of accountability in the Chinese political system sometimes encourages innovation and risk-taking. “The policy makers we meet here are genuinely very curious. They have the resources. They are not afraid to try,” he says. “They could build bridges to nowhere, and they will still have a job.”
But simply building more hackerspaces won’t transform China into an innovation hub. The country’s education system is widely criticized for its emphasis on the gaokao, or university entrance examination, which rewards rote learning. Mr. Li thinks the larger issue is China’s rapid development and the great pressure people feel to provide for their families. He says that some of the best hackers in Xinchejian are the “second-generation rich,” who are set for life and thus free to experiment.
Whatever the cause, many Chinese simply don’t have time for tinkering. Tsinghua University’s Mr. Koo, originally from Taiwan, described going to one of China’s top high schools and asking a group of some 400 people how many had enjoyed five minutes to themselves since childhood. “Nobody raised their hand,” he said.
Now he is trying to teach Tsinghua students the maker spirit, giving them opportunities to work with their hands. Mr. Koo’s classes are project-based, and “every team, starting from the first year, has to do something on their own.” He gets funding from the university for his students’ projects and for organizing maker events. “I will spend some departmental money to buy a box of toys so they can physically construct anything.” (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303722604579111253495145952.html)