Shanzhai: China’s Collaborative Electronics-Design Ecosystem

In Shenzhen, there are hundreds of smart watches, not just design prototypes. Here's why.
Silvia Lindtner

Cyberspace, both as word and as vision, entered the popular lexicon through William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. But as it turns out, Gibson wasn’t interested in the Internet until he started buying watches on Ebay. In a 1999 Wired article, he details his compulsive addiction to bidding for vintage mechanical watches—what Gibson calls “fine fossils of a predigital age.” Little did Gibson know that thirty years after Neuromancer, watches and cyberspace would fuse—not only because it is now commonplace to buy watches online, but also thanks to “smart watches” set to become the latest portal into cyberspace.

That smart watches might usher in the next wave of techno-gadgetry should come as no surprise. Watches have long been low-hanging fruit for the fantasy coupling of networks, bodies, and objects, now known as ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) or the Internet of Things (IoT). For centuries, the wristwatch has been the only widespread wearable technology (besides glasses, which are also in the process of becoming “smart”). Mark Weiser’s article The Computer of the 21st century, which is often credited with spearheading the field of ubiquitous computing, begins with the sentence: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear.” Watches are deeply familiar, pervasive and essential to daily life, and as such the perfect instance of that adage. When someone stops to ask if you have the time, the answer comes automatically. Andy Clark calls the act “one of the most characteristic movements of the modern world.” With the watch, technology disappears; what we see is the time. Watches, Clark writes, are the most “humble examples of cyborg technology” symbolizing the inevitable transition to technological transparency.

Today, one of the most visible smart watches is Pebble, which retails for about $200. For the burgeoning hardware start up scene, Pebble is a triumph. After failing to attract traditional investors, Pebble received most of its funding from a record-setting $10 million Kickstarter campaign.

Pebble Technology

But a less virtual reality lurks behind the crowdsourcing success. Once the Kickstarter campaign ended, Pebble had effectively promised to ship over 50,000 watches, a volume that was far beyond the company’s previous experience. So Pebble CEO Eric Migicovsky came to the Southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, the global hub of electronic manufacturing, to bring the product to market at scale.

Some think that ramping up production is just a matter of spending more money to receive more goods, but the transition from making a few things to making many things is not a simple or easy one. Migicovsky encountered a string of problems and delays in the assembly and manufacturing process, which led to late shipments, disappointed customers, and bad PR. Migicovsky seems to have considered manufacture late in the process, only after the completion of the initial prototype used to pitch his Kickstarter horde. Transitioning to commercial scale was thus seen as an uncreative process of mere execution. As a result, Pebble didn’t pay enough attention or respect to the system of trial and error experimentation embedded in the manufacturing culture of Shenzhen.

A different story emerges in the burgeoning wearable electronics market of Southern China, one that is based on a rapid, flexible and open ecosystem called shanzhai 山寨.

Take, World Peace Industrial (WPI), a Taiwanese electronic sourcing company located in Shenzhen, as an example. The company’s application technology unit (ATU) spends millions annually to develop reference circuit boards, called gongban 公板 (“public board”). A gongban can be used by a variety of different companies, who either incorporate it in their products directly or build atop it as they please via modifications. ATU develops 130 gongbans annually in areas ranging from smart phones, tablets, smart watches, smart homes, and industrial controls—and distributes the designs for free. WPI then makes money by trading in the boards’ components.

"We call this shanzhai in Shenzhen. It’s a mass production artwork,” explains Lawrence Lin head of the Application Technology Unit at WPI. Thirty some companies in Shenzhen are shipping their own smart watches with gongban from ATU and gongmo (‘public case’) sourced from the massive shanzhai ecosystem, which consists of tens of thousands of companies that manufacture and distribute goods. 

Shanzhai used to refer to knock-off retail, and later end-consumer electronics, such as mobile phones of major brands like Nokia, Motorola and Ericson, often specifically designed for non-Western markets in China, South East Asia, South America, the Middle East and Africa. The ecosystem grew rapidly and by 2010, it was producing 200 million phones annually and was responsible for a quarter of the global mobile phone market. Since then, the shanzhai ecology has moved beyond cloning and enabled a wealth of iterative innovations including dual-SIM for frequent travelers to avoid roaming charges, seven-speaker phones for workers to listen to music at construction sites, and custom-designed phones for migrant populations unable to afford the latest smartphone.

Presented by

Silvia Lindtner is a research scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and at Fudan University, Shanghai. She is a co-founder of Hacked Matter, a research hub focused on technological production in China.

Anna Greenspan is a professor of urbanism and digital culture at NYU Shanghai. She is a co-founder of Hacked Matter, a research hub focused on technological production in China.

David Li is the co-founder of XinCheJian, the first hackerspace in China. He is also a co-founder of Hacked Matter, a research hub focused on technological production in China.

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