From iPhones to sneakers, Chinese imitations are everywhere—but these products could actually be good for innovation
China is in the midst of a modern-day Industrial Revolution, where the fortunes and reputations of the next generation of Carnegies, Mellons, and Rockefellers are being forged. But instead of the steel and oil of the past, you'll find tightly integrated circuit boards. Instead of steam, there is intellectual property and the Internet. And as with the Industrial Revolution of yore, old rules don't apply.
One important element of the innovation space in China today is shanzhai culture. The literal translation of the word is "mountain stronghold," an ancient holdover, but these days it refers to knock-off goods and imitation electronics. The quality of these counterfeits ranges from horrible to superb. You could find nothing more than a branded sticker placed on an outrageously badly designed product, or you could find a device that's you-can't-tell-the-difference excellent. The practice has been going on for long enough so that the shanzhai manufacturers are starting to outpace the markets that they originally aspired to. They're also bringing with them a degree of innovation that any futurist would be proud of.