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.

In the emerging area of smart watches, WPI and other solution houses create gongban, which provide common electronic functions including Bluetooth connectivity to mobile phones, and sensors to measure the wearers' movement, as well as monitor heart rate and other vital bodily statistics. These gongban are designed to fit into a variety of gongmo that are ready to be branded on order. The flexibility to mix and match gongban and gongmo enable companies to quickly put together their own smart watches with customized functions and styles for various niche markets. Today, customers of WPI ship close to 100,000 smart watches per month.

A smart watch depicting gongban, the board, and gongmo, the casings (Anna Greenspan)

For years now, mobile- and smart phones have challenged watches’ monopoly on time-keeping. But what seemed like a shift may soon prove an anomaly. Among youth, even the basic “dumb” watches have come back in to style. Unlike tablets or smart phones, watches bear the status of a relic, fossils of a pre-digital age William Gibson thrust upon them. The world doesn’t need a company like Apple to define the form or style of a watch. Rather, watches draw on a long history of rich and varied designs (from the elegance of fine jewelry to the useful, playful or funky cheap accessory). Therefore, they have the potential to counter a scarcity of design, in which wearable “smart devices” come from engineers rather than fashion designers or jewelry makers.

We may soon see many more designers from all over the world come to Shenzhen to harness its vast, open, experimental manufacturing culture to make their creations intelligent. After visiting the recent Shenzhen Maker Faire, Make magazine founder Dale Dougherty noted that “because the resources for making anything are so widely available in China and the expertise is so broad, they are hungry for new ideas and they can turn them into products faster than anywhere.” Smart watches could do more than spearhead the next wave of technology. They might also change the ways in which technologies are created as well as the culture and geographies within which they are produced.

Clocks were invented in China in the eleventh century, but their true power was not unleashed until three hundred years later when the technology was rediscovered in Europe. The first of these machines, the mechanical clock, severed time from the events that occurred inside it. Clocks unhinged temporality from the movements of the planets, the cyclic repetition of seasons and the light/dark rhythms of the days. Absent this spatial and qualitative bias, clock time became distinct from the rituals and rhythms of traditional life. In the words of social historian Lewis Mumford, clocks became the “key machine of the modern industrial age,” producing an abstract, ordered, and scientifically measurable model of time within which life could be structured, disciplined, and rationalized.

Today, we are at the cusp of another revolution in time-keeping technology. The process through which clocks become intelligent will involve an engagement between China and the world, but this time a synchronized one. In a globalized world, which now keeps the same time, products emerge simultaneously in several places at once. The development of smart watches requires more intimate connections between those who design new products (wherever they may be) and the Chinese ecosystem of mass manufacturing that knows how to produce them at scale. This new relationship, which is only now being forged, is poised to change the development of smart devices of the future.

This post is based on research from the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing