The makerspace bubble in China

Image courtesy of Xue Yujie/Sixth Tone.

Maker culture is brimming with the spirit of innovation, creativity and yes, even entrepreneurship. It is no surprise then that China has lasered in on makers and makerspaces as a potential wellspring to buttress China’s massive GDP growth of the past two decades. Indeed, in a country that has 40% of its economy in industry, maker technology is going to check a lot of boxes and slot into the current paradigm rather neatly.

The government’s Made in China 2025 strategy, published in 2015, laid out a plan to promote innovation-led economic growth, and to change China’s focus from low-cost manufacturing to innovation, creativity, and design. “The government wanted to persuade people to stop copying and build their own things,” says Ye. “Makerspaces were a big part of its plan to make that happen.” The government also saw makerspaces as a potential way to address the growing numbers of unemployed graduates. As Li says in the CCTV clip, “Startups and entrepreneurship are one way to solve the employment problem, and makerspaces could be where such startups are born.”

Over at Sixth Tone, Xue Yujie discusses the Chinese government’s interest, subsequent subsidization and investment in makerspaces. It seems that the government hoped that these changes would usher in a new era of Chinese industry, but the outcome isn’t materializing quite the way they had hoped.

Takasu, the Japanese engineer, says that while maker movements in Japan and the U.S. have grown organically, China’s movement developed differently. “In China, much of the maker movement was [due to] an aggressive push by the government using policies and subsidies, but the foundation of making and innovating is still lacking,” he tells me. Xia refers to a well-known Chinese idiom, describing the government’s attempts as being like a gardener yanking on a plant to make it grow faster, but instead killing it in the process.

The article is, at base, really a story about the limits and pitfalls of state incentive. This could come across as a typical capitalist critique of the “socialist market economy”, but we can see all kinds of things like across the world, even in aggressive capitalist systems like the United States. Venture capital, especially in the maker market over the past 10 years, has led to more than a few spectacular failures.  Too much money and too little scrutiny can lead to unsustainable bubbles in industry, with little to show for all the effort and investment.

“We’re essentially an incubator and an accelerator,” says its manager, Ji Jialin. “Although Segmaker has a small room with three 3D printers, most renting the space are software startups.” When asked why they had called Segmaker a makerspace rather than an incubator, Ji replied that it was to “respond to the government’s call,” adding that in 2015, it was easy to get government funding if you registered to open a makerspace. According to her, most of Shenzhen’s makerspaces, including Segmaker, were built in 2015 after Li’s visit to Chaihuo Makerspace. But since many spaces didn’t offer equipment, training, or other services, they struggled to attract members, Ji tells me, sitting in a spacious, empty lounge intended for her makerspace’s members.

Ironically enough,  it would seem that organic growth might do a lot better, or at least as well as the artificial stimulus China has injected into the maker market. This space has a ton of potential, and the ecosystem is sure to change quite a bit over the next few years — we’ll see how much freedom and support the Chinese put towards this nascent but growing market, and how well it does as a result.

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