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The futuristic new Terminal 3 at Shenzhen Airport reflects the city’s ambition to be regarded as a hi-tech hub for international business. In the streets and lifts of nearby office blocks, everyone seems to be carrying reels of old-fashioned tape recorder spools. To outside observers, this city of 10-15 million may look like another baffling Chinese metropolis. In Shenzhen, you have everything you need to turn a sketch on a napkin into 100,000 smartwatches, bike lights or drones, all shipped to Amazon or Argos in time for Christmas 2014.
Twenty years ago, digital tools made it possible to build internet businesses with minimal costs; a company like Facebook could launch from a dorm room without any major investment. Hi-tech entrepreneurs are having an idea, building a prototype, making a convincing promotional video, then posting it to the world on Kickstarter. One bench houses Helios, a startup from Sacremento, California, which makes smart handlebars for bikes with built-in GPS, Bluetooth and a lot of LEDs.
But as these low-paid jobs move inland, or to other Foxconn bases in eastern Europe and Mexico, so Shenzhen has recognised the need for change; to move up the value chain into design, branding, marketing and retail. But perhaps the city’s best hope for a design-led future comes from an unlikely source.
Despite their disregard for intellectual property laws and safety testing, the culture of the shanzhai manufacturers is modern and collaborative.
Tom Whitwell is a digital consultant working with the British Council's Creative Economy programme, which connects creative pioneers through international initiatives such as Playable City and Unbox.
Born in La Spezia, Italy, and raised in Rome, he started acting professionally at the age of seven. Barbra Streisand and Siri, Flea and Koko, Frank Ocean and more Frank OceanDecca Aitkenhead on Empathy and MemoryWeekend News Roundup!
Inside the Huaqiangbei electronics markets of Shenzhen, every booth on all 10 floors represents a factory somewhere in southern China’s Pearl River Delta megalopolis.
In fact, these contain tiny components embedded in paper tapes, with 16,000 LED lights on each. But for a small global community of hackers and entrepreneurs, this is a technological nirvana – a vibrant, multi-coloured landscape of possibility, opportunity and creative exploration.
Within walking distance of his building are circuit-board manufacturers, injection-moulding companies, packagers and shippers.

If the idea catches fire, the founders may find themselves with a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank, a prototype, and a host of excited customers to satisfy.
Helios came to Shenzhen with an idea, finished the design and launched on Kickstarter with an uplifting promo video, raising $120,000 in pre-orders. By riding the wave, Shenzhen hopes to become the Silicon Valley of the world’s hardware startups. In 1979, it was declared a Special Economic Zone (China’s first) and surrounded by an 85-mile, barbed-wire fence. In the 1990s, Shenzhen filled up with markets, factories, entrepreneurs and skilled workers, and some of those resources found their way into the underground culture of shanzhai – copycat electronics.
The 30-year-old founder of Seeed Studio is a Forbes China magazine cover star and a living embodiment of the Shenzhen dream.
No international hardware startup has made the journey from a Huaqiangbei booth to a stock-market listing.
The rep will sell you one tiny component or a hundred thousand, to be delivered to your factory within a week.
He is three hours from factories making every imaginable electronic component, and three days by FedEx from 90% of the world’s population. Now that’s changed, and making a proof-of-concept for an internet-connected doorbell or GPS-enabled tennis racket is a weekend project for the right kind of geek.
It’s a phenomenally complicated product, involving heavy-duty metalwork, precision-moulded plastic components, radio signals from space and apps for your smartphone. Investment and migrant workers flooded the area, and factories and housing were built from scratch. The first metro station opened in 2004; now there are 131 stations, with three new lines being built simultaneously. Twenty years later, it had grown to up to 400,000 employees, producing hundreds of thousands of Apple products every day. In the early 2000s it was fake MP3 players and Polystation games consoles, but in due course smartphones also proved perfect for shanzhai manufacture – some estimates put their current share of the global mobile phone shipment market at 25%.
Chinese component manufacturers spend R&D money to develop gongban - publicly available designs for products such as smartphones, tablets and smart watches. Pan grew up in Sichuan, studied electrical engineering and briefly working for Intel in Beijing. At the end of each day, aisles are blocked with cardboard boxes and the markets fill with the sound of ripping parcel tape, as packages are sealed and despatched into fleets of vans waiting outside. They’ll rent an apartment, learn a few words of Chinese, and likely apply for a tech incubator scheme such as HAXLR8R.

The updates on the Kickstarter page are a catalogue of little disasters and triumphs: broken moulds, patchy GPS reception, interminable Chinese holidays and, finally, huge stacks of boxes ready to ship. By the mid-90s, the population of Shenzhen had climbed to 3 million, and its Window On The World theme park had opened with one-third-scale reproductions of the Eiffel Tower and 130 other world monuments. They’re designed to fit into gongmo - the equivalent public designs for cases and enclosures.
Then he went to Shenzhen for a weekend, walked into the Huaqiangbei electronics market, and realised this was his destiny. The bad press and global attention came as a huge shock for the company, and the following year it moved 300,000 jobs away from Shenzhen, 1,000 miles north to a plant in Zhengzhou that can produce 200,000 iPhones a day.
They were well aware that it is not a job in which you can make money." At 16, Richelmy brought up acting again. He was accepted to drama school a year earlier than usual and entered into his own lentil and beans period, acting in Italian TV shows and in Kubrik—Una Storia Porno, a web series about young Italian filmmakers who somehow find themselves shooting a porno.
Marketed as a new Game of Thrones, the first season of Polo follows the famed Italian explorer as he leaves Venice and arrives at the court of Kublai Khan, the ruler of the Mongolian Empire and grandson of Genghis Khan. Marco's father promptly abandons him in exchange for a permit to trade along the Mongolian-controlled Silk Road. Negotiating his own survival, Marco transitions from a prisoner to a tolerated curiosity to a trusted advisor. I think what they found in me was that I was first of all Italian, and open-minded and a traveler. My stepfather has a passion for Asia, and he brought me there two months a year every year from nine to 16. But then he spent 20 years in Asia and he brought nothing back—what kind of merchant was he? He wasn't a merchant, he was really an explorer, and he was driven by his passion for life—curiosity.
He tried to tell all the people the great things he saw in China and Mongolia, but nobody believed him, probably because of the Church.

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