Global Observer

'Hacker Spaces' taking off in China

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SHANGHAI - Even the Chinese government is keen on China's hacker spaces, where white collar workers can indulge their passion for robot design.

Edward Jiang, and his as-yet unnamed obstacle navigating robot.

SHANGHAI - Edward Jiang works as a web designer in Shanghai. Outside the office, he builds robots. His latest creation, made out of a remote-controlled car, navigates itself around chairs and table legs, avoiding obstacles with a home-made sensing system. It took Jiang “a couple of weekends” to hook the parts together, he said.

Jiang spent those weekends at Xinchejian, China’s first ever “Hacker Space.” Taking up a room of a former clothing factory in central Shanghai, shelves lining Xinchejian’s walls overflow with battered motherboards, rolls of cable, and a jumble of other discarded household electronics.

Those parts are fodder for Xinchejian’s members, who come to the space to work on their own designs for robots, electronic devices, or anything which interests them. “We don’t have any limits on what people can make,” David Li, one of the space’s founders, said. “It's a place for people to make things purely for fun.”

Xinchejian has equipment for soldering, 3D printing as well as old-fashioned woodworking. “Robots are popular, but our members don’t have to make hi-tech objects,” Li said.

Li opened Xinchejian in 2010, after reading about other hacker spaces on the internet. Within months the space had over 20 full time members, encouraging Li to move Xinchejian to larger premises last year. Members pay a monthly fee, or help organize workshops and events, including a bi-monthly robot race which sees robots battling against an obstacle course, or racing along a printed track.

Xinchejian co-founder David Li offers advice on a homemade hydroponics set.

On weekday evenings, impromptu talks at Xinchejian draw in a mix of musicians, multimedia artists, office workers and students. “Our membership is pretty evenly split between Chinese and expats,” Li said. For Sunny Sun, a lawyer, the space provides an escape from 9-5 routine. “I spend all day sitting in meetings,” he said. “But here I get the chance to use my hands to make something.”

The Hacker space concept has been spreading through East Asia, with similar spaces opening in Singapore and Hong Kong. Xinchejian is no longer China’s only hacker space, since: Beijing’s “Maker Space,” opened last year, under the guidance of a mysterious hacker known as Flamingo.

Shanghai’s municipal government is also getting in on the act, announcing plans to open 100 hacker spaces by the end of the year, in an attempt to strengthen a culture of innovation. The government funded hacker spaces are likely to be different from Xinchejian, according to Li. “They will probably put more of an emphasis on old-fashioned skills, like woodworking,” he said. Still, Li welcomes the government effort “People forget that Shanghai used to be a manufacturing city, so there’s still a lot of unused talent here,” he said.

Li said that the hacker space is about lowering the barriers for people to get involved with electronics. “We are at the verge of making programmable electronics accessible to everyone,” he said. “You can compare the current situation to where the internet was 10 years ago.”

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Tom Hancock

Correspondent (Beijing)

Correspondent, Beijing Tom Hancock has written for Geographical Magazine, The Asia Society, China Dialogue and AsianCorrespondent.com. He previously worked at CNN's Beijing bureau. He holds a degree from the University of Cambridge and studied at The Renmin University of China. He is based in Beijing, China. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure