Excerpted from the MIT Technology Review’s Inside Shenzhen’s race to outdo Silicon Valley by An Xiao Mina and Jan Chipchase:
In much the same way that open-source software enables a global community of developers to copy and remix each other’s work, rapidly creating variants on a piece of software to meet different needs, the shanzhai method delivered “hardware memes”—gadgets quickly designed and built out of easily sourced and readily interchangeable parts. Just as digital news outlets might test multiple headlines and tweets to see which one gets the most clicks, a shanzhai manufacturer would release 10 products with a mixture of copied and original designs, and go with whatever worked… “Shanzhai is a form of ‘blindfold design,’” explains Innozen cofounder Michael Zheng. The process, he says, contains no overarching strategy, and “the technological barriers are constantly lowering.”
The scooters themselves are all made in China, but the companies that brand and distribute them might be in Barcelona (Joyor), Mexico City (Grin), or California (Bird and Lime). In some cases competing distributors even use the same physical scooters, just with different branding and apps… SZOIL founder David Li calls this the expression of “China as a service.” Instead of having to learn to build electric scooters, Joyor, Grin, Bird, and Lime can focus on the work that requires local knowledge, like distribution and getting permits from city governments.
“There’s a real eagerness in Shenzhen in terms of reaching out and welcoming collaborations,” says Seyram Avle, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who has been studying connections between Shenzhen and the African continent since 2015. She’s documented how entrepreneurs from countries like Ghana and Ethiopia might travel to China or use online services to build businesses for local needs, ranging from making phone chargers with LED lights to testing prototypes for agricultural and medical hardware. “I think the real hero of the story is the small-scale businesses in Accra, in Lagos, in Nairobi, in Shenzhen, reaching out across to each other and building things they think have value for their own people,” Avle says.