Notes from the Shenzhen Original Design Fair
If you want to experience Woody Allen's claim that "80 per cent of success is just showing up," I recommend you speak at a conference in China. I just had the honor of being invited to the Shenzhen Original Design Fair, which, in its fourth year, brought together "elite designers," as the local daily called them, with the Shenzhen design and manufacturing community. Although not a designer myself, I represented an "elite design firm" (frog), and I was therefore welcomed with the utmost respect and the occasional "I love frog" adulation. Clearly, Chinese design students, practitioners, and officials alike are extremely receptive to learning from Westerners' best practices -- to the point where I just wanted to tell them: Stop listening to others. Stop listening to me. Stop considering originality something you can copy. And start to understand that "You are unique, just like everybody else," as Margaret Mead put it.
The rallying cry for originality and innovation is nowhere more relevant than in Shenzhen, a city bigger than London (imagine Las Vegas with less fun -- it even has a mini- Eiffel Tower) and the first special economic development zone under Deng Xiaping's reform policy. At the beginning of the 1980s, Shenzhen was an unremarkable fishing village, but over the next three decades it has become an emblem of the Chinese capitalism that Zhang Weiying and his colleagues were building. Shenzhen is now home to more than 14,000 manufacturers and more than 200 industrial design firms. Leading Shenzhen-based companies such as Konka, Huawei, and ZTE have established design departments in Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the US. Oh, and the iPhone is manufactured here.
The first booth I saw when I entered the ultra-modern convention center was that of the Office for Intellectual Property Rights Protection. But don't be mistaken, the Shenzhen design community has grown in sophistication and originality. The design firms which presented their work at the Fair were pretty impressive. It was eye-opening to see the quality of the exhibited products. Consequently, everyone I spoke with confirmed that China's main challenge on its path from a manufacturing economy to an information economy to a creative economy is not the lack of talent (which is abundant), but rather to unlock, reward, and translate this talent into tangible outcomes. International advice is welcome: Ken Cato, an Australian brand design consultant, presented "10 Things to Know About Brands," and product designer Paul Cohen drew parallels between Australian and Chinese design culture. An apparently renowned British architect, whose name is escaping me, mumbled something about "the great ordinary," and I was wondering what would better describe China: "the great ordinary" or "the ordinary great"?
In the ensuing panel discussion, I contended that design is not only a differentiator, but also a powerful force in creating efficiencies, namely shorter time-to-market through process innovations such as high-fidelity prototypes in the early development stages. Because it has the ability to weave together efficiency and excellence, design is at the beginning and the end of the innovation process. It is both input and output, and it eliminates the distance between the two. Simply put, design drives innovation, innovation drives brand, brand drives loyalty, and loyalty provides a sustained competitive advantage. But branding means more than just putting a label on something that looks alike otherwise. Branding means being different, standing out; it means having an opinion, a point-of-view, and an "argument to win" (John Battelle). Branding means being different -- consistently. It means being always the same in being different.
China has passed Germany to stand fifth in international new patent rankings. In absolute numbers, it spends more on R&D than Japan (in fact, only the U.S. spends more). But it lags behind in break-through innovations, and it can’t count a whopping 30% of its workforce as members of the "creative class" as the US can. China has a branding challenge. It wants to move from "Made in China" to "Created in China." The reason is pragmatic: With the development of the market and changing demands for products, the seller's market has become a buyer's market and competition in the manufacturing industry has become fierce. In a TV-interview with a nationwide business channel I was asked for my recommendations to THE most pressing question that is beleaguering Chinese companies and economists these days: How can OEMs and ODMs become OBMs and create sustained brand loyalty based on differentiation and excellence and not just volatile competitive advantages derived from low-cost manufacturing efficiencies? I suggested the usual recipes -- political and macro-economic stimuli such as improved IP protection and financial reforms to foster entrepreneurship; company cultures that tolerate failure and reward experiments; and a more holistic business and design education that teaches designers to think more like business people and vice versa.
Nothing groundbreaking, but apparently exactly what the interviewers wanted to hear. The interview aired a day later on national television. I realized that I did have a voice and could perhaps even make a difference, albeit a small one, and for a moment it made me happy. But then I shuddered and felt like an innovation chauvinist: Who was I to tell the Chinese what to do? What if the state-run "Yellow River capitalism" is perfectly content with offering an alternative model to the US and Europe? Is the design industry not as advanced as in the West or is it maybe just different? Is it a sign of superiority to be the teacher or the student?
In my presentation, I promoted a few simple attributes to describe a better "innovation citizen." One was "Think like a child," drawing on the famous quote from Picasso: "We are all born creative; the challenge is to stay creative when we become adults." Someone in the audience dug deeper: "How do you do that? Think like a child?" "Travel much," I replied but I am not sure my answer satisfied the questioner. The audience seemed obsessed with process, with how-to. Hartmut Esslinger, the founder of frog design, disappointed them, too: "The why is much more important. Why are you doing what you do?"
It all comes down to culture, in the end. I spent a sunny afternoon in Beijing (on Mooncake day, a national holiday, so the air-polluting factories were off) with my tour guide -- Sunny -- who showed me Tienanmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Emperor's Summer Palace. The Palace is easily the most beautiful place I've ever seen -- so much taste, culture, and space for thought! Victor Hugo found better words to capture its beauty: "Build a dream with marble, jade, bronze and porcelain, cover it with precious stones, drape it with silk, make it here a sanctuary, there a harem gild it, paint it, have architects who are poets build the thousand and one dreams of the thousand and one nights, add gardens, basins, gushing water and foam, swans, ibis, peacocks, suppose in a word a sort of dazzling cavern of human fantasy with the face of a temple and palace, such is this building."
It's an interesting experience to spend six hours with a total stranger in a conversation on big political, religious, and social issues and then part ways. Kind of like "Before Sunrise" without the romance. "Most of my friends still want to marry Westerners and leave China," Sunny, who had never traveled outside of China, remarked with some chagrin, "I really don't understand why." She also didn't like Bush, did like Obama, and lost her cool for a moment when I showed off with my knowledge of the latest news on Maggie Cheung's (a famous Chinese actress) upcoming wedding with a German architect (who worked with Rem Kohlhaas on the stunning new CCTV headquarters).
When we walked by the marble boat designed solely for the delight of the emperor's concubines, Sunny told me about the old Chinese proverb which says that those who govern are like boats and those governed like the water. Leaders can easily drown if the sea becomes furious and turns against them. This metaphor describes a fear that is deeply embedded in China's culture -- a "trust no one" fear of enemies from within. It is no coincidence that the country's most iconic sight is a wall. In VIP rooms and other social gatherings (and also in Cathay Pacific's business class), all seats usually face the middle of the room. The backs are close to the wall and protected at all time. The Forbidden City, in this spirit, is essentially a complex system of stage-gates that vetted the legitimacy of visitors before they made it anywhere near the emperor -- a heavily safe-guarded, multi-layered system of filters. And here I am preaching Chinese firms about open innovation and collaborative work flows!
At the closing ceremony of the Shenzhen Design Fair, I served as a judge in the local design award competition (well, the organizers pushed me on stage with the award winners, where I, clueless and without clear brief, stood around for a few minutes before I was discretely told: "You can go now. Your part is over"). After a local vocalist had broken the ice with an over-the-top interpretation of Celine's Dion "My Heart Will Go On," the party ended somewhat abruptly and I ventured out into the Shenzhen night, karaokeing rather poorly "Hotel California." I thought how grateful I was to be able to witness the epochal transformation of such a grand society. The tools are all there. China is poised to innovate. It wants to be different and never to be the same again.