Making It in China and the U.S.

A Q&A on the Green Electronics Maker Challenge with Founder Emily Parker

Emily Parker is a creator of Green Electronics: A U.S.-China Maker Challenge. The Green Electronics Challenge was an unprecedented collaboration between the New America Foundation, Arizona State University, Slate Magazine, China’s Tsinghua University, and hackerspaces in the U.S. and China.

The U.S. and China are both big e-waste producers. U.S. and Chinese organizers addressed this shared challenge by inviting the community of inventors who today call themselves makers to redefine the concept of waste. The Green Electronics Challenge asked people to use old electronics to make something new. The contest was hosted on the website Instructables, and judges included former Wired Editor Chris Anderson, MIT’s Joi Ito, and Tsinghua University’s Sun Hongbin.

Jonathan Landreth: What’s the difference between a maker and an entrepreneur?

Emily Parker: A maker is someone who makes things. They make robots, they make jewelry. The image of a maker used to be someone who invented stuff in his or her basement. Now, makers gather in physical spaces known as “hackerspaces,” where they can share ideas and build things together. To clarify, some people prefer the term “hacker” to “maker.” I say “maker” because these days, when Americans hear the term “Chinese hackers” they tend to think of people breaking into computer networks.

Chris Anderson defined the maker movement as “the web generation creating physical things rather than just pixels on screens.” Makers also post their creations online. Creators post “how-to” instructions, encouraging others to imitate their projects. Sure, some makers can be entrepreneurs, like the people who raise money on Kickstarter or sell their products on Etsy. But makers are not necessarily entrepreneurs. Some just want to learn, to play around, or to tinker. Both China and the U.S. have both kinds of makers, but the Chinese maker movement may have more of an entrepreneurial streak.

In China, a lot of stuff gets recylced. How does that feed into the makers’ movement?

I visited Chinese hackerspaces and noticed that there were a lot of old electronics lying around. Makers would use them in their projects. This was in part the inspiration for the Green Electronics Challenge. We said, makers are already coming up with new uses for old stuff. Let’s tap into that energy to redefine the concept of waste. Let’s ask makers to take things that would ordinarily end up in a landfill and use them to make something new.

The grand prize winner was a “digital desk,” which looked to me like a flat-screen computer set into a piece of furniture. What am I missing?

It’s basically a huge touchscreen tablet (or a Cintiq) made from a Dell 21-inch monitor and a Wacom Intuos3 XL. The tablet then became part of a digital drafting table.

The iPhone still costs a great premium in China. A great number of people in China don’t have access to cheap, cutting edge electronics the way we do in the west.

Well, reusing electronics is one way to cut costs. Another of our winners created an atomic force microscope out of DVD players and old watch parts. According to the creator, this kind of microscope can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the DIY version only costs $500-$1,000 to make.

Why did you hold two competitions, one in English and one in Chinese?

The competition was organized by the U.S. and China, and was open to entries in either English or Chinese. English-language and Chinese-language entries were judged separately. This is primarily because I didn’t want the U.S. and China to be seen as competing against one another. That would have defeated the point of the project, which aimed to further U.S.-China cooperation. It can be very challenging to come up with U.S.-China cooperation projects with an Internet or technology theme. There are many sensitive areas: Internet freedom, cyber-security, intellectual property. The maker movement struck me as an area in which China and the U.S. have common goals.

The contest was hosted on Instructables, the premier maker website. For Chinese makers, this was a great opportunity to have their projects debut on the international stage.

You called Wired’s Chris Anderson a “hero” to makers in China.

Chris Anderson wrote Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, which got onto China’s radar. I first heard about the book from the Chinese maker community. I’ve also seen Anderson referenced in the Chinese media as a kind of sage. Anderson kindly agreed to be a judge in our competition, and I think his participation was a huge draw for Chinese makers.

Chinese officials also seem to be fans of Anderson’s work. They know that China’s future doesn’t lie in old-school manufacturing, but in innovation and design. Anderson is talking about a new industrial revolution, and China wants to be a part of it. They see an opportunity. The Chinese government is thus encouraging the maker movement.

Who are the Chinese stars of the maker movement?

I’m going to be incredibly biased here and just name the Chinese partners in our competition. XinCheJian, the first hackerspace in China, Seeed Studio in Shenzhen, and, perhaps surprisingly, Tsinghua University, which is investing a lot into maker education. Of course, these are not the only Chinese makers. Beijing Makerspace is also a big player, and there are others as well.

Anderson’s book title includes the word “revolution,” and you mentioned that Tsinghua was kind of an “unlikely” partner. You’ve written about the government coopting makerism, and you’ve noted that any time 30,000 people get together, they darn well better have government approval. Are makers walking a fine line?

The short answer is no, not yet. It’s true that the word “revolution” is a double-edged sword in China, and that the Chinese government is famously wary of collective action. But as long as the Chinese government sees the maker movement as an economic opportunity rather than a political movement, then makers are pretty safe from persecution.

The larger question is whether China’s top-down embrace of maker culture will suffocate its grass-roots energy. The maker movement is, in theory at least, based on the ideas of risk-taking and creativity and individuality and innovation. These are not words we immediately associate with Chinese Communist Party initiatives.

Right now, Chinese makers seem tolerant of official approval because you can’t do anything big in China without at least tacit government support. Chinese makers I’ve spoken to are clear-eyed about this reality.

Are there certain categories of problems the makers focus on in the two countries?

You can find makers working on all kinds of projects. Some people want to protect the environment, others are working on projects related to education. One of the projects in our competition aimed to combat malaria. Some people just want to make beautiful things, or to create works of art. Of course, makers in a particular country will be drawn to problems that are specific to that country. More than one Chinese project had a pollution theme. Now, I’m working with Mexican partners on a new maker competition. Mexico is in the midst of a historic reform of its energy sector, so this maker project will focus on clean energy.

There was a time not that long ago when many of the Asian-American students I went to college with, and a lot of the Chinese students I got to know in China, grew up under parents who said you will do X and Y profession because it is secure. It’s counterintuitive that nowadays parents are taking them to do something free-form, constructive, and creative.

I went to a big maker event in Shanghai and was struck by how many kids were there. Their parents apparently saw the event as a good use of their time. I think true creativity requires some degree of wandering, or more frankly, some degree of wasting time. Innovation entails tinkering for the sake of tinkering, and play for the sake of play. You can’t be afraid of failure, or scared of experimentation.

There has been much criticism of Chinese entrance examinations and their emphasis on rote memorization. The truth is, the students who got into top universities like Tsinghua or Beida probably didn’t grow up with a lot of time to experiment.

I once interviewed a young Chinese woman who went to XinCheJian, the Shanghai hackerspace, because she wanted to make a tree that could talk. It wasn’t about making money, or about getting into a famous university. She just wanted to play around with electronics and create something awesome. I think China needs more of these kinds of people, and perhaps China’s leadership is realizing that as well.