David Li: Smart hardware from the street

Innovation in Shenzhen looks nothing like innovation in the rest of the world. And that’s why Shenzhen dominates the world of digital devices.

David Li is executive director of the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab

WARNING: Live-blogging. Prone to error, inaccuracy and howling crimes against grammar and syntax. Post will be updated over the next few days.

Shenzhen is a city like no other. It has grow in 17m people in a little over 25 years. It’s a city based on manufacturing in an industry that is always changing: digital. And it’s wildly innovative, because innovation happens at a street level.

What happens when you create high tech objects in a street market fashion? You get crazy experimenting. You get a cell phone with seven speakers, which is as loud as a boom box. It was made for construction workers to listen to music on site.

The street isn’t wasteful. It’s experimental and cheap and innovative. If I’d stood on stage in 2007 and predicted Nokia and Motorola going out of business within a decade, people would have thought I was mad. Nokia was on course to be the biggest company in the world. It didn’t take 10 years - it took five.

What happed? On the long tail, the street. This is what happens when the street matches every need with a device. It’s not televised. It’s not talked about. It’s quiet.

Do you think Apple is unbeatable? Outside the US and Europe, it’s a niche jewellery maker.

Open, chaotic innovation

How did this happen? It’s open and collaborative. Traditional process need multiple teams and 36 months to design and build it. In Shenzhen? There are 10s of companies that will sell you the pieces. You can have a product on the ,market in three weeks.

In the history of industrial revolutions, we’ve never had a concentration like this of one city dominating the worldwide industry. You can walk into Shenzhen and come out with a product in two weeks. Jerry in France is only five years old. Rather than design the next great phone, they walked into Shenzhen, and now they are beating Apple in France. Tecno is the biggest brand in Africa. Nerve in Lagos, Nigeria is a small specialised mobile company.

TheWall Street Journal built their own phone for an article in two weeks. It’s starting to change the way we think about technology. This is taking the power of technology away from engineers and giving it to everyone. That opens up new approaches and new applications.

Hoverboards came from nowhere to to a $6bn industry, based on Shenzhen and Ecommerce. It grew even after the fire problems. You no longer need a technical degree, you an idea and the passion to execute it.

How does Shenzhen innovate? Design consultants are focused on mainstream success in the west. Shenzhen works for the global market. They put something out in a month, and see how it does in the market. It chaotic, It’s piracy. But it works. There’s not one single path to innovation. It happens when multiple paths are explored simultaneously. This is how mass innovation happens. It’s people on the street making high tech objects. It’s the cyberpunk dream.

Last 100 Miles is a new accelerator which is part of a Chinese initiative to build thousands of kilometres of railroad across Asia to connect people. For the more rural areas? Autonomous vehicles is the solution. That brings the rest of the world into the global network. This is the new growth audience - the people who have been geographically isolated until now.