Over the last few decades, Shenzhen has experienced an economic transformation that is nothing short of remarkable. In the 1980s, the area was largely agricultural, a landscape of rice paddies punctuated by rural villages. Today, around 12 million people reside here and it’s estimated that circa 90% of the world’s electronics are made here – Apple contractor Foxconn’s vast plant alone employs upwards of half-a-million people. No city, ever, has demonstrated such rapid expansion.
The rise of ‘CaliChina’
Shenzhen is home to tens of thousands of factories and has become the go-to source for the design and manufacture of all things electronic – as typified by the city’s vast Huaqiangbei market. Savvy commentators are dubbing it the ‘new Silicon Valley’, with influential Forbes contributor Salvatore Babones coining a new phrase – ‘CaliChina’ - to communicate the powerful synergy of this trans-Pacific makers’ hub. The ideas might still be generated in California but this is where they take physical form. The draw of Shenzhen’s electronics ecosystem has seen the city blossom into a natural destination for giant high-tech companies and hungry startups alike, all hoping to benefit from the proliferation of electronics expertise at every stage of the commercial process. Tech newbies like smartphone company Huawei have seen their businesses grow rapidly, while established organisations such as Airbus are diversifying their operations to take advantage of the opportunities for growth and innovation here.
The Shanzai approach
In many ways, Shenzhen can align its rapid rise with the exponential growth of the mobile phone. Back in the early noughties, Nokia and Motorola were marketing phones that each retailed at hundreds of dollars. By contrast, Shenzhen’s manufacturers were able to produce similar models at vastly cheaper prices. Shenzhen now has a network of tens of thousands of factories – known as ‘shanzhai’ – that can mimic the design of popular electronics and manufacture them to a high standard. But business has moved on from simple copycat tech: eight of the top ten smartphone brands in the country — three out of the top six worldwide — are Chinese. Quality is high and because these businesses are agile, innovative and responsive they can quickly react to feedback or to market dynamics.
Incubating the perfect startup ecosystem
Shenzhen’s strong supplier base and manufacturing reputation aren’t the only attractions for tech startups, though. The government is providing infrastructure support and there’s also an established network of crowdfunding platforms that helps to keep startup funds flowing. The Shenzhen Stock Exchange has a NASDAQ-style tech exchange that is designed to provide a startup exit opportunity. China is constantly looking to attract fresh grassroots innovation by creating workshops, offering cheap loans and sponsoring tech fairs. Accelerators, like Hax and Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab support innovators from around the world to consider Shenzhen as the obvious choice for their design and manufacturing base. And why not, when you can access all the tech talent and fabrication know-how you need to take an idea from proof-of-concept to prototype in a few short days? It’s the perfect business model for Kickstarters everywhere.
Experience Shenzhen’s cultural – as well as commercial - heritage
As one of China’s wealthiest cities – and an easy trip from neighbouring Hong Kong - Shenzhen is a vibrant metropolis, attracting a wide mix of visitors. The city now boasts a ‘maker space’, a design district, and an extraordinary offshoot of London’s V&A museum that occupies part of the ground floor of the new £146-million Sea World Culture and Arts Center in the city’s Shekou district. There are theme parks and speciality markets, as well as lots of shopping experiences.
About an hour-and-a-half from Shenzhen is the Guanlan printmaking base. This 300-year-old village features quirky black-and-white houses that contain the workshops and galleries of printmaking artists from China and beyond. The Dapeng Fortress is a historic walled town to the east of Shenzhen that was prominent in the Opium Wars of the 19th century. Expect elegant mansions and ornate temples from the Ming and Qing dynasties.