Hop on the new high-speed rail line in Guangzhou, China, and within 45 minutes you’ll arrive at the outskirts of Shenzhen. The city, made famous by its booming manufacturing industry — the engine of Chinese economic growth over the past few decades — is a sprawling region of plain, gated factory buildings and high-rise towers. Visitors often liken its colorful night skyline to a futuristic film set.
But set foot in OCT LOFT, the city’s ultra-chic arts-and-design district, and you’ll get a taste of a new and different economy. The hiss of latte machines and live jazz are the soundtrack here. Boutiques featuring handmade items fill repurposed industrial buildings, alongside bars and restaurants. Murals brighten the exterior walls, and eye-catching sculptures line the brick sidewalks.
On the second floor of Building A5, a cheerful, glass storefront with lime-green walls displays books, toys and curious electronic gadgets. This is Chaihuo, Shenzhen’s first “maker space.” It’s a sort of community center where members get together not to play basketball but to build robots, learn programming skills and dream up do-it-yourself (DIY) technology projects.
Chaihuo is one of about a dozen such places in China. The first, XinCheJian, appeared in Shanghai in 2010, followed shortly by others in Beijing, Hangzhou and other cities around the country. Several more new spaces are opening this year. What makes Chaihuo special, though, is its connection to both the broader maker movement and an ongoing shift in global manufacturing.