SHENZHEN, China: Known to the world as a city of knock-offs, Shenzhen (which began as a village polished to copy Hong Kong) is seeking to reinvent itself as a creative hub for China’s new economic vision with the opening of a huge design museum in partnership with Britain’s V&A [Editor’s note: Victoria and Albert] .
From robotics for children to mobiles for the elderly, the V&A’s exhibit at the “2015 Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture” gives a taster of the designs thought up in the southern Chinese city that will go on display at the Shekou Design Museum when it officially opens in 2017.
Part of a huge development project by state-backed China Merchants Group, it will not only be the V&A’s first major foray outside of Britain but also, according to its curator, the first time a museum has entered into this type of partnership abroad.
“This is us coming to China and trying to engage with what is happening with China’s creative communities… in a different way,” Luisa E. Mengoni, head of the Shekou V&A gallery, told Agence France-Presse.
“We’re developing a new collaboration model working in partnership with an organization in China, which is one of the countries that is the most important for us.”
The museum is the highest-profile example of the state push to turn Shenzhen into a hub for home-grown designers – a vision that at odds with a city famed for its malls of fake handbags, clothes and electronics.
But exhibitors at this year’s biennale are seeking to show that reinvention is possible. Eye-catching designs on show range from a giant futuristic scale model of Shenzhen to elaborate sculptures made of fungus.
Housed in a former flour factory, the event opens Friday and runs until February 28.
“People in Shenzhen don’t have the burden of history, they want to create something of their own,” said Doreen Heng Liu, one of the biennale’s curators.
“It’s fast adapting compared to other cities in China. Young people really feel at home here because Shenzhen gives them a lot of opportunities.”
Since becoming China’s first Special Economic Zone in 1980, and the first city people from across China could move to freely, Shenzhen has ballooned from a tiny fishing village to a vast metropolis of more than 10 million people.
In three decades it has turned into one of the world’s largest manufacturing hubs, earning it plaudits as a poster boy for China’s shift towards a more liberal economic policy but also gaining it a reputation as a cultural wasteland.
Juan Du, a professor at Hong Kong University who is writing a book about Shenzhen, argues the city’s rapid evolution reflects the creativity and daring of those who moved there.
“A lot of the people who went to Shenzhen were really people who were trying to take risks,” she said.
“These were people who had a lot of entrepreneurial spirit. These were a particular type of people and they created a city that was more open to experimentation.”
China’s government has sought to make Shenzhen a focus of its drive to promote home-grown creative industries as it shifts away from an export-led economic model in the face of stalling growth.
Since Shenzhen was named a UNESCO city of design in 2008, the government has introduced a raft of incentives from subsidies to creating idea-sharing workshops, to drive growth in what it calls “creative and cultural industries.”
Those efforts have had limited success so far. Experts estimate only around five percent of Shenzhen’s economic output comes from creative design industries—and how creative those really are is disputable.
Even the so-called “Artists village”, where thousands of workshops churn out knock-off Van Goughs, Picassos and other famous painters at bargain prices, feels more like a factory than a fount of inspiration.
Many of the small, informal businesses copying and adapting other people’s products that are meant to be driving Shenzhen’s newfound design ambitions could also be considered counterfeiters under Western laws.
Brendan Cormier, who will curate the V&A collection inside the Shekou Design Museum, says products are being reimagined so fast that traditional ideas of designer and counterfeiter, real and fake, no longer apply. He explains: “You get a lot of authorless innovations because the speed of innovation is so fast that nobody can identify the maker.”
The V&A’s exhibit at the biennale includes examples of an engineer who designed a kit for children to learn how to make robots, phones with longer-lasting batteries in demand in India and Africa and specialist data coding used for knitting machines.
Other experts point out that it is the manufacturing lines and supply chains that have been built up through years of making products for other people that has given the new generation the tools to experiment.
“The manufacturing and social networks that enable the cheap knock-offs are part of what has drawn young entrepreneurs and inventors from around the world to Shenzhen,” said Lyn Jeffery, director of research from think-tank Institute for the Future.
“So the very thing that is the city’s Achilles heel is also its greatest attraction, at least for some.”