Last month I attended Unleash, a global innovation lab in Shenzhen, China. The purpose was to create solutions related to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Overall it was an incredible experience. Shenzhen is the home to startups in China and is one of the largest economic hubs in the world.

For context, Unleash is an annual event where 1000 people from around the world fly to a location and work for 5 days on one of the Sustainable Development Goals. The program culminates in a ‘dragon’s den’ event where the top teams pitch their ideas to a panel of judges.

The Silicon Valley of China: Shenzhen

A few decades ago, Shenzhen was a small fishing village. Today, it is home to almost 20 million people. That is almost the population of Australia! Shenzhen built a brand as the innovation hub or ‘Silicon Valley’ of China. Their GDP is approximately US$280 billion, almost that of Singapore and more than the economies of Portugal or Ireland.

They also have a vibrant innovation ecosystem with an estimated:

  • 10,000 startups
  • 100 incubators
  • 200 co-working spaces.

The average age of people in Shenzhen is just over 30 years old! Young people are attracted to the fast-paced lifestyle and quality job opportunities. Quite a few local people referenced ‘Shenzhen time’. This means that their timing is about 10 times faster than average pace!

Flying into Shenzhen

The Daily Experience

There is an interesting mix of housing types in Shenzhen. They range from 5 star hotels to high density housing for the burgeoning population. However, there are also still communities from the fishing village days. These are known as urban villages. They are old apartment blocks with a range of cheap restaurants at the foot of the buildings. Young children play on the street with rubble and construction work as their playground. Convenience stores and small grocery markets mark each corner. It is a microcosm of life of yesteryear. People seem content and work to their own time. However, slowly the fast paced world is creeping into their communities.

As developers continue to buy up land, these local communities are being pushed to the fringes. This is common with any high growth city. Gentrification is common in Silicon Valley and most parts of Europe. It is an unfortunate reality of fast paced, technology driven economies.

The Urban Villages

Our hotel just so happened to be around the corner from an urban village.
We went to a local noodle shop on a regular basis. They spoke no English but their hospitality was welcoming. At one point we noticed a young guy filming us because we were such a strange novelty for the community. We chatted to them and played soccer with the local kids.
It soon became our regular spot.
Everyday we brought more people from Unleash to the village. Everyone was super keen to experience the ‘real China’, not just the manufactured spaces we were accustomed to.

It started with about 4 of us and by the end there were over 20. Due to the increased demand, the entrepreneurial owner of the noodle shop decided to increase the noodle price by 1 RMB (AUD 20 cents)! The noodles were about AUD $3 for a medium sized takeaway container and we often went across the road for a cheap beer and grilled eggplant. It was the tastiest meal and we enjoyed the local hospitality!

Venturing Into The City Centre(s)

There are also high density apartment blocks across the city. There is continued growth which means development is still happening across the city. Construction was very common across the city with a range of commercial and residential buildings popping up.

There were also many city centres spread throughout the city. To manage traffic flow issues, Shenzhen has a number of central business districts where people live and work in a short vicinity.

One of the squares near the Civic Centre had a nightly light show. The buildings in the local area lit up the night sky with a dynamic sound and light show complete with music and looked so fancy. It was a captivating display with global artists, including Australians designing the art projections.

Work, Work, Work

Every day we moved between our hotels and the design community where we worked. These areas were shiny, bright and full of the latest technology. The buses shuttled us between these sites and on the way we would see nice parks and well designed community spaces. However, it never felt busy. It is a large, sprawling city but I think most of the people were inside working long hours. It is very common for people to work more than 12 hour days per day. In fact, it is the norm. I spoke to one local person and she said ‘We always need to work harder because someone can take our job in a minute. Everyone wants to work in Shenzhen, so we must always work harder and smarter.’ She shared that her days often have little social interactions. Her lifestyle is completely based around work but that is the culture. It is not seen as a problem that social interactions are often few and far between.

Vanke Design Community

Our work space was at the Vanke Design Community. It is an interesting co-working space for a range of startups and companies. It was a bit of a concrete jungle with aspects of natural landscapes. The space was quiet and we often got into trouble for being too loud. Over the weekend there was a big tech fair which had everything from drones to fighting robots. There were a range of people young and old checking out the latest in technology.

Challenges with China

China as a location for Unleash presented a range of issues. The first challenge was getting a visa. It was a difficult process for many people, especially those from developing countries. Some even had to bribe authorities to get their visa.

Another issue was that Shenzhen borders Hong Kong. With mounting tensions in Hong Kong about their democratic future, it caused some travel disruption. However, it was interesting to speak to many local people in China about their thoughts of Hong Kong. Many people had no sympathy for the people in Hong Kong. Some said that they don’t know what they are rioting for and are just disturbing the peace. There was a general lack of empathy or understanding as many people we spoke to have lived in China their whole lives. Also, the media is extremely regulated, which leads to another big issue.

That big issue was the issue of censorship. Social media channels including Facebook and Instagram and Google are banned. I used a VPN which allowed me to use the social media channels. Compounding that, Shenzhen is said to be the ‘Silicon Valley’ of China however the internet there was so slow. It was therefore incredibly difficult to research and do our jobs.

Overall

The trip to China was very interesting. I spent a few nights in Shanghai after the event and also enjoyed it there. China is very advanced but there was definitely the feeling that they only show foreigners the best parts. Life to local people would be a very different experience but I felt grateful to meet some locals.

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