Digital Shanzhai Project


In the spring of 2017, the fidget spinner rapidly became a global phenomenon, despite having no single maker and marketer to bring it to life. In internet parlance, it “went viral”, both through social media such as videos and GIFs and informal distribution networks including bodegas, phone shops, street vendors. The fidget spinner was not the first object of its kind—being preceded by selfie sticks, hoverboards, phone cases and drones—it will certainly not be the last. Today, handheld gimbals, power banks and fitness trackers are the latest wave of products to rapidly reach a global audience. All of these are examples of Shenzhen’s decentralized manufacturing process

The Digital Shanzhai Project, a partnership between Studio D and researcher An Xiao Mina will document and explore the process of bringing hardware memes to life.

An Xiao Mina has written about “hardware memes,”, a process that shares characteristics with its software and digital content counterparts. In June of 2018, our team will begin research in Shenzhen to explore the development of a single viral object from Shenzhen—perhaps the fidget spinner, perhaps a future product—and its global reach. We will combine field research on manufacturing and distribution and crowdsourcing data from our global community with a sample set of both urban and rural locales in the major continents.

We believe this is a pivotal time in the history of manufacturing, and, for Shenzhen, one worthy of exploration, as it presages larger trends. The internet is having a transformative impact on how shanzhai products—with characteristics including fast following in the manufacturing ecosystem, rapid iteration, decentralised distribution, limited respect for IP —reach the world.

The growth in China’s consumer class means that products are now increasingly being designed for China first, and the evolution of China’s creative class means that these products, that used to be considered poorly designed, are increasingly able to compete on a global scale. These new aesthetics, ways of manufacturing and the values inherent in them will be the defining forces that shape ideation, production consumption and waste worldwide this century. The global reach of Chinese dockless bike share companies throughout the world is a precursor of what is to come.

We are following a research and design based process that explores, documents and extrapolates the dynamics of what we call “digital shanzhai”—objects that have resonance in digital and physical spheres— with the goal of sharing learnings both about Shenzhen and for global communities interested in fostering innovation in their own sectors. We will hone in on a single object, such as the fidget spinner, that has a global reach, and will map its production and testing in Shenzhen through field research.

Here’s where you come in. 

We aim to build a small volunteer community of digital shanzhai researchers who can help us understand the global reach of these hardware memes as they traverse the physical world — markets, bodegas, street vendors, shipping ports — and the digital — GIFs, Instagram videos,

  • We will coordinate and discuss on a special digital shanzhai channel on the Studio D Slack
  • We will utilize Meedan’s Check platform, used for collaboratively annotating and verifying images and URLs, to upload and analyze images and track basic features, like location, cost and number.

    Interested? Get in touch and apply here.


    This project is supported by the DESIGN TRUST, an initiative of the Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design. Interested in supporting this project? Please get in touch.