Flying motorbikes and wearable translators: new innovations coming out of China’s Silicon Valley

Shenzhen went from backwater to boomtown in just one generation and is now powering China’s tech revolution CBC Docs

“They say if you want to see the future of the human race, you wanna come here,” says British television host Reggie Yates in China’s Tech Revolution, a documentary presented by The Passionate Eye.

Backwater to boomtown

Yates is talking about Shenzhen, a Chinese city that grew from a cluster of fishing villages and farmland to a teeming metropolis of more than 12 million in just over one generation.

Its transition from backwater to boomtown began in 1980 when then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping designated the area as one of China’s first “special economic zones.” It was an experiment that encouraged foreign investment with tax incentives, allowing private enterprises to create market capitalism in a community with socialist principles.

Today, Shenzhen is the epicentre of China’s tech revolution and has been called the “next Silicon Valley.” It’s a place where bowls of hot noodle soup are delivered by drone and street performers have their own QR codes to accept donations. A fleet of electric taxis and (self-driving!) buses even help keep the air clean.

Copycats to innovations

The beating heart of Shenzhen is Huaqiangbei, a jungled mass of markets where makers and hackers gather to find every electronic component and gadget imaginable. “It’s like an Aladdin’s cave for tech geeks,” remarks Yates. Steven Yang, the CEO of Shenzhen-based company Anker Innovations, told CNN that “anything you have to do in days or weeks elsewhere can be done in hours here.”

China has long faced accusations of intellectual property theft from the international community. Huaqiangbei in specific has been characterized as ground zero for the production of shanzhai: quickly made knockoffs or remixes of popular gadgets that cost a fraction of the price of the real thing.

But Shenzhen makers are now breaking new ground, according to Yang. He estimates that in the last 10 years, Shenzhen has gone from producing 90 per cent copycat products and 10 per cent innovations to 30 per cent copycats and 70 per cent innovations.

“It’s a madhouse of technology. I mean, it’s like the fastest moving city you’ll ever come to. It’s got everything,” says British tech entrepreneur Duncan Turner, part of the growing community of expats who have relocated to Shenzhen.

Meet some of Shenzhen’s innovators

In China’s Tech Revolution, we meet Leal Tian and Alex Qin, a pair of innovators who have turned science fiction into reality. They’ve created a wearable device that’s able to translate 36 languages in real time. Watch as they demonstrate how their invention works.

“We’ll help people to communicate more freely,” says Tian, so that “people can walk and talk like friends.” Although there are other makers rushing to develop similar devices, their company, Timekettle Technologies, is already worth $20 million US according to the film.

Jon Li, one of China’s star innovators and the CEO of LightMagic says, “I believe one day humankind can benefit from technology innovation. I believe one day the world will not be ruled by politicians but will be ruled by technologists.”

With the impending arrival of 5G, he’d like to create a 3D map of the world but has started by making a map of Shenzhen, assisted by a fleet of automated drones. Once inside the map, Li can link up to the many CCTV cameras located all over the city to take a real-time look at whatever he’d like to see.

Li is also hoping to retool online shopping by creating 3D images of products, ranging from clothing to cars and even condos. These images would allow consumers to move an object around and walk through a space. Watch as he demonstrates his idea.

Zhao Deli, another Shenzhen-based innovator, has created the Magical Cloud — a flying motorbike. Watch him fly it over a park.

Deli told the Daily Mail that his dream vehicle took two years and countless failures to perfect. He had to sell his house and borrow money in order to keep the project going, but he hopes to bring it to the mass market soon.

All this innovation does come with a price, however. Zuan Nigel Chen works for a drone company and calls himself a “996 guy.” “It means you go to work at 9 [a.m.] and you get out of work at 9 p.m., and you have to go to work six days.”

But he tells Yates that it’s not so bad, particularly “if you don’t want to rest right now.” After all, innovation in Shenzhen never does.

The dawn of a ‘new China’

Shenzhen represents, “[a] new China, new thinking, new ideas and a new freedom to follow your instinct and create something you believe in,” Yates says in the documentary.

According to the film, China’s future plan is for Shenzhen to join with nearby Hong Kong and nine other cities in the Pearl River Delta region to make one giant technology megalopolis.

To find out more about Shenzhen’s technological industry and explore some of its potential downsides, watch China’s Tech Revolution on The Passionate Eye.

Available on CBC Gem

China’s Tech Revolution

The Passionate Eye