Shenzhen Museum of Contemporary Art and Urban Planning. Photo credit: Visual China

Shenzhen Museum of Contemporary Art and Urban Planning. Photo credit: Visual China

The summer in Shenzhen sees the stunning beauty of thriving lives. For the inaugural issue of City of Design Shenzhen, we have invited Ren Kelei, Chair of Shenzhen Art & Design Alliance, Han Wangxi, Inspector at Level 2 of the Publicity Department of CPC Shenzhen Municipal Committee and Director of Shenzhen Innovation and Creative Design Development Office, and Han Jiaying, a renowned designer, as our guests to a lively discussion on the topic of “Shenzhen Design”. Riding the wave of the 40-year miracle of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ), the three of them have grown together with the city. With their intellect and endeavor, they have actively engaged in and deeply influenced the development of Shenzhen’s design industry. Following the well-known “Shenzhen Speed” and “Shenzhen Quality”, “Shenzhen Design” has become another brand of the city, implying a symbiotic relationship between design and Shenzhen. The city’s innovative, open and inclusive environment has nurtured the impressive development and upgrade of the design industry which, in turn, empowers the city’s growth. As the city moves forward with its leading strategy of “indigenous innovation”, creative design will remain as the fundamental element of Shenzhen that is innovation-driven. Let’s join the three creative minds in their inspiring discussion, and witness their passion and wisdom.

Li Xiaogan, then Member of the Standing Committee and Director General of the Publicity Department of the CPC Shenzhen Municipal Committee, at the opening ceremony of the first Shenzhen Design Week (April 17, 2017). Photo credit: Organizing Committee of the Shenzhen Design Week



What has design brought to Shenzhen? Has Shenzhen provided new directions and new possibilities for “design”?

In the first questions, we aimed to lead the discussion from the perspective of time, focusing on what design has to offer Shenzhen, and whether Shenzhen has provided new directions and new possibilities for design. All three of our guests, in their response, anchored their viewpoints on the characteristics, momentum and splendor of our times. Reviewing the footprints of Shenzhen’s development, we can see clearly that the path of the design industry in Shenzhen is highly aligned with the trajectory of the city’s development. The essential changes of the design industry that have occurred over the past four decades travel far beyond its modern stance, its fusion with other cultures, and its global influences.

Ren Kelei said, “Design is closely related to industries. It has changed Shenzheners’ mindsets and demonstrated a people-centered value orientation.”

Han Wangxi commented, “The history of a city’s development is the history of conceptual changes that have evolved into the fundamental awareness that underpins the modernized life in the city focusing on the care and respect for people. Gaining profound self-awareness and the perception of creativity is crucial. The level of openness, inclusiveness and development determines the level of design practice in Shenzhen, and culture should be at the core of design. The construction of a city is the construction of its people, its imagination, and its culture. My dream is that Shenzhen will become a global city of culture.”

Han Jiaying said, “The first city that offered a better environment for designers to survive after China’s reform and opening-up was Shenzhen. We’ve rooted our ambitions and aspirations in the development of the design industry to march ahead side by side with Shenzhen’s cultural development.”

Clouds over the Shoreline. Photo credit: Visual China 



How did “Shenzhen Design” come into being? What are the key milestones?

During the conversation, our guests shared their examples of the milestones of “Shenzhen Design” that first took shape around 2008. One of the highlights mentioned by all of them was the moment when Shenzhen, being the first in China and the sixth in the world, was officially designated as the “City of Design” by UNESCO. Since then, design has evolved into a key platform facilitating industrial transformation and upgrade in Shenzhen. With its new identity, Shenzhen, the City of Design, began to engage itself in the global dialogues. From the world’s factory in the early days to the base for upgraded manufacturing, and most recently to the city of innovation, “Shenzhen Design” has been the fuel behind all these scenes. By leveraging design as an innovative force of its productivity and vitality, Shenzhen has emerged as an exemplary model of new urban development. And “Shenzhen Design”, after years of practice and development, has become the new driving force of the city’s economic prosperity.

“There are many turning points in history. But the designation of ‘City of Design’ in 2008 is a pivotal one that has brought appreciable influence on the city. In response to the call for indigenous innovation in the industry, professionals started to organize themselves into different industrial associations, and the intellect and wisdom of design agencies and individuals were pooled together and formed a high level of autonomy in the design community.” said Han Jiaying.

Ren Kelei commented, “I would say that the history of industrial evolution is the ‘year’ that has left its marks. In the 1990s, Shenzhen experienced its transitions from a city centering on client-supplied material processing to a city relying on its own industries and then, to a city of hi-tech buzz. Rounds of industrial transitions have led to surging demands on design services. Thus, we say that design is closely related to industries. It was because of the booming development of local industries and locally-started companies that the dawn finally came. From my point of view, the ‘milestone’ or ‘key time node’ is not a specific year, but the decade between 1990 and 2000.”

Han Wangxi told us, “From then on, global initiatives and international cooperation started to blossom after Shenzhen aligned itself with the world’s trend of design. That has reinforced the role of ‘Shenzhen Design’ as the pivot, and highlighted its mission to plan and promote the development of cultural and creative industries with a global vision from a long-term perspective.”

Logo of City of Design Shenzhen 



What have the government and the design community done to restructure the industry? What kinds of advantages have been created?

The three gentlemen recalled their vivid memory of the measures taken by the government and the design community in restructuring the design industry after Shenzhen joined the club of “Cities of Design”. Since then, many moves have been made to restructure the design industry internally and expand international cooperation externally, leading to a higher level of industrial coupling and the synergy of industrial production and knowledge innovation. “Shenzhen Design” has grown together with industries such as manufacturing, clothing, jewelry and furniture with strong complementary strength. Its robust industrial basis has also attracted a large volume of domestic and overseas talents and investment. Nowadays, the fundamentally-transformed design industry of Shenzhen sits well on the value chain of the internationally competitive hi-tech industrial clusters. That also explains the four outstanding advantages of Shenzhen Design listed by Ren Kelei at the press conference of the 2020 Shenzhen Design Week on August 14, 2020.

Firstly, the advantages brought by the “driving forces of the two areas”, namely, the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area and the Pilot Demonstration Area of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, will facilitate the development of the creative design industry in Shenzhen.

Secondly, the creative design industry in Shenzhen has realized a development pattern that enables overtaking efforts, and is in a leading position in the country. The number of winning design awards and tenders of Shenzhen-based design offices has been creating new records for nine consecutive years, and ranks first among all medium-and-large cities in China.

Thirdly, Shenzhen attaches importance to the attraction of design professionals and emphasizes the incentives and training for such talents. Up to now, a fully-fledged talent development system has been established. New design institutes are under construction now, including Shenzhen Institute of Design and Innovation (SIDI) and the International School of Design, Harbin Institute of Technology, Shenzhen.

Fourthly, Shenzhen boasts a strong network of design organizations that serve as bridges connecting the government with enterprises. They have also hosted many influential signature design events and activities.


Guests: Han Wangxi, Ren Kelei, Han Jiaying (from left to right)



In what ways does Shenzhen engage itself in international dialogues as a “City of Design”?

With the above-mentioned advantages, the design industry of Shenzhen has played a leading role in different areas and participated in international dialogues with the city’s new identity as the “City of Design”. With increasing reputation, influence and recognition from all quarters across the country and the globe, “Shenzhen Design” has stood out as a new brand of the city. Francesco Bandarin, Assistant Director-General for Culture of UNESCO, said that “Shenzhen Design” had gained extensive international influence, and UNESCO would spare no efforts to work closely with Shenzhen to bring “Shenzhen Design” to the world. David Grossman, President of the International Council of Design, also commented that despite Shenzhen’s relatively young age, its design was no less outstanding than that of other cities, and that creative design had played a key role in Shenzhen’s world-famous development speed. Dezeen, a London-based design magazine, once wrote in its article that Shenzhen’s emphasis on design well voiced the city’s ambition to transform from a manufacturing power to a design and creative hub. As a city emphasizing opening-up, Shenzhen values international cooperation and exchange in the field of design. Through the network of “Cities of Design”, Shenzhen has made new friends from all over the world. Design offices and designers are encouraged to “go global” and seek active roles in international events. Big names around the world have also been invited and attracted to Shenzhen for new opportunities. While strengthening exchanges and integration with the international cultural and creative community, Shenzhen has been developing signature design events with greater international influence, in order to enhance its status in the field of international design.

London Talks to Shenzhen, Theme Exhibition of 2019 Shenzhen Design Week. Photo credit: Organizing Committee of the Shenzhen Design Week

Panel review for the New Star Award, SDA 2019. Photo credit: Organizing Committee of the Shenzhen Design Week

Witnessing such a trend, Han Jiaying, a graphic designer experienced in bridging Chinese and western culture, said, “We embrace the world with open arms to make true dialogues of design happen. In an atmosphere that encourages active participation and problem solving, designers will be more self-driven to achieve higher goals. Shenzhen has the soil to grow designers with talent and ambitions.” Han’s AGI membership (Alliance Graphique Internationale) is clear evidence of the vitality of Shenzhen Design. Despite all these achievements, Han still believes that Shenzhen should set even higher goals for the future.



Has Shenzhen already realized cross-over integration? What is the mission of the Shenzhen Art & Design Alliance?

Ren Kelei, Chair of Shenzhen Art & Design Alliance, believes that “Design needs to adopt the universal language, to lead the public, and to focus on interactions and discussions involving both the public and the designers.” That is his suggestion on how to further consolidate and make full use of Shenzhen’s advantages. During our conversation, he cited an interesting example to define the interaction he mentioned: at the 5th Shenzhen International Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition staged on the premise of OCT, the visitors wrote “demolish” on the works that they thought were “ugly”. Years of interactive integration of art and design have witnessed the progress that local citizens have made through discussions, debates and experiments. “Why did this city win the first designation of ‘City of Design’ in the country? What Deng Xiaoping once said is still true today. Shenzhen is a place of pioneering spirit and entrepreneurship. That is the reality of the design industry in Shenzhen. That is the reality of today’s contemporary art in Shenzhen, blooming and flourishing.” When we applauded what he had said, Ren continued, “I have grown as well, over the past 10, 20, and 30 years! From the first day of reform and opening-up, Shenzhen has shown its charisma that draws in those who want to push their own limits and step out of their comfort zones. This is the place where your dreams come true. This is the city that allows you to accomplish your success once you come here. This is a city that empowers its young people to design their life. From the first day of reform and opening-up, Shenzhen has shown its charisma that draws in those who want to push their own limits and step out of their comfort zones. This is the place where your dreams come true. This is the city that allows you to accomplish your success once you come here. This is a city that empowers its young people to design their life.”

In 2014, the Shenzhen Design Union led the establishment of the Shenzhen Art & Design Alliance (the Alliance), the first of its kind in China. Ren serves as its Chair. The Alliance comprises a whole spectrum of design associations, fine art institutes, design-related R&D organizations, colleges and universities, financial institutions, media and companies. In just a few years since its formation, the Alliance, with its positive role and contribution, has drawn extensive attention in Shenzhen and from the design community. Its mission is to support medium-and-small design companies and companies involved in mass innovation and entrepreneurship through resource integration, complementary cooperation, innovation platform and cross-over services to fuel the initiative of mass innovation and entrepreneurship. 



What is the significance of the design industry’s contribution to the experimental efforts of Shenzhen?

The design industry has undertaken many experimental, pioneering attempts of Shenzhen. The relations of policies, people and society have fully embodied the essence of the city’s spiritual pursuit and initiatives during the course of modernization, and when non-governmental cross-over organizations like Shenzhen Art & Design Alliance and the Council for Development and Promotion of Cultural & Science and Technology, Nanshan District are sprouting, we are better able to imagine. In the guideline unveiled by the central government in 2019 on supporting Shenzhen in building a pilot demonstration area of socialism with Chinese characteristics, it is mentioned that Shenzhen is expected to become “a globally influential creative capital for innovation and entrepreneurship” by 2035, and aims to lead the world and become a benchmark city by 2050. Only in Shenzhen can these ambitious goals be realized. Our guests mentioned repetitively that the lifestyle, the positioning of the city, the connection with the world and the direction of future development need to be documented and narrated with a magazine that boasts imagination, professionalism and philosophical insights. As Han Wangxi has predicted, “City of Design Shenzhen will present to the world the momentum and splendor of Shenzhen. It will be a vivid chronicle of what people think and what the city aims for. It will be the monument of Shenzhen’s glory and dreams.” We are going to produce a magazine for the future with our creativity. Together with the rest of the world, we will witness the development of Shenzhen’s creativity and design, the growth of its people, and the prosperity of the city.

DenCity · A Reachable Utopia in Shenzhen ©URBANUS