SHENZHEN, China -- Qifeng Yan, who convinced Nokia to build the Nokia Research Center in Shenzhen in 2010, but became the last one out the door when it closed last year, knows something about Shenzhen, and about the city's potential in the next 10 years. He's betting on Shenzhen's shift from the world's low-wage factory to a global prototyping center.
Yan, now the director and chief researcher at Media Lab (Shenzhen) at Hunan University, is part of the big plan hatched by his employer. Hunan University, in partnership with the Rochester Institute of Technology, of Rochester, N.Y., is plotting to expand its Media Lab here — currently consisting of 15 people -- into an incubator for 1,500 researchers.
Typical of most big plans in China nowadays, it's ambitious. It is also possible, considering Yan and his team's experience in working their way around Shenzhen’s built-in electronics industry ecosystem.
Of the three research projects Yan’s team at the Media Lab has launched, one has already turned a research prototype into a commercial product. A smartwatch, running on MediaTek's feature phone chipset, will be launched later this month by Coolpad, a well-known domestic China smartphone brand.
Smartwatch designed by Qifeng Yan, director of Media Lab (Shenzhen) at Hunan University.
Wearable devices -- especially smartwatches -- are all the rage in China. Coolpad, too, had its own smartwatch in development, but had to scratch it. When Yan came to Coolpad, Coolpad jumped on Yan’s design.
“Innovations can't happen in the office,” said Yan. A lot of companies in Shenzhen are too busy keeping up with what their competitors in the rest of the world are doing, he observed.
One problem in Chinese companies is a shortage of people with the talent to define a product and design it. “They pay more to engineers who know how to build electronics, but they don’t necessarily pay well to those who actually design it and architect a project,” Yan explained. Further, Chinese engineers often lack the experience of putting together a team, initiating a project, and leading it, he added.
Yan’s design experience began in Finland. After he got a degree from the University of Helsinki of Art and Design, which recently became Aalto University by merging with Helsinki’s Technology and Business schools, he stayed in Finland and joined Nokia.