Innovation made in China
The Chinese invented fireworks, as well as paper, as we know it today. And the cement used in the Great Wall of China contains sticky rice. This knowledge might suffice for small talk at the next cocktail party. But more is needed to be able to understand a country. Audi has been at home on the roads of the People’s Republic for more than 25 years. But the pulse of the Chinese dragon is accelerating: By 2025, the country is set to become one of the globally leading innovation economies – a good-enough reason to visit it once in a while.
Arrival in Beijing
What we in Germany would describe as kitsch is very popular here. In China, luxury is very opulent, not as discreet and minimal as at home.
The first stop on the itinerary is Tsinghua University, where the Audi employees have arranged to meet some design students for a workshop. The university is one of the most renowned in the country and is very well regarded internationally. Being accepted to study here is harder than at Harvard or Yale. In this way, it is a place that is almost symbolic of the country’s progress: Copying others was yesterday; one’s own innovative strength is what matters today.
The Audi people are interested in creative potential: Together with the students, they want to develop intercultural dream products. “It was fascinating to see how keen the students were to tackle the projects. We had little time but managed to do a lot in it,” says studio engineer Frank; he is enthusiastic about the students’ energy and ambition. In just one day, they presented their visions in concrete ideas and projects, some of which had current practical relevance, such as a device for protecting cyclists from the smog in the city.
Experiencing a country – sharing experience
The Audi employees need a lot of energy on their trip, also to keep up with the tight schedule: Sightseeing alone is very time consuming. The motto for all the tours is “Capture – collect – doodle.” A camera, pen and pencils and a sketch book are part of the basic equipment for every day trip. A lot of tact is also required – especially when the local heroes open up doors for very private insights. The travelers also need stamina and capacity – literally speaking – on the joint trips into the cultural and culinary dimensions of the Chinese capital city. In just a few days, Beijing is experienced with all senses, including taste! Especially impressive for Pia: “Networking and eating, those are the most important things in China. And both come together at dinner. People genuinely cultivate their relationships around the table.”
The Audi people are particularly inspired by the Chinese calmness and inner peace. The ability to withdraw and concentrate fully on something impressed Pia: “Especially people of the older generation have a fascinating serenity,” she says, and talks about a walk through the Hutongs. In this historical part of Beijing’s old town, one can observe the locals between simple, sometimes dilapidated, houses peeling potatoes, cutting hair or playing cards. They seem not to notice the skyscrapers rising in the background and the fast, modern way of life of the people who live there – they have an inner calmness, at ease and almost lost in their own world. Like the people in the Fuxing city park, where dozens of small groups of people perform their Tai Chi routines in the middle of pathways, while hundreds of other park visitors simply walk around them.
Old and new, poor and rich. The apparent contradictions in everyday life are reflected in the country’s rapid development. China’s gross domestic product has soared in the past 30 years. Only recently, declining growth rates have indicated normalization – the so-called “new normal.” This phenomenal success story has resulted in two opposing worlds among the population. About ten years ago, there wasn’t a single billionaire in China. Meanwhile, there are more billionaires there than in any other country in the world.
The visitors from Audi report on their experiences each day at a get-together. Before relaxing for the evening, they discuss their impressions of the day. They often all meet in one of the hotel rooms. Sitting on the floor or the bed, they talk, confer and sum up. Post-its and sketches cover the windows and wardrobe doors: a room full of impressions and thoughts.
China in private – from a view to an insight
The next phase begins after five days: The group splits up and travels from Beijing to Shenzhen, Xi’an or Chengdu. They visit the locals in their apartments and houses. Pia, Frank and their fellow travelers get to know life in China up close. A life that in the younger generation increasingly feels more Western, but at the same time quite unfamiliar: “Chinese taste is very playful. Everything is so colorful. The cushions on the sofas, the pictures on the walls – and everywhere one sees Chinese symbols and traditional decoration in red and gold, which have their very own esthetics,” says Pia. Frank finds that the style of furnishing takes some getting used to: “What we in Germany would describe as kitsch is very popular here. In China, luxury is very opulent, not as discreet and minimal as at home.”
These are impressions that turn into lasting memories: the importance of visible status symbols, the juxtaposition of traditional and modern elements, the hunger for Western products, which often seems rather displaced here in China. “In my view as a product designer, this is almost disillusioning. I am working for example on wallets that wouldn’t interest anyone here, simply because the restrained design doesn’t reflect local tastes. That doesn’t mean that I’ll only design colorful and glittering wallets from now on. But this experience will certainly have a lasting influence – for example on the selection of colors for interior design or on the use of materials that we offer our Chinese customers for individual configuration.”
The necessity of alternative drives
But the travelers have also felt some negative aspects. Pia particularly remembers the smog: “We were able to look at the sun without protecting our eyes. Everything seems somehow gloomy, although many streets are lined with green trees.” According to the World Health Organization (WHO), pollution with particulate matter in Beijing is about ten times as high as the official limit. Numerous coal-fired power stations, heavy industry and not least the geographical location exacerbate the situation. And with certain weather situations in the region around the city, the air is trapped as if in a bowl, so the smog gets even worse. The Chinese government is taking action to improve air quality in all areas, which is also affecting the automotive industry. Road traffic is supposed to be revolutionized by new energy vehicles: purely electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and fuel-cell cars.
Shanghai: almost like home
Pia and her colleagues notice that China looks rather more Western when they arrive in Shanghai, where the group comes together again after the weekend. “Beijing felt much more Chinese,” says Frank. “When one arrives there for the first time, one is nearly overcome by the noise, the strange smells, the crowds of people. Then one comes to Shanghai and almost has the feeling that one has returned home.” Not that they experience cozy homeliness in China’s most important industrial city. In the next few days, Frank and Pia and their colleagues explore Shanghai’s automobile world. Just to see and experience this makes the journey worthwhile for every designer. Since the year 2000, the car market in China has expanded twentyfold. The desire for mobility is an expression of rising prosperity and is apparent all over the country: China has the world’s fastest-growing network of freeways.
Chinese drivers’ preferences are no secret: “In terms of car-body styles, the sedan has always been the bestseller. I don’t know why. Perhaps because the shape is similar to the litters of historical times,” says a car dealer. The characteristics of the Chinese market are much more intertwined with the country’s culture than elsewhere. “People from the upper-class often don’t drive themselves, but have a chauffeur,” he continues. This is why models are in demand that are comfortable and offer enough legroom in the rear. Because the customer sits on the rear seat. Meanwhile, SUVs are also popular. “That’s a matter of status. Who likes to be looked down on in a traffic jam or at stop lights?”
Towards the end of their visit to Shanghai, the Audi employees explore the city’s cultural history. Sometimes with local experts as guides and sometimes alone, they examine the diverse world of Chinese typography, which is everywhere in Shanghai, reflecting the old, venerable China, seemingly of the past.
Days as if on the Transrapid high-speed train: a review of two hectic weeks
After a fortnight, it’s time to say “Goodbye” to a world that one has to experience in order to understand it. What remains is the memory of a country whose essence is its diametrical opposites: the combination of traditional values and virtues with apparently inexhaustible energy and amazingly powerful progress. Ultimately, it felt like the obligatory journey on the Maglev, the Chinese version of Germany’s Transrapid magnetic levitation train in Shanghai, says Frank. “Everything is happening at an incredible speed. When the train races towards a curve at 400 kilometers per hour, one can hardly believe that it won’t be derailed. But it works, and is extremely impressive.” The same applies to living and working in China: “There are street corners here that literally change overnight, because an old building is demolished and immediately replaced by something new – sometimes one has the almost frightening feeling that something worth keeping is being lost, but at the same time, this agility and creative power is exciting. I’ll certainly come again; if only for that reason.” And probably not just once.