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
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
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
Shanghai: almost like home
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.