17/08/2017Comments are off for this post.

Shenzhen: the work part–CHIC, episode 9

The PCB's from Genève

When we started the work in Shenzhen, we made a quick planning about where we wanted and could get with ShuQi. And even though life happened, we advanced well enough. Our dedicated workplace was x.factory, sometimes Seeed Studio (mostly for the engineers), and we also used the hotel room, which seemed as huge as a ballroom after experiencing the matchbox-like spaces of Hong Kong.

Very similar!

Our product is a lovely bird, ShuQi, that helps forgetful individuals to stay on top by making sure they have everything they need for that day. ShuQi can check when called whether all the necessary objects, marked with an RFID-sticker, are in the bag, and can tell what is still missing from the list. The UI is a smartphone application communicating with the device via Bluetooth. You can see more at this link.

Loïc’s first task was to finish and print another 3D model, testing different materials and coatings. After finishing the files, he rushed to help the engineers because there was much to do. The engineers have ordered a new version of our PCB from Seeed Studio, which was there upon our arrival, but was missing some holes and components, so they had to start over. However, the pick and place machine was only for orders of at least 50 pieces (although they only disclosed this information to the head organiser, Marc Laperrouza, our team was left to believe there is no machine and no solution.) Placing the 94 components on the 40x90 mm PCBs by hand is not something our team was expecting or prepared to do.

You can read a non-engineer-friendly and more detailed account of this incident from Tabea here. In the end, a Chinese worker with an impossibly steady hand saved the day.

This issue, and some other unfamiliar/not working equipment was our biggest challenge during the trip, causing a headache in addition to the one in some stomachs. (About half of the whole group came down with food- or AC-related issues at some point, justifying our stay at an expensive hotel.) And then it was a great Sunday gift to pick up the (only partially mixed up) final prints. The alert came on WeChat of course.

As for the interaction design, we (Camille Scherrer & me) deleted a not-so-important function and also pushed the app’s visual language in a clearer direction, which I will finish back in Geneva. I was sorry that no capacity was left to connect the UI to, well, anything, as our team had no software engineer. Somehow CHIC was not very popular among students of HEPIA. Maybe our new poster will help for next year!

During the trip, our presentation deck also had a makeover. The storyline for the strong brand got clearer and we could insert the new renderings of the object. The technical drawings also got a visual upgrade so the audience can now actually decipher it.

Part of the work was trying out different presenting situations, some turned out even more adventurous than intended by our organisers. Once we found out when stepping on stage that it’s just 2 minutes and no slides, which was sad as it would have been the first time to test the new slides. Apparently, the already set up projector was just for the event organiser’s self-marketing.

Everyone in the team had to be on stage at least once, which we completed the first time. However, 5 people and visuals were too much, so for the rest, only 3 of us took the microphone. Tabea was always there, because she is a natural and the business person, Axel enjoyed presenting and I did it because I am still scared of presenting. I can also totally blank out and not remember anything that I wanted to say, which got better as our pitch got more and more familiar also to us.
Pitching at HAX

The first pitch (after the one only for CHIC) was at Makerbay. The most formal one was at the Sino-Swiss Industrial Parc, the most dynamic at HAX, and we got the most questions at x.factory. And the most relaxed was the last one, when we showed the (mostly) finished prototype to the other groups, knowing the work in Shenzhen was over.

Instead of some grand conclusion which I don’t have, I will close this post and the whole series by saying thank you everyone who took part in the project.

To Gordan Savičić and Camille Scherrer and the supervisors of the others for the opportunity, their help and feedback during and between milestone presentations and for the last sprint in Shenzhen. To Lysianne Léchot Hirt for making the organising appear smooth and carving out space for CHIC next to other HEAD projects.

To EPFL, especially Marc, Pablo, Bérénice and Damien for realizing this project and minimizing the organisational chaos that we would inevitably encounter in China. To Elle and Violet, our local contacts at x.factory and Seeed who made navigating in the makerspaces and in the city so much easier. And even though we only met the EPFL teams for a very brief time, it was nice to see them too.

To Team Fribourg and Team Ticino, because the more the merrier, and for all the ‘us too!’ moments when we were blocked by this or that.

And to Team Geneva: Axel Collet, Tabea Estermann, Loïc Fankhauser and Adrien Taboada Cid.

Even though we were a randomly assembled group thrown together in stressful situations (like the ideation and not finding each other at various malls in Shenzhen), we stuck it out until the end and had fun while also meeting the goals. And especially to Tabea whose energy level will never cease to amaze me or motivate us to keep up the good work. And also for feeding us on both continents.

Good luck to all of us for graduation now or next year!

15/08/2017Comments are off for this post.

Shenzhen: the easy part–CHIC, episode 8

Well, Shenzhen is a whole different taste of crazy, but still easy to manage. Many people speak enough English for our survival, as this city is full of immigrants–from China. We couldn’t meet one person who was born here, as Shenzhen had a population of 30,000 until it became a Special Economic Zone in 1980. Now it’s 18 million and growing. Compared to Hong Kong, it was nice to stretch my arms without breaking anyone’s nose. And the English food names became much more creative, like fragrant grandmother, piece of child and my favourite: frozen lime music. No idea what they were.

Warm welcome from Mainland China

The reason we were here is the hardware production ecosystem, where most of the world’s gadgets are made. There are definitely lots of makers and new ventures, with more than a hundred makerspaces, prototyping companies and the big manufacturers. We only had a peak of it even though we stayed for more than a week, kind of like doing sightseeing from a cab.

Since our stay in Shenzhen was quite long, I’m leaving out some parts, but you can check out the official CHIC blog.

Without further ado, here are some of the places we visited.


That’s for us!

Our first presenter (the VP of international operations) clearly worked in EU politics before joining Huawei: every answer was long, carefully crafted, and did not make matters much clearer. We heard all the right buzzwords: international, interdisciplinary, high R&D budget (6.4 billion USD is high), and design-driven, even the CEO takes part in the design decisions. Of course we never learned how.

All 7 teams in one room!

Going in the factory was more fun, we saw a tiny portion of the production line for network infrastructure. The component warehouse works only with machines behind glass walls, but surprisingly (at least for me) most steps still rely on human work, even when it requires no decision-making or judgement, only two hands. And these caps and capes looked the best from all the factories we visited.

Star Rapid Prototyping&Manufacturing

It’s a place to bridge the gap between makerspaces/accelerators and high-volume manufacturing, metal 3D printing, CNC, plastic injection molding, etc. The presenter/CEO was an overly enthusiastic guy from New York, and the average age of the employees seemed pretty young. After the introduction, we split into smaller groups to see the different facilities and material examples across the buildings. Though there are many similar companies in the area, we had the impression that our tour guides actually liked working here, which was neither obvious nor expected at other places.

SSIP (Sino-Swiss Industrial Park)

From all the places where we presented, this was definitely the fanciest. Otherwise it is an institution “for advanced technology cooperation between China and Switzerland, and is expected to play an important role in attracting the leading companies and hi-tech companies from Switzerland and other European countries.” On their part, it was also a case of #deathbypowerpoint. It is a pity for all the work they do in e.g. robotics, though the humanoid robot was turned off and had to be pushed around. The whole event felt a little bit absurd, partly because our brains turned into dry sponges by the end of the day in the nice steaming weather. We were also invited for dinner, chicken feet included.

Huaqiangbei market

The famous electronics market is several buildings between two metro stations, and it’s very easy to get lost in most of them. The only way to find a shop again is to take their business card the first time, otherwise it’s a lost cause. It was hard to buy just one Arduino or button, and not 1000, although it felt flattering to be considered seriously.

Confusingly wide selection of stuff

We went there 3 times: to look around, to find a 3D printing shop and to pick up the case for our prototype and squeeze in some personal shopping. The engineers had to be supervised, otherwise we would have lost them for days in there. It was not so hard after a while, as all language barriers could be bridged with a glittery calculator.

Family time


A space that is solely dedicated to accelerating hardware startups. It’s all about productivity and efficiency, which is quite understandable, since they are also investors in each startup.

This is also why we have no clue about their current projects, all is strictly confidential, and no-one took a break from their work to see our pitches as they are running against time to make the most out of their stay.


A makerspace, coworking office and consulting service company operated by Chaihuo, the first makerspace of Shenzhen. It is also connected with Seeed Studio, a company with open hardware products and small production capability. To put it in perspective, now there are over 200 makerspaces in Shenzhen. Art projects are also welcome here.

And this was one of our workplaces for the duration of the trip (the other being Seeed Studio), and the audience for not one, but two of our presentations.


Since Shenzhen was quickly becoming a metropolis, it was in need of an art-design-culture-whatever district. Instead of waiting while one starts to develop organically, they decided to quickly build one and opened it in 2005. Architecturally it is complete and mostly beautiful, though there are still empty spaces and eerily similar shops and places next to each other.

A business student’s understandable confusion about the sense of crafting these mediocre paintings as a hobby

Splendid China

A theme/fun park about folk architecture, costumes, etc. and miniatures of monuments showed from a tiny train. We also saw a grandiose performance mixed from various traditions–China is big enough to seem international inside its borders.

This looks oddly Hungarian

Since the weather was absolutely unbearable and we were all sticky, the main catchphrase became „No touching!“ for the day.

Hairdo against the heat for all genders

And last, but not least… Tencent HQ

The only software-first company and one of the last companies we visited was Tencent. Among all the different products and services they provide, WeChat is the most well-known. While Baidu is often described as the Chinese Google, WeChat/Weixin is not really the Chinese Facebook. It’s a collection of different digital services all from one account, closed in one big ecosystem, an ubiquitous magical provider for everything. It’s for personal and business use, messaging, social media, cashless payment, booking medical appointments, paying bills, etc.

Apart from the basic functionality, one needs a verifiable account to use a WeChat to its full potential. Since I don’t have a Chinese ID or bank account, I just tried to observe. (It was already obvious that only stupid tourists pay with cash, everyone else is just waving around with their phone).

Walking among their moving data visualizations was exactly how I pictured having a very vivid data privacy nightmare (As I have seen now on Wikipedia, India considered banning WeChat for collecting too much data.). All the financial and health data flying around on the displays behind our persuasive and dynamic guide in the HQ was very, very uncomfortable. Upon questioning, she confirmed they don’t sell this data. (The government already sees it and censors the content, and who would be allowed to buy it on the other side of the Great Firewall?)

The main income comes from games. Selling, upgrading, new equipment, there are as many types of purchase as games. One could admire how candid they are in their 2016 Annual Report: “Smart phone games: Our strategy is to engage a large pool of casual gamers and gradually advance them to mid-core and hard-core categories.”

Then advertising, and the payment services, although surprisingly little comes from that. The only fee is when a seller or an individual wants to take out the money from their WeChat account. What really made WeChat Pay this popular is the digital adaptation of red envelopes (containing money), traditionally given as gifts to friends and family during holidays.

To have a sweet ending to our tour, we finished in the company gift and coffee shop, where all our previous critical thoughts were silenced by cute penguin figures (their mascot) and other merchandise. The temporary off switch was so successful that Tabea asked routinely if she can pay there with WeChat.

Happy hotpot dinner

The next and (finally!) last post will be about Team Geneva’s progress.

11/08/2017Comments are off for this post.

Makerbay, Hong Kong — CHIC, episode 7

As the plans of the whole CHIC was changing day by day, we ended up visiting Makerbay twice. Luckily if I would have had to pick a place to visit twice, I would have picked this one. First time it was just Tabea and me, snooping around, trying to distract some people from their work so that we could learn about the place and the projects they are doing, the second time it was having drinks, pizza, some networking and our first public pitch.

Makerspaces are public workspaces. The root concept is that makers get access to machines and working space for a membership fee, otherwise they could afford neither of them. Here they can have a desk in a co-working space and quickly complete and test prototypes. In reality it is much more though: a center for education, exchange of skills, social network and sometimes collaborations. By default, these spaces bring together people from different backgrounds, unlike big companies with specialised departments. Here individuals can realize their projects in a helpful and nurturing environment. Not all makerspaces are the same, for example Makerbay’s projects are aligned with its mission: environmental and social impact. They often research a question or design a solution in these domains.

Can we extend rule 3 to other places? Like the planet?

This space is also special because most of the machines are owned by the founder. One would think that this model is not financially sustainable, and I assume they do have to make sacrifices, but it is in positive balance now for more than a year, even though these projects are not most local investor’s professional dream (which is probably reflected in their expectations and involvement).

Cesar Harada

The founder is Cesar Harada, who is probably one of the busiest (and productive) people I have met, it was exhausting just to listen to all the work that he is doing for and next to Makerbay. His deep and genuine commitment was easy to feel when local makers presented their project and he took some of the questions, especially the ones regarding the business model and long-term plans. I still don’t understand why he spent more than half an hour of his time just to talk to Tabea and me when we first went there, but I’m happy he did. We also found out a lot from the enthusiastic students and interns working there.

It was quite a long pitching session as our 3 teams and 3 local teams also presented their projects. Their initial brief and therefore the measure of success is different from ours, since for some teams the main goal is research or solving an environmental problem. As a result, profitability comes at a later stage. Right now these projects are mainly funded through sponsoring, e.g. from WWF. Makerbay’s profile is more focused on projects with social and ecological impacts and less on quick growth. One example is the marine litter detective balls, floating in the ocean ([link here[(https://medium.com/@krohak/seo-for-the-ocean-64f96f68a7e4)).

This was another team, working on diving equipment

Makerbay has the usual machines of makerspaces like laser cutters and 3D printers. Then there were more traditional tools like sewing machines, and there is the cutting edge technology in the biochemical lab. What I also found particularly interesting was the material library with unusual natural materials, e.g. mycelium, the moldable mushroom which solidifies when placed in the oven. The members of Makerbay are experimenting with these materials’ properties and possible usage.

The material library

This is the mushroom, as some students and interns are starting to test it. The idea of growing e.g. your own chair seems too fun not to try at some point.

Children are welcome too as the organisation offers tools and benches adapted to their size. As makerspaces are scarce in Hong Kong (real estate price madness), it is important to provide a space for education and have a more general audience than new startups.

And to wrap up my rapture, this was the view from where we winded down afterwards. The beach was actually much less glamorous than this, but unusually quiet for the city, which fit very well to our very tired group.

10/08/2017Comments are off for this post.

Hong Kong, working— CHIC, episode 6

The HKUST (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) campus was quite unlike any university campus I have stayed at. First of all, we used 3 elevators between the bed and the breakfast, each of them spanning 10 floors, and some walking in between. The whole journey took 13 minutes. And then 2 escalators to the bus. The upside of these daily journeys was the view of the sea at all times. There was very little time left for socialising on campus, but we met some friendly cockroaches in the room, and compared to most of Hong Kong’s spaces, each room seemed very spacious.

Cloudy morning

As we could also see by visiting an expat meetup, most white-collar jobs in Hong Kong are in finance, which makes the city economically fragile. The sky-high real estate prices do not support new businesses, and at the same time they have 30 years left as a special administrative region in the People’s Republic of China, so I did not see it as an ideal place for entrepreneurs, however there are many institutions that want to present Hong Kong as one. We visited the Science Park administered by the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (a non-profit set up by the Hong Kong Government), although some of us were late — the 3 elevators to reach breakfast are to blame.

The Science Park aims to create an ideal place for hi-tech startups. Design-first companies can go to InnoCentre, which we did not visit. The main areas of interest for Science Park are “Biomedical Technology, Electronics, Green Technology, Information & Communications Technology and Material & Precision Engineering”, and they also develop three “over-arching cross-disciplinary platforms (Smart City, Healthy Ageing and Robotics)”.

I have no idea what they are developing in these domains. I would have loved to see the projects on campus, but as it is the case with most company visits, the really juicy things are hidden and confidential, so I can’t tell how successful they are in their mission to “bring about a golden age of technology” or “enhance the city’s diversified economy, and guide Hong Kong into a new era of prosperity.” (Quotes are from their mission.) Judging by the resources poured into these institutions, attracting or facilitating the creation of new and successful startups seems to be a priority for the city.

This was the HKSTP Data Studio

The two other visits of the day were memorable in a very different way: they made me feel very tiny. We visited Modern Terminals, which is the second largest container terminal operator in Kwai Tsing Container Terminals in Hong Kong, which is the sixth busiest container port of the world. So it’s pretty big. We could even visit the control room to take these nice top-view pictures, and guess whether the cars are self-driving or not. They still have drivers, at least for now.

We also went to see how the containers get filled up in a warehouse. Now if I will order something or hear ‘we could just sell it online’, this is what will come to my mind. I know there are 7.5 billion people on this planet, but do we really need all of this stuff?

No image can show the heat and sweat in this hall

To quickly wash away these disturbing thoughts, we went to have dinner at a nice low-key restaurant and then admired the skyline from a sky-bar where we definitely did not fit the dress code, again.

We took up two tables and finished around 15 dishes, maybe?

All my photos have glass reflections from the window, so here’s a drawing

Our last serious day in Hong Kong was spent getting to know important design hubs of the city. In 3 groups we visited 3 different design institutes: 2 universities and a museum. Although learning about the Hong Kong design ecosystem would be more direct through company visits or meetups, I enjoyed the visit at the Run Run Shaw Creative Media Center. 2 enthusiastic alumni showed us around among the numerous exhibited projects. Their facilities are also impressive. Since they have about 160 students in a class, their scale is different than what we are used to in Europe with classes of approximately 15 people. At the center students can show their diploma movies in a real cinematic setting.

What I was jealous of: the amount of space they had. They could exhibit the projects in a dedicated open space, and had their classes elsewhere. No same-day vernissage and finissage!

However, I missed the mess. Maybe they just did not show it to us, but it seemed way too sterile for comfortable ideation and execution. I wanted to see scraps of paper and sweat on the floor, but I only got to look at the beautiful white cubes (except for one installation that was literally a pile of trash as an outcry against the art world and its institutions).

And then the fun part: visiting Joker Entertainment, the producers of the original slimy. The showroom we were standing in had no indication that this funny and quite disgusting material can also be used in healthcare and for cleaning — it looked like My Little Pony decorated that room when it was drunk for the first time. I would love to show a photo, but I can’t find any.

At least it was cold against the skin

However, the kind gentleman who talked to us gave genuine answers about how they built this company and the challenges or losses faced. This turned out to be much more inspiring than all the diplomatic answers we heard before and after at other companies.

And some less organised activities:

The scavenger hunt

The teams were mixed up from the different cities (Geneva, Fribourg, Lugano), and set free with a list of tasks that we had to mostly disregard with the best of intentions as it was way too long for one day. (We did answer one question: Starbucks does not always use the green color here — why? Is it too close to the color of jade stones?)

What we really completed was the visit to the Golden Computer Arcade full of, well, computers. And cameras, tablets, phones, cables and chargers, game consoles, drones, printers, etc. It was a challenge to not lose our engineers there, luckily at one point they got hungry. Then we switched to some less nerdy fun: we took the ferry and some subways to arrive at the beach. It was more than nice to dive in the water and then float, staring lazily at the skyscrapers loosely attached to the hills.

Surprisingly not crowded

Looking at the skyline

From the beach in Kowloon, from a skybar, from the ferry to Hong Kong Island and from a beach close to Makerbay. And Victoria Peak of course, from where we walked down to see the nightlife at Central, where the super busy and rich work and drink.

Walking down from Victoria Peak

Happy figure in a restaurant

Central during the day


For scarves, bags, fake watches, powerbanks, clothes, etc. Finding a common price with no common language is not hard if one has a calculator. Theatrical performances are required on both sides. There are so many markets, and then there are the malls. Basically all urban life is inside malls, there is one or more at each subway station, it is a place to hang out, etc. Which is crazy from a Western European perspective (although not unusual in Budapest), where shopping centers are pushed to the outskirts of a city.

Closed market

Say hi to the ducks!

I also visited the Jade Market, since I have studied jewellery design a bit. However, most vendors were more skilled in harassing the buyer and not so much in finding quality items. In a far corner though I found a lovely lady who knew about each stone’s origin, why is it that colour, and had a deeper knowledge about the symbolic meanings of the carvings than just the Chinese zodiac signs.


The crazy real estate prices probably do not inspire religious constructions, but there are some temples, lying low among the tall buildings, or a bit outside in a park.

Incense in the humid heat — only nice on the picture

Man Mo Temple

Temple Garden Nan Lian

And on Sunday, we crossed the border to Shenzhen.

The government does not wish to discriminate by birth planet.

Next post: Makerbay. Partly because this one is already too long.

24/07/2017Comments are off for this post.

From vacation to work, Hong Kong — CHIC, episode 5

It was not easy to leave Thailand, one could easily spend 3 months traveling (or 1 month just eating) across the country. However, this was not what got us there, but CHIC, so we started to prepare mentally for the next, very different journey, and boarded the plane to Hong Kong.

On arrival, we managed to get a SIM-card at 7/11, which seems to have an almost monopoly as a convenience store here and in Thailand. It works on both sides of the border. This was no small feat, and it’s not cheap, but buying one in Shenzhen with only Chinese instructions did not seem like a good idea.

Then we took a double decker to our hostel, which also qualified as sightseeing (since then, I have also spotted a two-storey tram). We still had a couple of days before the other students arrived, so we got a head start in getting to know the city. The contrasts here are just as strong as in Bangkok between building heights and costs, but the proportions are different. There are more prosperous areas, buildings, but the little dark alleys look the same between two skyscrapers.

Although the shadows between skyscrapers are not really like in Thailand. No street food stalls, no happy chatter, the alleys are empty or anxious.

Bamboo scaffoldings!

It’s an incredibly rich city, with the tiniest spaces possible. Most shops are somewhere on the upper floors as they can’t afford the ground floor. How do people know it’s there?… Google knows though, the map includes the floor too. And malls, malls and markets everywhere. In rainy season many people probably buy totally unnecessary things just because they can’t leave the building (not us, of course). Almost every metro station has a shopping center over it with multiple floors. And there are the others. Some are spacious, with familiar brands reaching from Armani to H&M, and some are like markets, except for the walls. Since most people cannot show their status here with real estate (too expensive) or a car (no parking place), Swiss watches are very popular, luxury and more reasonable brands open their shops everywhere.

Our hostel was also hidden on the 13th floor of a building, one elevator served the even numbers and another one the odd numbers. And this was just the start of the elevator-experiments we were about to see.

Here we can always practice deep focus and how to filter out noise: there are huge and smaller screens, 3 different music channels and languages anywhere we go. And so many people on such a little area that bumping into people is inevitable. They also apologize though, and queuing is practiced, which probably won’t be the case on the mainland.

The skyline of the city during the night is truly incredible, we got a view from the shore and also from a skybar (where the dress code for us was negotiable upon entry, as we were two white girls).

So much green!

And to escape in advance from all the buzz and stress of the city, we also took a hike with the couchsurfer’s local group. They were expats from Hong Kong and Shenzhen as well as travelers.

I was looking forward to take a bath in the waterfall, which can be penalized with 2 years as we found out upon arrival. There were 2 guards sitting there with a tiny radio, listening to music. What I was not expecting though were the enormous spiders, luckily they also did not want to make my acquaintance. I also never hiked in such weather (at least it was not raining), but the view was worth it.

The waterfall provides the drinking water to Tai O, a fishing village. Tourists are tolerated, but we were not welcome to join their festival in the late afternoon. The restaurant we ended up at (and all the others (and the markets)) provide the opportunity to be assertive, otherwise no waiter would come by, or the bag/charger/powerbank would be overpriced. Just like Ecseri (the Hungarian flea market). Except there is the language barrier, but that can be bridged with a calculator’s display and body language.

Of course, we did other things besides spending money (which is not that tempting in such an expensive city anyway), for example we visited Makerbay. Twice, actually. That deserves its own post.

And then we moved in to the campus to HKUST, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, a top institution in its field (but not in lodging). We had to take 3 elevators just to get breakfast!

This post will end with a tiny invention that I really appreciate here, but would never admit in Italy (and team Ticino really scoffed at): espresso with a straw! It’s so nice not to spill it on me while walking in the crowd. It’s not stylish, yes. But here most things aren’t anyway, at least to our European eyes. Like this other coffee with sweet potato.