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Ghost Factory


What would it take to run a ghost factory, engaging hundreds of people in the manufacture of a large physical object, where no-one know's what they are making, until the moment of completion?

This booklet describes an experiment that took over six months and engaged hundreds of people from across China, it explores human psychology, trust and distributed manufacturing. A proof of concept. Perhaps also, a harbinger of the future.

Written by SDR Traveller founder, Jan Chipchase.

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Digital Editions


  • PDF
  • Designed for iPad
  • English
  • Published by Field Institute
  • 28 pages
  • 17 Photos
  • 11 Diagrams
  • DRM free
Ghost Factory


China is increasingly influencing how this planet will look in the coming century — economically, politically and culturally. Heading up global insights in an innovation consultancy, my role provides a particular perspective on what is happening in China: primary research reveals the nuances of how it’s citizens view themselves and the world around them; interactions with multi-national clients that are eyeing up what already is or will soon be the world’s largest economy; and conversations with Chinese brands looking to move up the value chain as they compete both at home and in the global marketplace, all within a time line that meets both short terms market wins and long term strategic goals. It provides unique lens through which to see what has come to pass and what will be.

By now there are very few people left on the planet that aren’t in some way impacted by globalisation – as producers and consumers—those few who make a decision to opt-out must do so consciously.

Despite greater traceability through the supply chain, our touch points to this interconnected system that churns out ever more, ever faster inherently limits our understanding of the whole. We can talk about globalisation, buy into it, buy from it, demonstrate against it, but for most of us its scale and complexity defies comprehension.

Part of the machine is dedicated to designing, prototyping, testing and pushing to market connected products and services that know more about us, than we ever will about them. It’s as if we were standing on the top of a hill and are now running at full pelt into the fog below – not quite knowing what lies ahead, letting gravity and momentum carry us, and doing our best to avoid the silhouettes of objects as they loom into view, chased by the fear of stopping.

Most people understand the critical role that China plays in sustaining and furthering this globalised economy. But if you’re reading this there are some nuances I’m guessing you haven’t truly absorbed: as the global economic centre of gravity continues to shift towards China++ many of the multinational companies that put products on your shelves will increasingly be designing for China 1st, they’ll increasingly design out of China; and will increasingly be led by and draw from a pool of highly skilled, highly experienced Chinese talent whose design sensibilities appeal to a global customer base, but which is also grounded in and for ‘China’. It’s here today but is unevenly distributed across the design and manufacturing process.

In the next decade we’re going to see new hybrid products/services that have an global impact on the scale of the mobile phone and nascent social networking services, but created, designed, manufactured in China, whose primary market is Chinese, that couldn’t have been made anywhere else and for whom the Rest of the World is a marketing afterthought. It’s cultural, political, technological and ideological values will be resolutely mid-21st century Chinese having absorbed the aspects of the globalised marketplace that are analogous with its world view, and ignoring the rest. It’ll draw the formal and informal manufacturing ecosystem, local business and intellectual property environments that are a trajectory of today’s and on a very Chinese aesthetic.

And you’ll be queuing up to buy it, and buy into it.

End note: A short movie of the final assembly in Shanghai.

Upcoming publications: The Field Study Handbook.

Photo: Studio D on assignment in Chengdu.