Chinese Fishing Village—Future Global Tech Hub?

Out of nowhere, Shenzhen, China, has become a gleaming tech city. Mike Distefano looks at its formula.

In a shifting economy and corporate world, agility has become a key predictor of success—yet studies show only a fraction of the global workforce is considered highly agile. In this regular column, Michael Distefano, Korn Ferry’s chief marketing officer and chief operating officer, Asia Pacific, explores the concept of agility: who has it, who doesn’t, and what companies can do to mold it.

Paris is the city of lights, and New York’s skyline is among the most beautiful in the world. But the iridescent digital billboards that parade down the streets of Shenzhen, China takes no back seat to the Champs-Élysées or Times Square. At night, appearing like a pack of brilliantly colored elephants, the light show from the city’s skyscrapers dance off the river, reminiscent of a jazz fantasia. (Or the old Pink Floyd laser-light show in New York’s Hayden Planetarium, for those readers who are more rock ’n’ roll inclined.) It wasn’t too long ago that Shenzhen was a modest fishing village; today it lays claim to the highest per-capita GDP in China. Frankly, it’s pretty awesome.

Much has been written about Shenzhen’s emergence as a digitally driven mecca. Homegrown organizations such as Huawei, Tencent, and ZTE have emerged as global tech powerhouses, and headlines for years have proclaimed the city as the next Silicon Valley. But hyping someplace as the next Silicon Valley is a tradition that dates back to the birth of Silicon Valley. Lots of places, from Toronto and Paris to Detroit and Shenzhen’s neighbor Shanghai, have been anointed the next Silicon Valley. And while all of them are formidable hotbeds of innovation and leaders in the digital makeover of the world, Shenzhen’s combination of political support, economic muscle, and demographic composition may be the most promising.

Of course, part of the reason Shenzhen became a global tech center is because that’s what the Chinese government planned this area to be. Its designation as China’s first “Special Economic Zone” offered preferential policies that attracted hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign investment. As a result, in the span of just three decades, Shenzhen’s population more than doubled. And while many newcomers were migrants put to work in Shenzhen’s massive manufacturing center—the city makes 90% of the world’s electronics—it is often overlooked that many newcomers were also among the most ambitious entrepreneurs and highly skilled tech talent in the world.

The latter population is the product of a combination of advanced education and national pride. According to a report in the All China Review, in Shenzhen today, college-educated talent relative to the permanent population stands at 37%, higher than in both Beijing and the New Pudong district of Shanghai. Separately, the Shenzhen municipal human resources and social security bureau said that as of October 2017, it had certified and introduced 9,604 top professional talents from both home and abroad, mainly researchers in technology fields. Just last year, it added that roughly 15,000 overseas Chinese students returned to Shenzhen to work, a 50% increase from 2016.

These young, educated, like-minded individuals grew up in China, left to study abroad, and are coming back with the singular goal to make China great again. They are dedicated to the idea of making not just Shenzhen, but China writ large, a global superpower on par with the US—and they view technology as the vehicle to achieve that goal.

All of which backs up the key theme for any budding tech hub: talent. In this case, the elements, including government support, advanced education and national pride, has created a virtuous cycle of innovation and prosperity here. Now, with some experts forecasting the kind of growth next decade that could make this city’s GDP as big as that of many leading countries, it’s just a matter of watching the light show.