2021 was named “Year One of Metaverse” in China. Beeple in auction ignited a warm-up flame in the art circle, and Facebook becoming Meta was the big torch firing up everyone’s appetite.
Before that, China has been proactive in integrating the virtual world into the IRL economy, well manifested by the prosperity of online shopping, virtual idols and entertainment with AR/VR.
With such favorable background, it was no surprise that China has been quick in responding to the idea of metaverse. From the government side, China’s 14th National Five-Year-Plan had formally named blockchain, VR/AR, AI, and cloud computing as key to building China’s digital future. Municipal authorities, including those in major cities such as Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Chengdu, and Wuhan etc, have included the metaverse as one of the focal points in their annual government work reports.
But metaverse in China is not the same as metaverse elsewhere. Simply put, there is metaverse, and there is chinaverse.
Well, “is” is the wrong verb. Metaverse is not anywhere, yet. It is still a thing of the future, though many talk and act as if it is already here. Some visionaries, some fashionables, and some hoaxers, each with their own agenda when using the same popular new concept.
My good friend, previously an ambassador to China from Europe, told me there has been a popular saying in the ambassador circle stationed in China:
“TIC”. This is China. Whenever something strange happens, they would say “TIC”, usually with a shrug. Something like “Oh la la” or “C’est la vie” in French I suppose. And there are a lot of TICs these days, the pre- metaverse days. (Maybe too short to be called an “age”.)
TIC is not just an acronym of three words; it embeds the unique mix of political, social and cultural realities of China. Special, in terms of differences with most parts of the World, or the West, using a somehow outdated, oversimplified and heavily loaded but still popular term.
Take crypto as an example. Mining and trading are prohibited in China. Official rationale is to prevent environmental damage, fraud, and money laundering. Reasonable enough. So, NFT in China is following a crypto-less path. Actually NFT has been translated into Chinese as shu zi cang pin, “digital collectibles”, nothing to do with non-fungible or token. NFTs will serve as certificates of ownership for digital assets and IP protection, but not financial products.
Centralization is the essence of The System in China. No place for anything decentralized, currency or else, that may threaten the core. However, such TIC context has not deterred people, nearly everyone, to rush onto the metaverse wagon. Tech giants like Baidu (launched its own version of the metaverse, Xi’Rang, in December 2021) and Alibaba (launched Metahuman AYAYI in September 2021), and many other companies are creating or claiming to create “their metaverses”.
Well, according to Tony Parisi’s 7 Rules of Metaverse — Rule No.1 is “there is only one metaverse” – all these claims are inaccurate uses of the term. But then, there is no global consensus of what metaverse is yet, so nothing to stop anyone using the term in whatever way they want.
The Chinese scene is so hot that we can actually say there exists a Chinaverse already, that the Chinese (version of) metaverse arrives earlier than the (global) metaverse. Again, the China speed. Acceleration may be a better word.
Enough for the context. The scope and structure of Chinaverse is too big and complex a grand mansion to describe in a short article. So let’s focus on just one small room inside that whatever- verse: Mixlab.
Mixlab (disclosure: I am a member and a columnist on its social media wechat account, with no financial relationship) is one of the budding communities on the virtual space aspiring to metaverse. Its name in Chinese is, literary, Borderless Community. The initiator of the community, Shadow Chi (membership code: ML001) started a small online group of friends and colleagues, in 2017, with the intention of documenting and sharing his own transformation from a designer to a programmer, a professional shift. From a humble personal community Mixlab has now become an online community with 40,000+ members, many of them active participants, and has facilitated 500+ collaboration projects among the members.
One basic concept behind the community, in the word of Shadow, is “the traditional definitions of professions no longer suit the new reality where new roles and positions, especially cross- disciplinary ones, are appearing everyday.” So it is important for people to connect with others from different fields of expertise, to learn from each other, to work together, to create new things of value. Ideation, creative process, production and marketing need innovative ways unlike any well-defined traditional and conventional methodologies.
To Mixlab, paradigm shift isthe essential state of this historical stage. And the key, apart from new technologies, is new grouping of people. A team with diverse backgrounds and competence in a more open and flat structure is better than the previous dominating hierarchic model where power is centralized and over-specialization sets limits to people’s creativity.
Mixlab is not a company or organization in the traditional sense. Legally it is a NPO, nonprofit organization, but unlike nearly all NPOs it is not managed by an executive team with fixed titles and positions. Rather, it tries to adopt a decentralized, flexible structure and facilitate members to be initiative and take charge of various subgroups and projects. People’s power and responsibilities are fluid and multiple, rather than rigid and singular.
At the beginning, participants gathered in different small groups and discussed various common interests, from creative concepts, product ideas, professional development to technical or business topics.
The initial major groups had themes like metaverse, intelligent city and mobility, intelligent fashion, intelligent design and sci-fi architecture etc, each quickly aggregating more than 500 active members engaging in regular meetings. Most gatherings took place virtually. From 2018 physical meetings have been held as well. Till now there have been more than 50 events in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and Hangzhou, ranging from discussion, masterclass to workshop. The pandemic has showed down the growth in offline events, both in geographic
scope and amount, and there is plan to expand once quarantine and lockdown restriction are gone. The content of most meetings were documented and edited into articles, released through social media, with readership in the thousands from all over the country. While the thematic groups grew in numbers and size, Members Collaboration has also been growing. Anyone in the community can initiate a new project, find five or more collaborators, and start developing a prototype. They would compete in a contest, and the winning projects
would get further financial, technical and other support in resources to launch a new business startup. Thus, it is a mechanism facilitating entrepreneurship. Other similar program aiming at promoting collaboration are hackathon and thematic workshops, which may not end with a new venture but for a period of time facilitate collaboration among members who are strangers to begin with, usually across multiple disciplines.
Mixlab has developed a Methodology of Innovation over the last 4 years. It is an integration of design thinking and technological thinking, based on cross-disciplinary creative practice. It consists of three steps:
(2) Crossing over-integration;
Another major area of activities of Mixlab is exploring new form of organization. Here, DAO is the theme. Like the concept metaverse, DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) is new and yet to be defined. Mixlab joins many pioneers in the world in experimenting with a new structure and operation with decentralization, openness, transparency, consensus, collaboration as the key ideas/ideals.
But the positioning is not that of amateur, interest groups, with people of the same hobbies gathering for pleasure. There is a professional, business rationale underneath the experiments, to activate the formation of new companies with members in the community and financial investment. In this eco-system, Mixlab is the community aggregating people, knowledge, data and opportunities, while Mix-Fund is the financial supporting unit, and iBrand is a media to promote the new ventures and their products, focusing on the entrepreneurs. This is basically an incubation model. Success cases included moDAO, a digital art venture, and MixWorkshop, a resource center on AI and metaverse design.
Cross-disciplinary is really a keyword, for the core composition of the community as a whole, and manifested in all of its projects. Traditional disciplines like science, computing, architecture, design etc interacts with emerging disciplines like quantum machine learning, generative AI, digital beings, creative coding etc. From the interaction, new professional roles are born, such as design hacker, digital therapist, dreammaker, metaverse marketer etc.
Mixlab is one example of the many initiatives in the private sectors to explore the potential of metaverse in China, in ways different from the Industrial Age or the Internet Age. The previous mainstream model of entrepreneurship, with startups, incubation, investment funds etc, is not the only option anymore. While tech giants and established companies and institutions are eager to follow the grand direction, it is extremely difficult if not impossible for them to embrace the ideas of decentralization, community, openness etc and put them into practice, except in a technological sense.
The Web2 to Web3 shift will see the rise of next gen startups that challenge and even replace the current giants. The David vs Goliath scenario always happens during paradigm shift.
The key function of the community is not just for exchange and sharing. Content output is integral to the community operation. Thus, content products are created, collaboratively, from the communications in the community. The output can be text, design, ideas or data, to be further developed into resources to build new products and ventures.
Value creation is the common goal of community members. There are now more than ten new ventures initiated from Mixlab, called MLV, Mixlab Ventures, including intelligent experience design, virtual space construction, new media art space, immersive entertainment etc, and joint ventures with university such as a digital intelligent design laboratory with Donghua University.
The community manifesto of Mixlab composes of four key concepts: de-authority, decentralization, de-disciplinary, and experimental. In Shadow’s word: Mixlab is “an experimental space to reach for the future, formed by creators, artists, thinkers, practitioners and de-disciplinary rebels with the spirit of disruptive innovation”.
Morgan Stanley estimated that China’s market size of the metaverse industry to be US$8 trillion. IDC predicts that 37 million Chinese online users will have a virtual identity on metaverse platforms by 2025 (personally I think this is an underestimation).
The metaverse ecosystem has yet to become mature but more and more companies are creating their own roadmaps to explore strategic potentials in this new new world. Despite the special Chinese context (TIC) which doesn’t support decentralization by default, the government has acknowledged the huge benefits the metaverse can offer.
The issue of centralization vs decentralization will continue, and companies or anyone venturing into the metaverse space must deal with the intrinsic dilemma and manage the risks, in their own ways.
For some true believers of metaverse, new worlds cannot be built with old tools. New tools need to be invented out of new ideas and values. For the members of the Mixlab community, and other communities along similar paths, there is an alternative vision of metaverse worthy of creating. Call it idealistic. But the future is created by not just new technology, business models, products etc.
The future is built with ideas and ideals for a better world. It will be very interesting to watch how Mixlab and other communities and initiatives would be evolving in this pre- metaverse days, and how they contribute to the creation of metaverse or chinaverse, whatever it would be.