This past Sunday marked the first-ever Barcamp held in Beijing, which turned out to be an upbeat gathering showcasing the potential of a grassroots tech community here.
Some of the themes discussed at the “unconference” included business planning, startup advice, translation, Web 2.0 applications (like twitter), China’s economic position, Wikipedia (yours truly), the Great Firewall, T-shirts 2.0, gaming industry in China and Creative Commons in China.
What exactly is Barcamp? Even those attending may not know the origins, so here’s the 30 second summary. Publisher Tim O’Reilly has an exclusive “Foo Camp” for Friends Of O’Reilly in Northern California each year, where he invites a select techno elite to meet and create a conference agenda on the spot and hang out. He calls it the “wiki of conferences.” After the second year of FOO Camp, some tech folks were annoyed that it was so closed a group. Even invitees from one year were not always invited the next year’s event, which caused some angst. So geeks in the San Francisco area decided to have an alternative “Barcamp” at the same time (See [[Foobar]] in Wikipedia for the techie cultural significance of this) where anyone could come and have an unconference of their own. The idea became viral, and now there are Barcamps around the world, as an adhoc gathering of techies with the common interest of sharing knowhow and ideas.
Typically how Barcamp works is folks arrive ready to discuss, present or demonstrate something. You write your idea on a yellow PostIt note, and stick it on the board. After all interested folks have put up their proposals, they are either voted on or just organized by the conveners into 30 minute time slots throughout the day. At Barcamp Beijing there were slightly fewer proposals than slots, so each one got a slot.
In reality, many presentations are really just an excuse to get conversation going as the most useful learning happens in the hallways and side discussions.
In China, Shanghai has always been the more progressive city for business and technology, so last year they hosted the first Barcamp in China. This year marked the first one in Beijing, and there was an average of 60 or so people at any one time, with a total attendance of around 100 in all. Held at the slick facility of Orange Labs/France Telecom in Haidian, northwest Beijing, it’s right in the heart of the university and technology park district. This is where you’ll find Tsinghua, Peking, Renming and other universities and the offices of Microsoft, Google and other tech companies.
Hopefully this marks the advent of more ad hoc gatherings in the tech community here.
The grassroots, unpredictible nature of these plan-on-the-spot unconferences make them uncomfortable for the authorities here, but perhaps they’ll see these do much more good than harm. The free flow of ideas and contacts are absolutely necessary if China wants to be competitive in the software world with Bangalore, if not Silicon Valley. Otherwise, the PRC will be continue to be stuck at the bottom of the value chain, simply being a cheap source for hardware manufacturing and assembly.
Great job by Kris Krug, Robert Scales, Orange Labs and the rest of the folks who helped out. I hope this can be replicated more.