Canadian copies

Less flattery, more innovation needed
Paul Epp

I hate being embarrassed. Most of us do.

Our dislike of that self-conscious sting is part of what keeps us behaving in a socially acceptable way, and that’s a good thing. But we tend to remember when we get caught out.

Years ago, I was touring a group of students through showrooms in Milan, Italy. In one, the polite host asked after our nationality. When I identified us as Canadian, he hit the roof: “you #*@ Canadians are worse than the Chinese.” He was referring to Canadian Copies.

Part of what made that embarrassing was the amount of truth contained within his observation. Even though I go to great lengths to avoid that description in my own design work, it’s a fair comment. Canada has long been known for its comfort with copying.

There is a long history of product imitation in Canada and, as a justification, it doesn’t sound so bad. We have lacked the market size and concentration that supports innovation. Almost everywhere (even in Italy) innovative products are supported by only a small fraction of the population, at least initially.

As new designs gain their place in the market and their worth is recognized, they get bought more often and when this happens, they get copied. But where they originate has a lot to do with there being enough customers to make their production worthwhile. Therefore, innovations mostly thrive in large urban conglomerations, and if they are linked with others, creating an even larger market, so much the better. Canada is still basically a large country with a small population, thinly dispersed across its vast distance. It’s not ideal for product innovation.

The Robertson screw, a real Canadian innovation. Not available in the U.S. (yet).

There is another, less comfortable, aspect to this story. And this is cultural, not geographic. We do not have a distinguished history of valuing innovation, even when it’s economically defensible. We can attribute that, in part, to our cautious reserve, preferring to let others take the risks, a characteristic that would have improved our chances of survival in a cold climate. We can also acknowledge our financial prudence, of which we are justifiably proud. We also might hate being embarrassed, and adventuring in innovation is almost certain to expose us to a certain amount of ridicule along the way.

We could, a bit plausibly, blame our colonial history wherein we were expected to be dutiful and obedient customers of our mother country, thereby improving her odds of success in innovation while foregoing our own.

But we could be more innovative anyway. In fact, in some instances, we have been. When we have had large domestic markets, like agriculture, our innovation success in farming equipment has been very impressive. Our open spaces also have encouraged us to innovate in telecommunications. There are other successes in mining and forestry. We have proven that we can do it.

So, then, why don’t we innovate more often? Other cold countries with a sparse population, such as those in Scandinavia, are known for their innovation. Few countries have been simultaneously both as frugal and innovative as Scotland. The U.S. is also a former colony, although less inhibited by its past. It’s not a shortage of talent that is holding us back. As a design educator, I have been more than reassured that we have all of that that we need.

I think that there are basically two requirements. One is for an entrepreneurial spirit that embraces risk-taking. Silicon Valley has plenty of these and more than a few are (former) Canadians. Maybe that is just how it works. It’s a better place to innovate so why not go there too?

Another is a fundamental respect for innovation and a pride in proprietary intellectual property. Unfortunately, I don’t know how this is nurtured. To me it is self-evident. Innovation is crucial to our well-being, by almost any indicator: social, economic, cultural…. We are defined by our creative accomplishments and our prosperity depends on them. We ought to have more. Then we might have some prospect for letting the term ‘Canadian Copy’ slide silently into oblivion, embarrassing us no more.

Paul Epp is an adjunct professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.
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