Our collective failure to appreciate the competitive power of great design is Canada's commercial Achilles' heel. This is something we can fix.

Canada has been slow to capitalize on one of the most important sources of competitive advantage among advanced industrialized economies: the power of great design.

We can, in part, blame history. There has never been a Canadian equivalent to France’s Beaux Arts, England’s Arts and Crafts, Germany’s Bauhaus, Italy’s Futurismo or Scandinavia’s modernism. These late 19th and early 20th century movements embodied distinctive, popular approaches to design, art and architecture that soon became deeply rooted in each nation’s psyche. In the brand- and design-conscious 21st century, it turns out that this long-seeded cultural DNA is a valuable commodity and economic catalyst.

Global taste-maker and Canadian expat Tyler Brûlé has been withering on the subject of Canada’s design deficit. It’s easy to dismiss Brûlé’s stylish preoccupations as frills — especially against the no-nonsense world of resource extraction.

But grateful Toronto flyers climbing on board Brûlé-branded Porter Airlines know first-hand the difference that good design can make. Export-minded countries like Singapore and Taiwan have hired Brûlé’s company, Winkmedia, to develop comprehensive design and brand strategies to expand their share of the global marketplace.

Globally, it’s design-savvy companies like Apple, IKEA and H&M that are leading the way and steadily overtaking their dowdier Canadian peers. The recent buyout of Zellers by American mass merchandiser Target is a telling example. Target has earned a fanatic US following by touting its collaborations with major designers like Michael Graves and adopting a near Scandinavian conviction that good value and good design go hand-in-hand.

Meanwhile middle Canada’s go-to stores Shoppers Drug Mart, Canadian Tire and Leon’s remain quintessential Canadian businesses — with no chance of international success.

Startlingly, Canada has fielded virtually no successful design-based retail export, with the recent exception of BC yoga-wear manufacturer Lululemon.

Perhaps gold magnate Peter Munk’s ascendancy is instructive. When his design-forward Clairtone stereo floundered, Munk found his way toward a Canadian industry where you could make a reliable fortune: mining. What could have been Canada’s answer to Denmark’s Bang & Olufsen or Japan’s Sony evaporated.

All of this leads us, perhaps inevitably, to RIM: a company in decline not because of substandard engineering but, in large measure, because of a lacklustre interface.

It’s not incidental that Apple touts its products as “designed in California” and guards its design secrets as zealously as it does its engineering patents.

Is it asking too much to want a Blackberry stamped “designed in Ontario”?

If that’s the case, then perhaps the idea of superior Finnish design should strike us as equally preposterous. Yet in furniture and fashion, glassware and architecture,  Finland has developed a design economy that dramatically exceeds the global footprint of Canadian goods. Even with its recent struggles, Finnish phone maker Nokia continues to be a resilient leader in design driven innovation.

In fact, Canada could learn plenty from Finland, which has worked aggressively to shift its dependence on forestry and mining toward design-intensive businesses. SITRA, the Finnish national innovation agency that champions design standards across Finnish industry, has no Canadian peer.

Most recently, the Finnish government moved to merge its largest engineering and design schools to create Aalto University, named after the country’s most famous architect.

None of this has escaped the attention of Canadian business leaders like Roger Martin, who has written widely on the importance of incorporating design thinking into business education, echoing similar initiatives already underway at Stanford University and other leading schools. But governments, businesses and universities in Canada have been slow to act.

Here are three ideas for cribbing from Finland’s success and fixing Canada’s design deficit:

  • Design Canada, a branch of Industry Canada shuttered in the 1980s, should be revived and reimagined. SITRA, as well as Britain’s Design Council, provide ready examples of how modest public dollars can unlock major private sector innovation and export potential.
  • It’s time to ramp up investment in our schools of design and architecture, with the goal of placing at least one Canadian design school in the top 10 of global rankings, alongside Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Harvard University and Eindhoven University of Technology. Ontario currently has plans to build three new universities: a forward-thinking government would require that a new design school, closely aligned with an engineering faculty, be among them. 
  • Lastly, to properly jumpstart the sector we need to use the buying power of government to raise design standards in everything from infrastructure to advertising. Infrastructure investment can help lead a design renaissance in Canada, but only if governments become more discerning purchasers of architectural and design-intensive goods.

Our collective failure to appreciate that competitive power of great design is Canada’s commercial Achilles’ heel. This is something we can fix. Smart business suggests we should.