With a few notable exceptions, the Australian manufacturing industry is still lagging behind the developed world in its use of design as a business development tool.


There are simply not enough ‘world class’ Australian business leaders, with the vision to recognize and capitalise on our potential for innovation.


The adoption of appropriate technologies to assist in the design process and access more markets can provide new commercial opportunities for any business. Those companies that fail to recognise this will suffer at the hands of their more enlightened competitors.

Since 1971 in my capacity as a product designer and business developer, I have had the privilege of working in a diverse range of manufacturing cultures in four continents. I have been able to compare, first hand, the differences in the way designers in those countries have been influenced by their surrounding history, environment and culture.


So, why is Australia so innovative? Since colonisation, Australia has been viewed by the world and indeed by our own people as an isolated continent limited in its potential to participate in the global economy.

As the first European settlers arrived, Australia became a huge rural community inhabited primarily by British convicts, traders, pastoralists, military and their families, who were shipped out to the colony to work the land and build a base for our future.


Other cultures followed and today, we are one of the most culturally diverse nations on earth, providing a rich blend of cultural influences from both our indigenous Australians and from 132 nationalities who have decided to make Australia their home.


The isolation of the driest continent on earth presented many hardships to its inhabitants, both physical and economic. Being a small population located a long way from world markets has created an environment for innovation where self-sufficiency, adaptability and multi-skilling are both necessary and highly valued.


We developed what is jokingly called ‘the fence wire mentality’. If it was broken, it was fixed with a piece of fence wire. This term has traditionally been viewed in a somewhat derogatory manner. This one phrase in my opinion singularly defines our uniquely Australian innovation and design abilities.


Why? Because the phrase ‘fence wire mentality’ also means – assess, adapt, innovate, improvise, apply, manage.

If we had not applied a ‘fence wire mentality’ our early settlers would not have survived and our manufacturing economy would not be as strong as it is now. Without our design culture, Australia’s future would have been at risk.


I believe that Australia’s environment, cultural diversity and history has created an intellectual resource of designers, engineers and research scientists who are second to none in the world.


The term ‘design or decline’ rings as true now as it did then, the only difference now is that the future of Australian manufacturing industry is at risk.

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Ken Cato AO

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