The concept of “Copy and Paste” plays an important role in (handicraft) product development in Laos. Last weekend, I was walking around the night market in Luang Prabang where they sell “local” handicrafts (mostly from China or Vietnam but many tourists don’t know this). There are about hundred sellers who offer almost the same products in eventually differing colors and qualities. If I compare this to walking around (handicraft) markets in Germany, the difference is huge – in “western” countries (driven by the concept of individualism, competition and limited by copyrights) people try to be unique and differ from others which leads to a huge variety of products. Lao culture seems to be more about conformity – instead of trying the unknown, they tend to copy what’s already there, afraid to step out of the crowd. Also the lack of abstract thinking and the ability to envision things leads to a “Copy and Paste” mentality since these are important for ideation. Without having something tangible in their hands which they can copy and work with, otherwise skillful villagers seem helpless (which would probably be the same in villages in Europe).
Still, product development and innovation happens – but in rather small and slow steps with changing shapes, adding details and eventually getting inspired to develop new products. Globalization with access to Internet, TV and many new products gives new ideas and accelerates the process.
However, people in Laos don’t seem to have a problem if others copy them. It is probably rather seen as a compliment, meaning that you must have done something really nice (otherwise no one would copy you). And somehow I like this way of seeing the world: appreciation instead of stealing. But how can you keep a business running like this? How can you “profit” from your idea when in less than 5 years, everyone around you has copied it? I asked Shui Meng, advisor for Saoban (who make very nice – philosophical as well as aesthetically – handicraft products) about it. Her answer was: constant innovation and sharing. I think that these are two of the most important development factors in general and I’m glad that I have the opportunity to experience projects where these factors ares essential drivers (I know that unfortunately this is not the norm, not in Laos and not in other development countries).
Pictures taken right before the USIC handicraft training. We brought tangible samples as a starting point