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Peek Inside 7 of The Banking World’s Coolest Innovation Labs

Banks are often ridiculed for their lack of innovation, but some seem to be taking it pretty seriously, at least from the looks of the innovation centers they've created. Take a tour around these digital playgrounds, idea labs and test kitchens built by banks looking to keep pace with the wave of digital disruption sweeping the industry.

Standard Bank – PlayRoom Innovation Centre

Standard Bank’s PlayRoom consists of a high-tech testing facility along with “free-thinking rooms” that allow staff and customers alike to trial new innovations and provide instant feedback. Opening its doors in January 2015, the 20,000 square foot space boasts bright colors and a modern, playful design — the very opposite of a corporate environment.

Subscribe TodayThe bank says its innovation hub is a response to constant change and challenges, spurred by technology. “The best ideas rarely come from behind a desk or an imposing meeting room,” says Vuyo Mpako, Head of Innovation at Standard Bank. “In fact, entrepreneurs often credit their ‘eureka moments’ to collaboration or being frustrated by problem that just won’t go away.”

“The PlayRoom was created to bring people together to solve real-life customer challenges through collaborative innovation,” Mpako continues. “The PlayRoom will allow us to continuously engage, listen to and co-create solutions with our customers with the aim of bringing every day banking value to them. Innovation sits within our overall strategy that starts with the customer in mind — taking an outside-in approach.”

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Capital One Labs

Capital One has three — count them… three! — innovation labs, with locations in Washington DC, New York City and San Francisco. Over 100 employees work in the banking giant’s innovation division (Capital One calls these people “entrepreneurs”).

In order to allow for brainstorming throughout the space, walls were turned into a whiteboard from floor to ceiling. Nooks were build to allow for a comfortable meeting area for staff to collaborate. Overall, the space has an open plan that helps create a fun, vibrant, and stimulating environment.

Capital One has a number of goals for its labs:

  • Accelerate the Capital One Labs enterprise-wide digital agenda
  • Facilitate and institutionalize design thinking and lean startup learning across the organization
  • Research emerging technology and consumer trends
  • Seed disruptive ideas
  • Rapid prototype and pilot test products
  • Collaborate with the digital ecosystem, including academics, VCs, and entrepreneurs

Capital One says their innovation process starts with a deep understanding of consumers. “This human-centered methodology, coupled with a ‘fail fast’ attitude, allows us to quickly identify, build, and test our way to success,” the bank explains. “We spend less time planning, more time doing. That’s why ‘design thinking’ is our go-to method for building the products and experiences that our customers need.”

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Commonwealth Bank – Innovation Lab

Commonwealth’s 10,000 square foot Innovation Lab is designed to act as an idea incubator and accelerator focused on developing new products, services and solutions in collaboration with customers, partners, start-ups and industry experts. The space features incubation “Garages,” “Collaboration Hubs” and “Usability Labs.” The lab cost Commonwealth around $3 million USD to build.

Visitors to the Innovation Lab can interact with real time data, interpret trends, brainstorm solutions and collaborate with CommBank project teams. Visitors to the Lab receive a location-aware tablet that acts as a personalized tour guide. Leveraging Bluetooth beacons, each tablet detects its location inside the Lab and guides users with relevant content. Once inside, visitors can experience the innovation journey from idea to execution.

One of the lessons Commonwealth CEO Ian Narev learned from a trip he made to Silicon Valley was to “replicate a lot of the conditions and opportunities” in innovation.

In addition to the Innovation Lab, the bank rolled out a program for employees designed to uncover innovation and fresh ideas. The “Unleashing Innovation” program allows employees to submit their innovative ideas to panel of senior executives with successful proposals moving into the Innovation Lab for incubation.

Narev says applying the best technology for customers was a “life and death matter” as he unveiled a $4 million innovation lab in at its Sydney headquarters.

“Being able to be leading edge and applying the world’s best technology to the benefit of our customers is a life and death matter,” Narev says. “It’s not a ‘nice-to-have — it’s a skill that’s as important as the other classic banking skills.”

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Citi Innovation Lab

Like Capital One, Citi has deployed a global network of innovation hubs, with locations in places like Tel Aviv, Dublin, Singapore, San Francisco and New York City. The labs are all fully interactive and globally-linked, allowing Citi to connect with its innovation teams with clients, colleagues and other experts for discussions concerning new products, services and process improvements. Citi says that solutions that may have taken weeks previously are now being completed in a matter of days or hours.

Beyond beta-testing, Citi also leverages its lab for internal purposes — to get management buy-in on projects, and reveal new innovations to staff. “The lab provides innovation training to all colleagues and new hires at various levels,” says Sopnendu Mohanty, Head of Global Consumer Innovation Labs at Citi. “It is a showcase of our innovation programs, developments and solutions to senior management and various business groups.”

The Citi Innovation Lab in Singapore comprises a Client Experience Center and a Client Collaboration Center. The lab is staffed by 12 people.

Citi’s innovation lab located below its branch in Midtown NYC features an interactive media wall and a giant touch-screen sales wall that allows users to swoosh through information like Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

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Visa Innovation Center

Visa opened a 112,000 square foot office and innovation center in the Bay Area to provide the company with immediate access to Silicon Valley’s tech-savvy community. The innovation center is designed to provide an immersive experience for clients, partners and corporate executives, where they can interact and explore new ideas. The space has been engineered to facilitate dynamic interaction and real-time experimentation.

Visa also hopes to use its innovation center as an incubator that attracts technology talent from around the Bay Area. “It’s a recognition of the fact that the credit card is becoming a digital card, and innovations are occurring through digital means,” explains Jim McCarthy, SVP of Innovation & Strategic Partnerships at Visa. “Basically, we’re opening up our network to software developers to use our capabilities and assets, and to help consumers to take advantage of them.”

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Chase Bank – Branch Design and Innovation Center

Chase uses this lab to develop in-branch and ATM technologies, as well as new ways for tellers to interact with customers. The building has two sections — a space for development, and another display room that allows Chase executives and some of its 20,000 Columbus-area employees to test-run new concepts.

“It’s our final staging point for new technologies and solutions where we put the final bits of window dressing on it before we take it out into the wild and start putting it into real branches,” explains Brad Nolan, Head of Design/Branch & ATM Innovations at Chase.

“I like to think of it as a playground,” adds Michael Meyer, Head of Architecture, Design & Engineering at Chase. “Like a chef, you get to play around and invent new recipes. You get to try things that haven’t been tried before.”

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BBVA Innovation Center

BBVA prides itself on being an innovator in the financial industry, developing and implementing a broad range of technological solutions. The BBVA innovation lab was conceptualized as a space to demonstrate these emerging technologies to key members of the BBVA community.

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Wells Fargo – Digital Innovation Lab

Mobile banking. Real-time account alerts. Person-to-person payments. Making an appointment online with a banker. Wells Fargo advanced all of these digital solutions by emphasizing a test-and-learn approach to innovation.

In the Digital Innovation Lab, Wells Fargo tests new technologies to understand how they can improve customers’ financial lives — before introducing these concepts to customers.

“It is a test-and-learn center to evaluate technologies aimed at offering our customers the right tools for financial success,” says Jim Smith, head of the Virtual Channels Group at Wells Fargo. “This is really a place where we can find out how we should practically deliver new ideas, and are they really helpful to the customer.

Wells Fargo customers can also participate in the bank’s tests and pilots by visiting labs.wellsfargo.com.

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Tips for Creating Your Own Innovation Space

A dedicated destination. The kind of fresh thinking that leads to new ideas doesn’t usually happen in the same stale environment where most people slog through their days. Most office environments were built with very specific tasks in mind, the least of which is “being creative.” To shake up people’s imagination, it helps to put them in new surroundings — to literally take them out of their comfort zone.

Color and light. Fluorescent lights and white-washed walls don’t usually stimulate people’s creativity. If you want the antiseptic look for your test lab to give it the look of a “clean room” in a scientific setting, well that’s one thing. But if you want to fire up people’s imagination, you should fill the space with color. Use color to energize and inspire, and incorporate a mix of natural, overhead and task lighting.

Create zones. Innovation occurs differently in different spaces. People are accustomed to having conversations in the kitchen, so an innovation lab can incorporate an open kitchen into the plan, with bar-height counters and ample seating. More intimate spaces can be created by pulling two sofas together in a living room style setting. Private offices should only accommodate one or two people who need a moment of privacy, otherwise you generally want to foster open dialogue.

Details matter. Like seating. Scott Witthoft and Scott Doorley, co-directors at Stanford University’s d.school, say an upright posture encourages people to stay alert and engaged in problem solving, while a comfortable, “lean-back” posture often turns people into passive critics. So they opt for stools over more comfy options like lounge chairs.

Learn from creative experts. Banks and credit unions frequently work with many different types of companies that are celebrated for their creativity — ad agencies, web design firms, interactive UX designers, architects. You can learn a lot about how creativity works by studying their facilities. Call them up and tell them you’d like a tour.

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Comments

  1. Stephen Holmes says:

    Good to see this but, my observation is that the banks really cannot out “google” google…emulating the Silicon valley startup work spaces is simply that emulation. The real test is what is delivered of value to the end customer. Reading a short book at the moment entitled “10 clowns do not make a circus”.. which highlights you need a complete and complementary set of skills to deliver. Without the program sellers, the popcorn/candy floss vendors etc.. you really don’t have the complete circus. Banks need to bear in mind.. when it comes to innovation centres… playrooms and toys do not make true innovation. It takes a dedicated team committed to follow up these innovations and drive them through the business. FINtech startups have that in their DNA…

  2. Companies create two types of lab environment: one conveys how innovative they are; the other conveys that they support their innovators. The intent informs the design of the physical space and the programming.

    Both types have their place. The key is to reach a shared understanding of which purpose the lab is supposed to satisfy. .

  3. Well said Stephen Holmes. As much as I like to think that banks will be the better for these efforts, I encourage anyone touring to ask the heads of their innovation areas about their sucess rates with these labs. It is not easy to address innovation and then turn it into revenue/profit.

    There is another story out there on the failure of such labs by many an industry who have come and gone from the Silicon Valley area already. The final recommendation in this article “Learn from creative experts.” is a wise one. Many of these experts have seen the Silicon Valley innovation cycles and thus carry the experience to successfully guided large companies to productive innovation management strategies. Try http://www.brandgarage.com in San Fran if you are considering talking to one. They are excellent!

  4. no surprise that I agree with Stephen;) ( no known family connection ) wearing the clothes of an innovator does not make you one. I fear theses labs are more marketing than anything else. Designed to impress customers and new recruits rather than really deliver breakthrough thinking. I work with many banks and am aware of the risk-averse and bureaucratic management style which strangles real innovation at birth. I would rather read an article about actual results from these labs than admire their zany wallpaper and super-sized slogans!

  5. Trevor said: “I would rather read an article about actual results from these labs than admire their zany wallpaper and super-sized slogans!”

    Editor says: “Who wouldn’t? But we’re not sure there is enough material out there publicly to make an actual article.”

  6. This glitzy nonsense is just that nonsense! No one needs 20,000 square feet to come up with and develop a meaningful idea. This is just a waste; however, I do believe in innovation teams, wherein they must produce a valuable product or service within a predetermined time in order to stay employed.

  7. I think there 2 types of innovation for such “labs”. There is what I call innovation equity witch is more of a branding exercise, and flag in the air to symbolize we are at least thinking about the integration of new technology and possibilities into the banking experience. A lot of what’s on show in the examples above fall into this category.

    “Innovation equity” is fine.. And does have its place. But a lot of banks fall into the terrible cliche of using technology for the sake of technology and think this is real innovation…this is all we need to do. It’s usually followed by bold empty statements like ” we are really a technology company… Not a bank”

    The second type of innovation is the good stuff. The right mix of people, process and breathing space to develop tangible innovations that will break off into the core bank to support the business evolution and digital maturity.

    I thinks it’s important not to confuse the two. And understand how ideas and concepts mature to equity… and eventually into core tangible innovations. And that the whole process adds to the culture of the organization.

  8. Wendell’s right. You don’t NEED 20,000 sq. ft. to come up with an idea. But you do need talent, inspiration, and a supportive environment to give truly great ideas a chance. I’m not certain that the innovation labs in the above examples attract and nurture the talent needed to bring meaningful financial services innovation to life. I am confident, however, that these environments have a much better chance of getting highly-in-demand technologists/developers/creators to choose banking as the place to apply their talents than traditional bank/credit union workplaces. Talent wins, and whatever it takes to attract and keep that talent is what needs to be done. Is any of this enough to lure people from the “get rich” promise of the startup world? The jury’s out. In the meantime, financial institutions will continue overpaying vendors for things they should have been creating themselves.

  9. Tony Puerto says:

    Banks have no choice but to innovate in order to reinvent and transform themselves. Without that, it will be tough to compete with the the non-banks entering their space.

    No doubt these banks see value in their approach…much better than lots of talk, lengthily and superficial web blogs, endless meetings and truckloads or power points. There is much value in empirical evidence and a lab is a good place for finding it. I think that is the true value of this article. Who is to say what the best approach is… Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak used a car garage…these banks have chosen to invest in more elaborate environments. Many kudos to them.

  10. It seems most if not all examples are focussed on retail customers. Any examples of corporate banking innovation centers?

  11. Egbert,

    The Financial Brand is focused on retail financial institutions, specifically those in the U.S. and Canada. That explains the heavy emphasis on retail in this article (and others on the site).

    We have seen some financial institutions experimenting with prototypes, beta locations and the like in other sectors of the financial industry, namely private banking, wealth management and investments. We have not, however, ever seen anything akin to a “branch lab” in the commercial banking space. If you have any examples you can share, please post links in a comment and we’ll check them out. Thanks!

  12. Real banking disruptor says:

    Like blockbuster video taking their supply chain logistics experts that delivered DVD’s, and giving them an innovation lab to build a video on demand site

  13. Nukak Asanansi says:

    very well written article. the videos spoke volumes on the impact of such benefits…google i believe began setting these standards..and its true that our most creative ideas arise out of problems and frustrations….

    also @Egbert i believe the Playroom Innovation center (Standard Bank) is not only geared towards customers..

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