Innovation Labs: are they worth it?

business-561388_1920 These days, the nature of work we have is a lot more complex than it used to be, and the type of problems we are trying to solve are not the sort of things that we can decipher on our own. Although the purpose may differ across organizations, the primary task in common is to solve problems and design something that is unique and value-adding to the market. This includes product development, new business divisions, startups, and innovation labs.

I've spent the past few years helping organizations build their own innovation labs, ranging from small virtual labs to huge multi-million dollar facilities. It's a tough job to guide a large organization through the journey of building such facility, as it challenges so many incumbent processes, policies and standards, i.e. from property standards, preferred furniture suppliers, technology approaches, and new ways to value talent.

To maximize the most out of the lab, it is key to work on ensuring everyone is aligned of what the desired objective is. Some labs focus on research, while others on a resource bridge to the startup ecosystem, or for cultural transformation. Each journey is unique, and requires a delicate balance of creativity and stakeholder management, in the pursuit of achieving its objectives and keeping the engagement of its incumbent stakeholders.

Let's take a look at some of companies using Innovation Labs to drive change in their organization:

  1. Westfield Labs

    The Westfield Labs is in-charge for giving the $27.7 billion global shopping-center behemoth based in Australia, Westfield Corp, a high-tech makeover, Westfield Labs is the innovation arm of the company located in San Francisco. The lab is primarily in-charge for turning around the concept of a boring old retail hub. As the lab’s Chief Digital Officer puts it. “It’s easy for people to have a vision of a mall as dead.” With this, the VP of Creative Services Rayna Wiles calls it “using digital to amplify the physical.” In two years, the Westfield Labs’ Crew, with more than 55 employees, has materialized several ideas to show how a mall don’t have to be a relic of the late-20th-century American commerce.

    The projects of the lab were tested in their shopping centers including those located in London and Sydney, with the goal of upgrading the company’s 40 malls worldwide, and baking these innovations into its most ambitious effort yet—the $1.4 billion World Trade Center retail complex in Manhattan, set to open later this year.

    Retail is a tough business, with fierce electronic competitors. The Westfield lab aims to help the company get through tough times and 'amplify' the company’s existing assets.

  2. DBS Vault

    The Leading bank in Singapore, DBS, has a strong history of innovation. Neal Cross, the bank's Chief Innovation Officer, with the strong support Piyush Gupta, the bank’s Chief Executive Officer, has been able to open multiple explorations of ideation. Programs include internal and external hackathons, a dedicated lab in Hong Kong which houses their partnership with acceleration partner, Nest.

    In an industry that has faced some tough times, banking still stands as one of the hottest industries to disrupt. With billions of dollar ventures finding their way into finance related startups, DBS, aims to stay ahead of the game.

  3. Telstra Muru-D

    One of Australia's leading telecommunications operators, Telstra, has pounced on the need to innovate the launching of its parallel programs in startup acceleration, Muru-D, and its corporate lab. These two initiatives enable Telstra to seek ideas on a broader spectrum, creating diverse perspectives that can explore and evaluate strategic optionality. Telstra is no stranger to experimentation. Over the past two decades it has explored emerging markets, portfolio diversification, all in the face of rapid advancements in their core markets.

  4. Unilever - The Foundary

    The Unilever Foundry aims to connect innovative startups with Unilever’s portfolio of brands. The project is designed to enhance consumer engagement wherein successful startups are given the opportunity to pilot their technology with Unilever. They will also be given USD 50,000 to fund the pilot, access to mentorship, and the possibility for long-term strategic partnership.

    Unilever's industry of consumer goods is already used to the high velocity turnover of ideas. The Foundry is an attempt to formalize that process in exploration of ideas.


Innovation labs challenge the traditional approach of building products to transform. With the powerful role of technology we have nowadays, people have the advantage to innovate, invent and acquire better than ever. But how does one consider an idea or a product ? Do they see it as innovative or just a marketing scheme?

Going to the route of having innovation labs is a tough journey, as an organization has to seek and engage new talents, operate in a new ways, and challenge itself to advances. Not all will survive. In my new book, Innovation Wars, I share the key insights from client experiences, in the hope to see more labs deliver on their innovative goals.


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