The Innovation Lab: A Guide

“Innovation labs,” “innovation centres,” “innovation spaces”—you might have heard one of these buzzwords lately. Large corporates all around the world are creating their own spaces for innovation. Some take the format of flashy exhibition spaces on blockchain technology, while others are housed in a coworking space for startup collaborators to exchange ideas.

Do corporates need innovation spaces? First and foremost, many companies fear being “uberised” and realise that they need to continuously upgrade in order to stay relevant. With the rise of disruptive tech startups, corporates feel the pressure to create new products and keep up with the latest trends to avoid becoming obsolete. In the past couple of years, we’ve seen high-profile examples of companies who suffered the consequences of falling behind. Toys R Us, and most recently Sears, are large brands who went bankrupt in the face of e-commerce and new players in the retail space.

The underlying challenge to innovation isn’t that large companies lack good ideas. The problem is that the path from innovation to roll-out in the “real world” is not easy.  In large corporates, current organisational frameworks, inefficient communication, and rigid processes make it difficult for them to pivot. If the success of an innovation project rests on better communication and a stronger sense of ownership among relevant stakeholders, then the physical space surely has an important role to play.

This is where innovation spaces come in handy. Innovation spaces avoid organisational roadblocks because they are often separated from a company’s main headquarters. Moreover, these spaces enable corporates to collaborate with new startups, expand industry their networks, as well as generate new products and business ideas.

The “right” innovation space is different for each company. There seems to be as many approaches as there are companies, as documented in an article about 10 different innovation labs in Singapore. For corporates just starting out on their innovation journey, it can be difficult to know where to start. Businesses should think carefully about their goals before spending to fit-out their “own” innovation space.

In this guide, we’ll take you through the benefits of innovation labs, the forms they can take, and the basic steps for putting them into practice.

What are the benefits of an innovation space?

One of the questions you might be considering is: why bother setting up a separate space for innovation? Can’t I just innovate in-house with what I have? While the latter is possible, it can be very difficult. Even the idea of innovation can threaten in-house teams who run on traditional, long-held processes. By definition, innovation is disruptive, so existing members of the company might be hesitant to embrace drastic changes to the way they do work. In light of cross-generational struggles, up-and-coming corporate innovators are more likely to encounter roadblocks from within and lack the freedom to experiment with new ideas. Ultimately, a complete change of scenery is crucial for people to think and behave differently.

Let’s look at a scenario. What if Toys R Us set up immersive “experience” stores? Beyond housing the latest products, these new stores could showcase renderings of toys being manufactured or even have digital pop-up booths for customers to ‘customise’ or make their own toys! In this case, innovation spaces would be used to engage with consumers and strengthen the brand. If Toys R Us took the chance to innovate its spaces, would its story be different today?

Here are the key benefits of starting an innovation lab:

1. An innovation lab signals a safe place for trial and error and learning.
An innovation lab can override this tension between “the old” and the new by being entirely separate from the operations of its parent organization. These two groups have different goals and KPIs during “innovation time.” Innovators, both from inside and outside the organization, feel safe to build on ideas without clashing with existing processes or traditions. Likewise, the innovation space does not adhere to strict corporate processes, and this freedom give members permission to fully engage in the discovery process.

2. Innovation space = collaboration.
Innovation is at its best when there is diversity of talent, skills, experiences and views. It is about “co-creating” with input from interdisciplinary skill sets. Businesses  understand that successful innovation rarely takes place in silos. Innovation labs can be the perfect setting for people across different teams, or departments, and even levels in an organization to find common ground and inspiration for new creations. Innovators from different departments are needed to create a full solution for their clients.

The paradox is that with huge advancements in digital technology, face-to-face communication becomes even more important than ever before. Research shows that when more complex information is being communicated, people value face-to-face interaction over remote communication.

Innovation spaces should enable these productive conversations to take place. The best innovation spaces provide an open design that allows users or participants to create and mould the space needed for different stages of innovation and activity.

What should my innovation program include?

This brings us to the fundamentals: what should go in to an innovation program to begin with? The execution can vary depending on the type of space you choose, but the basic principles can be understood with four pillars: Purpose, People, Place and Program.

1. Purpose: What are my strategic goals? What innovation challenges or threats am I addressing?

Identifying the larger purpose behind innovation is the first and most important step. A banking company, for example, may find their overall goal to increase transparency in their clients’ transactions with the help of digital technology. These 1-2 overarching missions will inform the kind of networks and innovation clusters your business should reach out to.

2. People: Which networks of people should I reach out to? Who are the people I should appoint as “technology connectors?”

At the heart of every innovation space are people – startups, government organisations, researchers, and SMEs. In general, you should be on the lookout for innovators who could: (1) threaten to disrupt your business (2) help your business enter and disrupt new, adjacent markets or (3) help you introduce new products or services.

To find these networks, we recommended that you appoint well-connected leaders in your organization who have a strong understanding of your strategic goals. Identify leads who have a growth mindset and see obstacles or failures as opportunities for learning. Rule out the self-promoters who do not prioritise the interests of your business. If chosen well, these “technology connectors” should be well-equipped to find and recruit the right innovators for your business.

3. Place: What type of space is required for effective collaboration with these networks I identified? Where should this space be located?

Having a physical location can go a long way in fostering collaboration and enabling the face-to-face exchange of complex ideas. We recommend that your first  innovation lab, at least, should be housed outside of your company’s headquarters to prevent conflict with internal corporate traditions. The experience of a new, external space is conducive towards innovation, which is all about ushering in the new to bring about evolution. The innovation lab doesn’t have to be anything too fancy—in fact, a customised meeting room might do the trick for some businesses. A change of scenery can go a long way in reinforcing the creativity and excitement involved in coming up with new ideas. Nonetheless, the space should still be reasonably close by and accessible for the innovators and partners in your target networks.

4. Program/Product: What are the specific innovation tasks or projects that lead to my larger strategic goals? How do these relate to the rest of my business?

Now that you’ve set up your space and tapped into your relevant connections, it’s time to get your hands dirty! For some businesses it’s sufficient to simply gather these like minded people in one space to brainstorm, exchange ideas, and work together. Others, especially tech companies, are looking to translate these ideas into actual products. Before productising your solution, you should set up a product development team and answer the following questions:

  1. How will management support the innovation initiative? Would you have a budget?
  2. How will this new product answer a particular business problem or potential threats in the horizon? Is there product-market fit?
  3. Where will this new product fit in the existing business portfolio? Does it align with an existing business model or would it be a whole new unit on its own?

Apart from productising solutions, other innovation programs can include accelerator programs and mentorship networks, albeit at a hefty price. Large corporates may be able to afford and justify the costs of external programs. The benefit of having an established group run the program is the exposure to a wider network of alumni and experiences. On the other hand, some corporates have chosen to purchase entrepreneurial curriculums to run themselves. In this way, they can both benefit from the learning process as well as have closer touchpoints with potential startups, entrepreneurs, and external innovators.

How to set up an innovation space?

There is no one definition of an effective innovation space. Some MNCs create customised spaces in warehouses or garages far away from their head office. Others simply take a standard conference room and enhance it with state-of-the-art technology and equipment. In one report, 50+ office architects were interviewed regarding the trends that they see in contemporary innovation spaces. Some of the most prominent attributes were “spaces that strengthen interactions, communication, and collaboration; and spaces that are open, transparent and contextually responsive.” In other words, the primary focus of any good innovation lab is enabling effective communication.

Equipment

What also sets these spaces apart from the average meeting room or workspace is the use of technology. Depending on your business, this technology could include anything from interactive smart TVs to smart screens to 3D printers for design. The Microsoft Technology Centre (MTC), for example, is equipped with high-end interactive technology to impress visitors and attract third-party developers to collaborate with them. Nonetheless, innovation spaces do not have to be flashy or stocked with expensive equipment. There are cases where innovation labs fall into the trap of simply being an “innovation theatre,” i.e., an “innovation lab” that looks great but fails due to the lack of a concrete strategy or purpose.

While this list is not exhaustive, here are some tools commonly included in effective innovation labs across different industries. All of these items are geared towards strengthening communication, creativity and collaboration within the space:

  • Wall-to-wall whiteboards
  • Movable partitions between rooms or sections
  • Noise reduction felt for private rooms or phone booths
  • Plants and breakout spaces
  • Warm lighting
  • Well-stocked pantry
  • Sufficient storage space
  • Computer
  • Projector and screen
  • Video conferencing equipment
  • WiFi and wireless connectivity for displays
  • Flipcharts and markers
  • Shared, adjustable workstations
  • Adjustable sit-standing desks
  • Plenty of electrical plugs

 

Layout and design

Beyond equipment, spatial design is crucial in fostering a collaborative environment. Open layouts are especially common in innovation labs, encouraging movement and mixing across disciplines. To nurture a culture of creativity, it might also help to add interactive displays, whiteboards, open carpeted spaces, couches – and even bean bags!

Ultimately, the most successful innovation spaces are often flexible and multi-purpose. Design the layout with a wide range of activities to consider: brainstorming sessions, skills workshops, product development, sit-down work, presentations etc. With built-in flexibility, the space allows different disciplines to converge and make the most out of the lab.

When planning your innovation space, it’s good practice to devise a floor space plan. The layout of a lab dedicated to product prototyping may be very different from one primarily geared towards brainstorming. A standard innovation space would normally be designed for one, a few or all of the following functions:

  • Brainstorming sessions (high space density): all seating is clustered closely and oriented towards presentation materials for effective discussion.
  • Prototyping workshop (low space density): a specialised space for tech/manufacturing businesses. A warehouse or garage can be used to ensure there is enough space for equipment and individual workstations. Seats should be spaced apart and do not need to face one another.
  • Meetings (medium/high space density): a formal space for setting agendas, strategizing, reviewing, and making conference calls, among other things. All seats must be facing one another and set around a common table.
  • Office space (medium space density): to foster collaboration, workstations should ideally be shared in breakout areas or facing one another in private offices.

 

Final Thoughts

Innovation spaces can take on diverse purposes and shapes, and there’s no one-size-fits-all rule. The only guideline to keep in mind is that an innovation lab must be a safe and open space for innovation to take off—“safe” for businesses to innovate without clashing with an organization’s traditions, and “open” for exploration and discovery.

We have observed some corporates making the mistake of being too heavily outcome-oriented without putting enough emphasis on the discovery process. Specific goals and directions can really only be established after businesses explore the resources and connections they have. In most cases, businesses feel the threat of uberisation, but aren’t quite sure what exactly is threatening them. As such, the discovery process of innovation is crucial to helping businesses identify their pain points and come up with the right solutions.

When planning an innovation strategy, it’s important to consider the type of space you require. At GorillaSpace, we’ve helped MNCs find their corporate innovation labs. On our platform, you can find a diverse range of long-term offices for rent which can be flexibly adapted to suit your innovation lab requirements. Reach out to GorillaSpace now at +65 3163 6839 for a personalised conversation or drop us an email at [email protected].

Further Reading

  1. Harvard Business Review: The Stage Where Most Innovation Projects Fail
  2. Steve Glaveski: 10 Innovation Labs to Visit in Singapore
  3. Innovation Spaces: The New Design of Work
  4. Venturebeat: How to Build a Corporate Innovation Lab That Works
  5. AVI Systems: How to Transform a Meeting Room Into an Innovation Space
  6. Forbes: The Myth of the Innovation Lab
  7. UNICEF: Innovation Labs / A Do-It-Yourself Guide
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