by Jill Dyché

What the innovation lab looks like, circa 2018

Feb 01, 2018
CareersDigital TransformationInnovation

Taking a look at an innovation lab of a multinational insurance company that wasnu2019t exactly born digital.

innovation inspiration lightbulb idea continuity creativity
Credit: Thinkstock

You walk in and you’re struck by the convivial vibe. Some hipsters linger around a tall table talking cryptocurrencies, while across the room a buttoned-up crew huddles around a coffee table, examining what looks like an architecture diagram. Turn a corner and a portrait of Steve Jobs covers a wall. A closer look reveals it’s constructed of floppy disks. The door of a small meeting room reads, “The Batcave.”

You can cut the irony with a robotic knife. It’s no surprise that this innovation lab—christened the “Digital Garage” by its designers—shares common traits with those of its Toronto neighbors Google, Amazon and eBay. But the lab is part of a company that wasn’t exactly born digital: Aviva, a multinational insurance company, is over 300 years old.

Aviva’s digital garage represents the next phase of innovation, where any company can hang the digital shingle and design a space for deep thinking. A growing list of companies have leased spaces away from headquarters (Aviva’s Canadian seat is 22 kilometers north in suburban Markham) and furnished them to look exactly not like a traditional insurance office. Spaces are outfitted with high tables for casual, ad-hoc conversations, and low seating for more in-depth discussions. Paint colors trend toward lipstick red and chartreuse. Digital displays and video walls with their interactive features and razor-sharp resolutions encourage extemporaneous brainstorming. Ping pong tables are obligatory.

Aviva executives consider this a way to lure new employees. In a competitive market where insurers aren’t at the top of millennials’ lists of desired employers, every available option is fair game in attracting young talent, which in turn—like the garage itself—help modernize the brand.

“We see this as more than just a working space,” says an Aviva employee. “It’s a place where concepts can be discussed, worked through, and deployed into the business. And we think the space has a lot to do with encouraging those activities, and that dynamic.” Indeed, the new innovation lab is more than just an atypical space to spawn big ideas. In the early days executives would suggest “getting our best and brightest in a room” as the shortest path to transformation.

Moreover, customers and partners are increasingly attracted to innovation labs to collaborate on joint work efforts. The thinking is that collaboration can be fueled by trading one workaday environment for another. The hope is that a change of scenery can cultivate new perspectives. During my visit to the digital garage I watched as members of a blended team reviewed a project plan displayed on a giant LCD screen. They were far more animated than they would have been huddled around someone’s laptop. Despite the edgy artwork, wacky furniture and neon signs, this small working group was the most modern feature of the digital space.

Indeed executives don’t have the appetite for longstanding academic efforts. Since its inception Aviva’s digital garage has delivered new capabilities such as Leafs and Raptors team co-branded insurance products, a new RBC Insurance quoting portal, a redesigned site with modern look and feel, an Amazon Alexa skill with auto quote and insurance questions answered via voice, and an “Insure my Tesla” partnership powered by Aviva.

And that’s the point. Innovation is about more than recruiting and branding. It’s only as legitimate as the value it creates for customers. From that angle Aviva’s digital garage brings insurance into the innovation age.