Transcript: Innovation takes flight at SFO

This transcript details an Insider digital event on innovation with San Francisco Airport CIO Ian Law.

The below is a transcript of an Insider digital event with San Francisco Airport CIO Ian Law. To listen to the full conversation, please click here. This transcript has been lightly edited to ease reading.

John Gallant, IDG's Chief Content Officer: Hi, everyone and welcome to another installment of our Insider Digital Innovators series. I am John Gallant, Chief Content Officer at IDG. I want to thank all the members of our insider program, which is our premium technology content program, for being with us for this webcast. Joining me for a discussion on digital innovation and digital transformation is Ian Law, who is the CIO of San Francisco International Airport. Ian is helping to advance many aspects of travel. He's also solving major challenges posed by complex airport operations. He's going to share some of SFO's best practices regarding innovation in digital transformation with the hopes that you and your colleagues can profit from these ideas within your own organization. Ian, so glad you could join us today. Welcome.

Ian Law, CIO, San Francisco International Airport: Thank you, John. It's great to be with you.

John: Great. Ian, let's start off by talking about your role with SFO. I think most people probably wonder what it's like to be the CIO of an airport and how that's different from the CIO of, say, a manufacturing company or some other kind of organization.

Ian: Well, I'm obviously responsible for the technology here at the airport. It's a difficult one, I think, looking from the outside in, to unpack, because obviously in any typical airport we have a lot of stakeholders. There are airlines here with their technology and others with theirs. So, the airport piece, is the piece that kinda comes under my responsibility. As an environment, compared to some others, it's very exciting. It's an always on, 24/7 environment. Quite dynamic. There's always something new happening here every day. It's quite intriguing. Like I said, there are multiple stakeholders here, quite a lot of change and a lot of different situations to kind of adapt to as we go along. And it's challenging. I think our industry is an industry in change at the moment. The role of airports from a technology perspective is changing quite a lot, and I think mobile is part of that, where it enable us now to really enter, if you like, into the travel value chain with some of the other operators as opposed to really just being the landlord of a property, as it were.

John: That makes sense. Before we talk about some of the innovative things you're doing, who do you view as your customers? In most organizations people think about that as in the employees that they support or the business partners they connect to. Who are the customers of your IT team?

Ian: Well, we have several. There are a number of internal customers, which would be for example our security people, our security departments, our operations guys. An example would be our airfield safety officers, who work on the airfield. We provide systems to them to help them track and monitor everything going on out there and to comply with FAA regulations in terms of keeping a history of everything that's recorded on the airfield and having the systems for that.

As you probably experienced our endless construction zones, we're constantly building and renovating. And so we have a very large designing construction team here at the airport and they're all the time bringing new technologies into new parts of the airport and integrating with existing. So I have a team of people who actually work just to serve the construction programs and the design programs that are going on there.

And then externally my direct customer obviously would be the airlines, various security agencies, concessionaires, all of those outlets that operate at the airport, retail outlets and so on. And ultimately our passengers, although I think for the purposes of trying to keep it clear, if we imagine the airline as the retailer to the passenger, you'd see the airport as the wholesaler to the airline, as it were. That doesn't take away from the amount of time we take to try to understand how passengers are really looking for in an airport and design it that way.

John: I thought it would be good if we set the stage by having you talk about some of the very innovative projects that you've undertaken and that are ongoing at SFO. Can you share some of those developments with us?

Ian: Sure. I guess the large one we've had over in the last few years was the very rapid advent of what we call TNCs here, Transportation Network Companies, so these would be Lyft and Uber and so on. And they're having a profound impact on airports. Airports obviously earn revenue from taxis services that serve them, and limo services. And then what feels to some, I guess, like out of nowhere we've had TNC emerge and become a significant part of activity, at least, at an airport. And so we sat down with those TNCs here in California a few years back, and our operations teams did a great job at bringing those TNCs to a position where they were permitted to operate at the airport. So essentially we had a commercial arrangement with them as we do with the other transport modes to operate here.

But there was still the big challenge of how we would technologically integrate with then and track them and manage the finances, as it were, of the commercial transactions of their operations here. And the problem we had was in the past we had a number, typically we put transponders in vehicles, as you do going over a bridge or something, and our toll plaza. And that just didn't make sense with the TNCs, because they're essentially semi-commercial vehicles quite often. So we came up with early innovative way of doing it using the driver's mobile phone, and that's gone on to be a solution that's being used in other airports around. That...I think it was an innovative solution that certainly contributed hugely to our business here and helped us deal with what was the huge disrupter for us.

But it also helped us understand, interestingly, our older modes of transport a lot better. So we then went on from that to start to develop some new taxi services, our technology services to serve with our taxi industry. And we're still doing quite a lot of work in that area now.

Separately, our teams here have trialed systems, for example, to help the visually impaired navigate their way through the airport, and we're about to hopefully move on now with the second phase of that program, where we will be helping the visually and hearing impaired and elderly and those with cognitive disabilities...just make it easier for them to travel through an airport.

John: Which is great. I wanted to just go into a little more depth about that virtual taxi queuing system that you've discussed with me in an earlier conversation. How does that work and how does that set up new revenue opportunities for the airport?

Ian: Taxis queue at airport, as you know, and they have to queue somewhere. Quite often they queue in parking lots that are allocated by the airport. And the taxi queues can be very long. As our operational folk look at those queues, they've come up with some calculations to say that, well, if you could shorten the queue, you wouldn't undermine the ability of us to have a taxi waiting somebody even if they come through the door, but at the same time you would save a lot of space by reducing the lengths of those queues.

Now, for the taxi drivers that's also helpful, because they don't particularly like queuing at an airport for two or three hours. So if you can schedule them in, as it were, more efficiently, then there's a win for them as well. And that space that we would save can be given back to the airport to use, for example, for private parking and other purposes. So we're working on this concept of the virtual taxi queues. There's been some...I think a good body of research done on this around the world. And it's something that we're very keen to implement here.

John: That's great. And Ian, as we've talked about, the point of these webcast is really to provide inside into the innovation process and the digital transformation thinking at different organizations like SFO. In our earlier discussions, you talked about something called "Reaching for Number One" committees that have led to some of these innovations. Can you describe what those committees are and how that process spurs innovation?

Ian: These are committees are sponsored by the airport director, essentially our CEO. These are committees that we established a few years back, and it's this "Reaching for Number One" profit as we implement every year, whereby as leadership team we pick a set of topics that we want to focus on where we believe that we want to make improvements at the airport and there's opportunity potentially to bring in some new innovations to help us.

We then set up committees by picking people out of different bits of the business and essentially taking them to one side for a certain number of hours a month to work with each other on these things.

A good example of that would be water conservation. Although you might not think it lately with all the rain [in San Francisco, that] water conservation is a big topic for us here at the airport. So we established a team from our mechanical maintenance groups, from our construction project management teams, from our IT teams, and so on. And those guys go off and they're tasked with coming up with better ways and more ways to conserve water here at the airport.

And that team, for example, just to name them, has had phenomenal success in the amount of water we've saved. Some of that could be just simply an awareness thing. So there might be some marketing people, let's say, in that team, and they just do awareness campaigns with the other operators here at the airport. But also there's technology in there.

There are tasks to extract data from different systems to be able to actually give us some insight into how much water we are actually using, or better insight, and better analysis as to how we could conserve it.

John: So Ian, who goes about setting up the goals and the missions for these "Reaching for Number One" committees?

Ian: Usually the senior staff at the airport. So the senior management group at the airport will sit down. It's not hard at all to come up with a list. These are kind of those things that are knocking around in your head during the year that you think, "Well, wouldn't it be great if we could just...?" And so we all get together, about 10 us, and we contribute a list of things. But there are kind of perennials that keep coming up as well.

We've got a group, for example, that's focused on finding new and interesting ways for us to give back to the community in our area. And they just get involved in all sort of things and come up with new ideas every year that you could never dream of if you didn't have a group of people like that set aside from the day to day business to be able to just think of that particular issue. And we take it. It's not just about people sitting and having a discussion in a room.

Different groups will go out and visit other airports or other facilities maybe unrelated to the transportation industry where we think somebody is doing something that we're trying to achieve really well, and they'll bring that back in as a set of ideas. We then get together twice a year and we present all of those back to each other as a very large group. And it's interesting how many of these then just get turned into projects and go forward to do something great.

John: So as people consider implementing a process like that, what lessons have you learned from that, Ian? When does it work well and when does it not work as well?

Ian: I think if you...like anything, if you have the right people in each of these groups. So finding what people are really interested in and want to do and giving them the opportunity to do it just gets you the best result, in our view. Having a clear set of topics that you want people to focus on and ideally not overlapping so that it doesn't become confusing for some groups as to on who's doing what. I think it's important to reinforce it from, in our case, that kinda CEO level down, as it were.

Because it is important that managers dance with the organization as well set their staff free, as it were, to take part and empower them to take part in these groups. And so just that clarity downs with the organization of the importance, of this is important.

Some of the reverse things really are just the things that we learned along the way, where we might have picked people and just put them into a group thinking that was gonna work and it was probably the wrong thing to do. We should have spent more time talking to them about it and thinking through ourselves what we wanted to achieve with this before, and just getting more organized about it before we went at it.

John: Make sense. One of the other issues that organizations are struggling with right now, IT groups, is how to structure best to move innovation projects along to be more agile. How does your IT team handle innovation projects to make sure that they move along quickly and they don't get bogged down by other existing priorities?

To listen to the full audio conversation, click here.

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