The growing importance of tech's regional labs

Why regional innovation labs are becoming tech's must-have promotional accessories.

Tech companies are sparing no expense in building and staffing state-of-the-art facilities to trumpet their visions of the future. From Cisco's crystal ball-gazing innovation centres to Accenture's research and development labs, these centres are becoming must-have promotional accessories for any self-respecting tech giant.

With buildings that boast several floors of engineering specialists, cutting-edge technology and swish meeting rooms, the labs bring a physical dimension to the virtual world. They are spaces where a client's chief executive, CIO and other staff can spend a day or two with the tech provider's developers and see, touch and try out the technology of the future. The centres fulfil a variety of roles - showcasing the latest products, modelling futuristic scenarios with clients or testing the architecture of a tech stack before deploying it.

National managers at big tech companies are clamouring to have innovation labs built in their countries. As Nick Chrissos, director of innovation for Cisco across Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, says: "It seems almost every country now wants their innovation centre, it has become a very good way to get a line in to the local country strategy and get hooks into the local ecosystem."

A glimpse of the future

In the EMEA region, Cisco has labs in Berlin, Paris, London, Manchester, Barcelona, Istanbul and Dubai. Later this year it will open another in Milan. Their purpose is to inspire customers rather than flog existing products, says Chrissos. "So when our customers leave, they feel they have just seen a glimpse of the future."

The centres bring together innovators, start-ups, researchers and academics as well as public sector providers and Government. They are all keen to understand more about bourgeoning technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, machine learning and machine vision and WiFi 6.

"In the 5G project we are working on in the UK, we are doing things with cows in Somerset, with farming in Shropshire, farming and whisky production in the Orkney Islands," explains Chrissos. "We have everything in the innovation centres from the collars the cows are wearing to the drones that are flying over the fields to identify areas we want to grow."

The centres are linked into an online network so projects can be demonstrated in centres in other countries.

Meanwhile, Google has what it calls "Advanced Solutions Labs" in New York, the Sunnyvale Campus in California, Dublin, Singapore and Tokyo. The centres are used to run training courses in machine learning for clients such as 20th Century Fox and Atos. Louise Byrne, Global Director, Google Cloud Learning Business, says: "Part of this is not just learning about the technology, but also getting exposure to how we work at Google - everything from how we use G Suite's productivity tools to enable collaboration and innovation, to how our engineers approach problem solving and build ML production models."

Consultancy Accenture has seven innovation labs around the world, including one in its birthplace San Francisco. Mary Hamilton, managing director of Accenture Technology Labs, says client CIOs and their teams may want to come out to Silicon Valley to learn about cybersecurity. "We would bring together the best of our innovation capabilities across labs and put together a full, half-day or multiday session," she says.  

Building on innovation

The centres often conduct co-creation exercises with clients. In one case, Microsoft asked Accenture to work with clients to develop applications for its HoloLens augmented reality headset.

Hamilton explains: "We gave our clients an opportunity to have a head start on a new technology that they wouldn't have otherwise been able to do until later. We came up with a healthcare use case for HoloLens and an industrial use case to interact with a digital twin. We did each of those in a week.

"The healthcare use case was really fun because we had their healthcare experts and developers working alongside our developers."

Innovation centres are sometimes used for testing and research. IT solutions provider WWT uses its Advanced Technology Center in St Louis, Missouri to help clients test technology environments and equipment before deploying them. The company has spent $500m on the ATC over the past eight years. It offers a cloud service where companies outside the US can specify a technology set-up and get it tested out over the internet. Dave Locke, WWT's technology adviser for EMEA, says the ATC can build a model of a client's technology solution to show how it works and whether it complies with regulations. This helps to speed up the deployment of new systems.

Locke gives the example of a project for a major UK investment bank which reduced the time for testing and certification of a new technology stack from 40 weeks down to four days.   

The challenge was to implement architecture for an internal private cloud. The business needed to prove this architecture worked and would deliver the promised performance and capacity while complying with financial and privacy regulations.

"We built a mirror image of that architecture in the ATC using Cisco switching, NetApp storage and HPE servers, then added layers of software.

"We built that equivalent stack, we did all of the certification testing so they could find out what happens if you lose a power supply or a network connection." This allowed the bank's team to model events such as a failover.

"They didn't have to deploy anything, they didn't have to do any of that testing themselves," says Locke. "They used our people as the resource using their plan and we provided the results. It really took down the time to adopt the platform and get it approved."

Gauging the value innovation centres add to a business is far from easy and each tech company has their own preferred measure. Accenture, for instance, measures the ratio of C-Suite executives visiting their centres versus non-C-Suite and tries to increase the number of senior level visits. Others look at social media buzz and sales that result from a visit. But innovation centres are about more than short-term sales gains. They are intended to show that technology businesses have their fingers on the pulse of the future.