Cisco innovation chiefs stress ecosystems

The heads of Cisco’s nine innovations centres worldwide have descended upon one of the company’s newest innovation hubs in Toronto this week, and took some time to share with customers and the Toronto Board of Trade what they’re up to.

In town to meet with their peers and with Cisco’s global innovation strategy leaders, four of the company’s innovation centre directors took some time Tuesday to share what’s going on in their respective hubs. The company uses the locations — in Toronto, London and Manchester, Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Songo, and Sydney and Perth — to drive new solutions for the company, and to build new ecosystems to define, develop, and market those solutions. That ecosystem approach is key, said Leandro Barbeita, head of the Rio de Janeiro centre.

 Leadro Barbeita, director of Cisco's Rio de Janeiro innovation centre

Leadro Barbeita, director of Cisco’s Rio de Janeiro innovation centre

“Every single digital transformation project, every IOT project, has to have an ecosystem behind it,” Barbeita told attendees. “You will not succeed if you go it alone.”

Barbeita detailed how the innovation centres work with a number of types of partners — both solution partners that bring specific industry or technology knowledge, and channel partners that work to deploy the jointly-developed solutions — to help it discover, define, and deliver what comes next to meet customer needs.

“There is a piece of cake in this for everybody,” Barbeita said. “It’s not about finding a single partner to help you with these transformations, it’s about the ecosystems. And what we’re doing it building these ecosystems to solve business challenges.”

The company’s tactics for building these ecosystems include regular events that bring together new-type solution partners both with prospective customers, and with Cisco channel partners who will ultimately deliver those solutions for customers.

Tom Goerke, who heads up the company’s innovations centres in Australia, said those partnerships extend deeply into industries and even into specific customers. That approach is necessary because, as Goerke puts it, “Cisco doesn’t know a lot about the details of everyone else’s businesses.” And used correctly, it provides a kind of credibility that not even a giant like Cisco can wield alone.

“We quickly learned that it lets us sit there and be a neutral voice — you’re not talking to Cisco, you’re talking to a partnership of people who are keen to understand the problem, and that can bring together the strengths of what we’re doing globally to solve problems for customers,” he said.

Wayne Cuervo, who heads the Toronto innovation centre, cautioned against “jumping to solutions too soon.” Customers may come asking for something by name, but Cuervo said his team quickly learned they unlock more value if they don’t take customers’ initial definitions as the ultimate goals of the solutions.

Wayne Cuervo, head of Cisco's Toronto innovation centre

Wayne Cuervo, head of Cisco’s Toronto innovation centre

“We have customers who come to us and basically say ‘Can I have three cups of IOT, please?’” he joked. “But what are you trying to solve? What’s the issues? We’ve learned to challenge the assumptions and use them as a kick-off point.”

Solutions may be obvious, but not unseen, he warned, quipping that the wheel has been around for thousands of years, but wheels were not put on suitcases until the 1980s.

“Always look for the ways to solve a problem we haven’t thought of before,” he advised.

While all of the centres engage in projects across Cisco’s very broad purview, each also has its own specialty area. The centre in the UK is one Cisco’s oldest, dating back to the lead up to the 2012 Olympics in London. Nick Chrissos, who heads up those facilities, said the company has put more than 50 startups through incubation, and has a significant focus on public sector. Its latest, and perhaps biggest program — “super-fast WiFi” on trains in the UK.

Nick Chrissos, head of Cisco's UK innovation centres

Nick Chrissos, head of Cisco’s UK innovation centres

For a country as dependent on trains as the UK, it may be surprising that today, there’s no WiFi to be found on trains throughout the country. But that’s about the change, with the centre working on introducing high-speed Internet in the near future between Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland. The improved productivity it will afford could have a $1.5 billion pound impact, Chrissos said, and they’re still imagining new ways the train operators and users alike can innovate based on the improved connectivity.

Barbeita’s centre in Brazil has been around since 2013, and has seen its focus change with Brazil’s changing economy in those times. In its early days, the focus was on expansion — projects like using technology to help the country’s teachers better understand and use technology, in order to better teach it to youth. But as the country’s economy has been more challenged, the focus has shifted to companies and projects that are focused on cost-savings and increased productivity. Again, the centre’s work has figured prominently in Cisco’s involvement in the Rio Olympics.

In Australia, Goerke said big projects have centered around communications infrastructure. Like Canada, the expansive nature of Australia has meant that carriers haven’t completely connected more rural regions, which has made the transformation of the company’s agriculture industry more difficult. That’s a challenge his company has taken on, from developing connectivity solutions for the massive farms of Australia, to figuring out ways to move Meraki camera-based solutions for counting feet in retail environments to counting hooves for the legendary number of sheep on Australian farms.

And close to home, the Toronto innovation centre’s focus on smart buildings is closely tied to its home in Cisco’s new headquarters near Toronto’s waterfront.

“We happen to be in one of the really interesting case studies for smart and connected buildings, and we use this building as a reference point for the stuff we work on,” he said.

Innovations have included connecting as much as possible — lighting, HVAC, and more — via power-over-Ethernet to make it easier to drop sensors anywhere on the network and therefore anywhere in the building.

With the focus on innovation, the centres necessarily have an eye on what’s coming down the line. So what gets each of the four centres excited about the future? Each director had their own idea.

For Toronto’s Cuervo, augmented reality — which is being more broadly brought to life by the latest developments in smartphones — has a lot of potential, particularly in its ability to transform the always-challenged retail sector, and even into banking and other verticals.

For Australia-based Goerke, machine learning is the most exciting underpinning.

“In every problem we’re looking at, people are looking into machine learning,” he said, noting the case of a customer using machine learning to analyze business processes on a 24-hour basis, tweaking processes every day and keeping those tweaks that improve key metrics, while rolling back changes that have no effort or don’t turn out so well.

UK-based Chrissos cited the automated vehicle as an area where Cisco could have a big impact, expressly because it’s not a carmaker that has a lot to lose in the transformation.

“If you look at any city, at any one time, 10 per cent of cars are driving, and 90 per cent are parked — so really, we don’t need those six lanes of highway,” he said, striking a particular Toronto nerve.

And Barbeita cited Blockchain as a nascent technology that has the potential to transform business and society, going so far as to cite it as “the next Internet Protocol” in terms of its ability to transform the world.

“The more I read about it, the more mesmerized I become,” Barbeita said. “Blockchain will be a game-changer, a truly disruptive concept and technology. It will change a lot of things.”