Inside Commbank's huge innovation lab, where it works to retain tech leadership

CommBank will be announcing some new tech innovations on Thursday which will extend the bank’s mobile wallet offering beyond payments.

While the specific details will be revealed on Thursday, it is understood both will be targeted at retail customers and one has also been developed in partnership with Westfield.

The ideas have been developed in part at Commbank’s Innovation Lab, located on the bottom floor of the institution’s Sydney office, which is now eight months old.

It’s a rapid experiment environment which enables teams to test out ideas, fail fast and build viable ideas faster. Every 10% of a build is tested before a project is progressed and academics, startups and tech pros are often brought in to consult.

“We’re not arrogant enough to think we’re going to innovate by ourselves,” CommBank head of innovation Tiziana Bianco told Business Insider.

CommBank head of innovation Tiziana Bianco.

Within the Innovation Lab there are a number of “garages” which are used to “tinker” with ideas. Oculus Rift units are being used to improve training and office design while robotics are being experimented with to automate various processes in adjacent industries like retail.

Playing with robotics in the Commbank Innovation Lab.

There are also a number of test rooms fitted out with cameras, microphones and interactive screens to see if the ideas work in real life situations.

A panel of 10 senior Commbank execs (two levels below the CEO) representing every area of the bank including HR, risk and compliance, meet monthly to figure out what projects will be worked on in the lab.

It’s a way to stop similar ideas from being developed across several branches of the bank and instead, have it worked on collaboratively and save costs by cutting out duplication.

One of the test rooms within the Lab where the interactive screen talks to your iPad to make iterating on ideas simpler.

Bianco told Business Insider the facility is one way the bank is trying to capture the agility which is a key feature of startups, and match that with its own vast scale.

“As a startup there’s probably one thing you’ve nailed and that’s agility. One minute you’re B2B, the next you’re B2C, you’ve completely flipped your whole model overnight and you do things very quickly. What you don’t have is scale, as a corporate, we have years of developing scale, whether it’s in our brand, our distribution channels, our customer base, our analytics,” she said.

Tech development in the financial services sector has accelerated over the past 12 months with the establishment of centres like Stone & Chalk, Tyro’s co-working space and a number of dedicated fintech events in both Sydney and Melbourne.

But Bianco says there’s a long way to go to support startup and innovation and move Australia away from a mining-centric business environment.

There are reminders of the past scattered around the lab to provide inspiration and reminders of how quickly tech can change.

“I think New Zealand has a better startup sector,” she said, adding there are some strong R&D initiatives and government support programs to foster tech innovation over the ditch.

Bianco says working with the fintech community to innovate is a “competitive advantage” which is receiving support from the top with the likes of CommBank CIO David Whiteing pushing the initiative.

After taking on the top tech job at the bank last year Whiteing almost immediately established a plan to open up the bank’s APIs and streamline innovation but he openly states there’s a lot to be done if the nation’s largest bank wants to maintain its reputation as one of the most tech-forward ones too.

Earlier this year the bank launched its Albert payments platform, a big play for the future of transaction, and it is all open source.

The payments sector has received a technological overhaul driven by a consumer demand for mobile friendly, seamless solutions. Some of the world’s largest companies are also launching payments platforms, including Apple with its ApplePay platform.

Commbank is mindful it is increasingly competing against tech companies when developing these types of solutions but establishing agile development environments is one of its responses to disruptors to ensure it stays ahead of the curve.

It’s something Bianco and her team hopes will improve innovation, cut costs and boost productivity both within the bank and in the external fintech sector.

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