When you think “innovation,” what comes to mind? An energetic Silicon Valley start-up filled with bright young engineers and data scientists? What about a century-old Midwest manufacturing company? Or an 80-year-old business machines company? Can a 40-year-old tech pioneer spark transformational innovation? If you buy into the stereotypes, you might dismiss these venerable enterprises as slow-moving dinosaurs in a fast-changing world.

But you would be wrong.

The truth is, innovation today is rooted in both fail-fast-and-break-things start-up culture and established companies that can apply their deep industry knowledge to long-standing business challenges. Of course, global corporations have a lot to learn from start-ups. But start-ups also need the expertise and understanding of the business context that only experience can bring.

The next industrial revolution—Industry 4.0—can’t happen without both.

While talking with Cisco customers interested in joining the next Cisco Hyperinnovation Living Lab (CHILL) centered on Industry 4.0, I’ve been struck by how much innovation is already at work in many established enterprises. These companies are merging hardware, software, and human components to create new offerings and approaches to 21st century challenges.

International logistics company DB Schenker is a great example. As part of German railroad company Deutsche Bahn, DB Schenker’s roots reach back to the early 20th century. However, they tackle 21st century problems with a unique approach: creating an Innovation Warehouse in Houston where they constantly prototype and pilot innovations. They’re not just solving for problems, they consistently push themselves to stay at the forefront of the industry by anticipating needs. The warehouse grew out of an early CHILL lab focused on the supply chain. A joint initiative with Cisco and other partners, it is an active testbed for innovation to make the supply chain, shipping, and logistics more efficient, rapid, and secure. One recent project used sensors and analytics in a real-time shipment analysis tool to show the financial impact of shipments leaving the warehouse, including damage appraisal and proof of shipment, improving both visibility and accountability.

For our upcoming Lab, we see several distinct opportunity areas where established industry players can innovate together with startup-like speed to create industry-wide transformation. Here are the questions we are asking ourselves:

  • Informed Decision Making—How might we use technologies such as AI and natural language processing to help employees find answers quickly and accurately? How can pervasive video and hyper-location improve contextual decision making while driving down the cost of IoT-related opportunities? How do we take advantage of new 5G capacities to drive growth?
  • Field Automation–How might we leverage technologies such as AI and dynamic tagging to process real-time field data to improve customer satisfaction and execute preventative maintenance? Can we customize automation per order?
  • Enhancing Human Senses—How might we use technologies such as XR and AI to enhance our senses to increase safety and minimize errors? Can we leverage these technologies to allow workers to be immersed in complex environments and operate effectively without actually being physically present?
  • Attracting and Retaining Skilled Workers—How do we create new ways for workers to continuously acquire the skills they need to succeed while aligning with the ever-changing needs of employers? Can we leverage data to increase decision support to free up humans to work on other tasks?
  • Supply Chain—How do we utilize technologies to automate menial tasks and increase efficiency? How do we create predictive supply chains that deliver the right parts at the right time to the right place to minimize disruption?

These opportunities are too broad and fast moving for any one company to tackle on its own. CHILL’s unique innovation model brings together top executives from industry giants to innovate shoulder-to-shoulder in a fast-paced 48-hour Living Lab. These executives see opportunity, not threat, as they share and leverage their own and their innovation partners’ ideas and technologies to solve common challenges.

CHILL’s approach is focused on creating lasting results. Previous Labs have resulted in two start-ups, seven patent applications, and more than 20 internal or joint initiatives with start-ups or customers. We assemble a diverse cohort of participants, always asking ourselves, “Are we including everyone who is needed to move a project forward?” That means executives, engineers, builders, end users, and even potential investors. We then run through multiple rounds of “impact prototyping,” testing assumptions and asking not “can we build this?” but “should we build this?” We put every round of prototype in front of end users, who are the ultimate arbiters of whether we move forward with a particular solution. Finally, each innovation group pitches their idea to a panel of executives from participating companies who have the authority to make on-the-spot investment commitments to continue developing each idea.

That’s what lasting innovation looks like.

Are you interested in joining us in co-creating lasting solutions for Industry 4.0? We have room for one to two additional customers to join the innovation cohort. Contact me at abenzige@cisco.com.


Amy Benziger

Head of Projects, Cisco Hyper-Innovation Living Labs (CHILL)

Chief Technology and Architecture Office