How Heathrow Airport learned to apply tech innovation

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright August 2, 2016
Despite a risk averse, regulated environment, Heathrow Airport has learned to apply tech innovation in crucial operational functions

Airside (c) Heathrow Airport
What's the role of innovation in an established business like Heathrow Airport? And can outsiders such as professional services organisations really help an enterprise achieve innovation? I got some insights into these questions at the recent launch of CapGemini's London innovation hub, where I spoke to Heathrow Airport CIO Stuart Birrell and innovation technologist Ben Wagenaars.

Birrell's role is to look ahead to future developments at the airport. "My day job is six years out," he told me. Keeping abreast of the pace of change in technology and in customer expectations is a challenge, he says:

Five, six years ago, everyone thought personal interaction was great service. Actually, now for regular travelers, if you speak to them, they're p-d off. Great passenger service and a great passenger experience is, people arrive at the airport, walk through, get on the plane, and no one's said a word to them.

For a proportion - it'll never be 100%. In an airport where you've got everything from toddlers to octagerians, you can't apply technology to everything. You still need the caring, social service side, but you use technology to make it efficient and effective.

The majority of people we'd hope we can deal with very efficiently but with a great experience. So actually it becomes less friction, less interuption, less disruption in the journey, to make it more predictable and take the stress out of it.

Whatever innovation there is has to operate within constraints. Heathrow operates at 98% capacity, and has to do so while remaining reliable, safe and secure. That creates a "risk averse environment for innovation," says Wagenaars, even though it has value. In addition, Heathrow's business plan is strictly regulated and is agreed with airlines every five years, as he explains:

The airlines agree the funding within the airport. We agree an investment plan over 5 years and the airlines ratify it.

Operational innovation

So it was that one of the earliest innovation projects was a trial of beacons in the airport's Terminal 2, because the airlines "said they wanted beacons to use in their apps." But over time, the innovation team has found itself increasingly drawn into operational projects, says Wagenaars.

In the beginning our team was focused on passenger experience - that's where we thought we'd be making the most impact, because you've got this explosion in digital technology. But as we've worked through the business challenges we've collected throughout the organisation, we've actually had more traction in operations.

We've become almost like the frontline for IT. People come to us because they know where we are, they know we're the friendly face of IT because we are business-led. IT is tech led - they have to be, they're infrastructure, cloud, all those kind of things. But we interface with the business, we have some fantastic relationships, people come to us all the time with challenges ... probably the best part of my role, is we go around the airport and we seem to know everybody and they want to talk to us about the latest app idea.

One of the most impressive examples of this switch in emphasis has been the development of an application for locating assets on the airfield, he explains.

The business challenge in this was a really rich one for us. It wasn't just a paper-based process. It was two teams trying to communicate to each other at different times of the day.

During the day, the airside safety team would go out to make checks on taxiways, stands and other locations, looking at all the safety equipment and making sure it was in good working order. They would write up any issues either in a sheet or an Excel spreadsheet and pass it over to engineering, who come out to the airfield at night. The problem was that the airfield looks completely different at night time and the descriptions of where to find the faulty asset often became misleading. So the innovation team developed a mobile app that made it possible to geotag all the assets reliably.

It's like a TomTom for the airfield. It has an airfield map and it layers on assets, things like ground lights, even paint - the markings are assets effectively. When something's wrong - there's maybe a crack in the tarmac, or a light isn't working, the safety guys can drive up to it in their car, look at it - previously they'd write it all down with directions, instructions where it is.

Now they can geotag it, they can set it on the map and say, right this isn't working, it's ghosting, flickering, failed, cracked, whatever. They can take [the tablet] out and take a photo, mount it back in their vehicle. Then at the end of the day that is downloaded into a central database.

Engineering then uses the same technology, the same vehicles, to go and find it and check it.

The success rate of finding an asset, which the team had benchmarked at 72% before deployment, went up to 99.9% with the new app. Paper admin was cut by 90%, bringing significant changes - and a positive impact - to how the teams worked.

Art of the possible

It's an example of what can be achieved when people in the business start to realise what could be achieved with the technology, says Birrell, but it adds to the pressure on IT.

Four or five years ago, people said, 'Engineers, they're not going to take mobile apps.' Now, you give them a crappy phone, they're up in arms. They want good phones, they want mobile apps, they don't want to be running round with bits of paper. They want the best.

So now we're in a fantastic position where you show them the art of the possible, you give them some apps capabilities, and all of a sudden the demand from the business is growing way faster than I can satisfy it. So you have to start looking at then how do you satisfy, how do you scale - because IT departments can't scale, or they have to run networks and systems, you can't scale. So you then have to engage an ecosystem of partners to enable that scalability and that exponential growth and change.

That's where outside help from CapGemini's Applied Innovation Exchange can make a contribution by adding resources and knowledge that can help develop a proof of concept more quickly than the enterprise could on its own.

CapGemini says the AIE helps organisations generate ideas and rapidly build prototypes, drawing on the combined know-how of its experts worldwide, its partners, and a broad community of start-ups. It also provides tools and a supportive environment for innovation.

The AIE in London is the latest in a global network of nine Exchanges, including Paris, Munich, Mumbai and, more recently, San Francisco. Opening in London allows it to tap into a "vibrant" local tech scene and expertise in areas such as artificial intelligence, fintech and design.

Birrell says its value is in helping to get past first base:

The challenge I think most companies have is, where do you start? One of the things that's been really good here has been, what's that first step, how do you then go and try stuff? How do you learn from it?

My take

It's easy to be cynical about global SIs setting up innovation centers - "We've got them too," said CapGemini CTO Lanny Cohen self-mockingly as he began his keynote at the London launch. There's something suspect about the notion that any enterprise can become innovative just by sending a few staff off to a discovery exercise at some swanky innovation hub.

That's why I specifically asked to speak to a customer that had already worked with the CapGemini AIE. And it turns out that these resources can extend and reinforce the work that internal teams are already doing to exploit emerging digital technologies to achieve new business outcomes.

As Rory Burghes, vice president of the London unit, put it to me, the important words in its name are 'applied' and 'exchange' - it's not about innovation for its own sake. I came out a little less skeptical than when I'd arrived.

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