Innovation and the future intersect at the CoLab Innovation and the future intersect at the CoLab

Innovation and the future intersect at the CoLab

Collaborators at IDEO CoLab experiment with voice control, blockchain and other emerging technologies


Innovation isn’t just about what you create. It’s also about how you create.

That’s what inspired Duke Energy to join IDEO’s CoLab, a Boston/San Francisco-based enterprise that brings innovators from a variety of industries together to design customer-friendly technology solutions. So far, 14 corporations as diverse as Ford, MetLife and fashion retailer YOOX NET-A-PORTER have decided it’s better to work together when it comes to figuring out the always-changing and complex world of tech solutions.

Duke Energy's Steve Hinkel, center, at the CoLab.

“If you look back historically, most of the innovation from the energy industry came from within,” said Mike Rowand, Duke Energy’s director of Technology Development. “Today, devices are connected. We’re impacted by Amazon and Apple – companies that are touching the energy industry but from a different angle. We thought it worthwhile to participate in a program that has new ways to look at issues that may impact us.”

In Duke Energy’s first year of membership, the experience has largely been educational. About 18 people from throughout the company have, at various times, participated in what the CoLab calls a sprint. This is when a small group of people are faced with a challenge and have just a few days to come up with potential solutions. They use an innovation process called design thinking, and people from different industries and job titles must work together to create solutions, test them and reshape them.

Sometimes, the challenges have had nothing to do directly with the energy industry.

MIke Rowand, Duke Energy director of Technology Development.
  • Is there a way to share unused food in your refrigerator before it goes bad? As Rowand said, that’s not a problem Duke Energy is interested in solving, but he learned a lot from the challenge about the importance of the sharing economy to younger consumers. That’s intel that Duke Energy can build on back at headquarters.
  • How could cameras play a role in figuring out when buses and trains are full or empty, and how can that information alter schedules and routes? That’s a sprint that Steve Hinkel, Duke Energy’s director of Advanced Technology Applications, participated in. His takeaway: Maybe robots can play a role in power plant inspections.
Michal Hatley, Duke Energy IT business analyst,
  • Can voice control play a role in blockchain technology? Duke Energy’s Michal Hatley, a design thinker in the company’s IDEA Lab, was on a team with Ford employees to prototype a solution that used voice control in the emerging blockchain technology field (blockchain is a digital ledger that allows for easier transactions across devices). For Hatley, her big takeaway was the importance of designing products with the customer in mind. “We want to be customer-obsessed like Amazon … and in the CoLab, that’s primarily how they approach problems.”

CoLab members benefit by learning what’s important and emerging in other industries and then taking that knowledge back to their company. At Duke Energy, that’s a key element of its CoLab participation – bringing and keeping the innovation inside its own walls, rather than outsourcing it to vendors.

Matt Weiss, managing director of IDEO CoLab.

The folks at CoLab are also capitalizing on the design sessions. Their team gets real-world feedback on technology challenges and potential solutions and then builds further proofs of concept it hopes to take to market.

“This is the magic: We all bring something different to the mix. Our partners bring to us use cases … we bring expertise in design thinking,” said Matt Weiss, managing director of IDEO CoLab. “We have a heavy bias toward collaboration.”

In its three years of existence, IDEO CoLab has built about 250 prototypes along with its member companies, and the group has brought a handful of those to market as pilots and commercial products.

Duke Energy has just signed onto the CoLab for another year. To Hinkel, it’s all about changing company culture (thinking about customers first, injecting innovation into your job) and building on the expertise of smart people across many different industries.

“If we have an innovation center that’s all Duke Energy, we’ll have some blinders on,” he said. “If you believe two heads are better than one, that’s a pretty good business proposition.”


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