What do you do when you can’t physically be together, or have the serendipitous moments in the spaces created for your teams? For Verizon, the answer is simple: You recreate these spaces, virtually. And we’re not just talking about a Zoom meeting.
Innovation at Verizon typically happens in two locations: The Verizon Innovation Centers located on opposite coasts in Waltham, Mass. and San Francisco, and in the 5G Labs placed in areas like the Bay Area, New York, Los Angeles, London, and Chicago.
While the innovation centers are focused on highlighting Verizon’s existing products and services, “the 5G Labs are different in that we wanted to embed the tech around 5G and 5G computing in these strategic locations,” says Christian Guirnalda, Director of Verizon 5G Labs and Innovation Centers.
The 5G labs — a mix of a co-working and events space, as well as a place to host incubators and accelerators — “show off how the sausage is made,” Guirnalda says, and help create momentum for the company’s innovation.
However, like most other large companies, Verizon has been completely remote since March. But there is a silver lining for the innovators who miss their space. The need to stay connected with people during the pandemic has also led to a faster adoption rate of 5G and emerging technologies among consumers, and that has “accelerated our thought process about how we show [our capabilities] off, which also includes building a virtual 5G lab,” according to Guirnalda.
The lab they are building is a replica of one of the physical environments in a VR world, and that’s just one of many new virtual experiences that the team is crafting.
In a recent conversation, Guirnalda explained how Verizon is finding new use cases for their emerging 5G technology during the COVID-19 pandemic
What are you working on at your innovation labs right now, and how are you getting it done?
Obviously, we can’t have a ton of people in [the lab spaces] when we’re in lockdown, so we’ve been working on remote work in an innovative way. We’re trying to replicate the actual experience of being in a physical location. Can we go from conference call or teleconference to something that’s more akin to natural networking between people…while also showing what the capabilities of 5G are? We’ve been working since March to do a couple of things [around] helping society during the pandemic, [like loaning telepresence Ava Robots, with whom we’re partnered, out to medical facilities.]
The whole idea of virtual events now takes on a different meeting in the COVID world. It first started with making sure we can help with the capabilities — that we can actually help a doctor with the Ava Robot and the nursing home, so patients can connect with their doctors in new ways, and with their families.
How are you creating serendipity?
Since March, we went fully virtual, and we’re talking full-on ramp-ups of virtual events. We’ve had thousands of people join. We’re going to do 10 events over two weeks in a virtual format. We’re churning out the ability for us to have conversations. We did [an event] with the Mayor’s office in London, and we had panelists in the US. The events allow us to bring together people who normally couldn’t be in the same physical room. …
We’re scaling up the volume of our virtual programming, looking at where there’s challenges to solve with connectivity and 5G. We’re looking for those technologies to be the foundation of how we get back [after the pandemic] in a stronger manner.
We’re looking at immersive partnerships to get more interactive. We did a partnership with The WXR Fund — a female-founded fund and accelerator [that invests in gender diverse seed stage companies that are transforming business and human interaction with spatial computing and artificial intelligence].
We’ve done five events using virtual reality with Oculus headsets. We even had a live DJ set at an event with producers and artists to talk about the future of immersive experience.
Can you speak to the trend of accelerated digitization, and the newfound acceptance of 5G technologies during the pandemic?
The pandemic has forced folks to digitize faster. [Telehealth and retail are examples.] The digitization of certain companies and the way that they interact with those customers is happening at light-speed — it’s taken days instead of weeks, and weeks instead of months over the last quarter.
Where 5G plays a role in some of these foundational emerging capabilities — like immersive content and mixed reality, and Computer Vision and intelligent video… Those are being used today more than ever. … This pandemic has created an explosion of new use cases and adoption in the market at-scale of mixed reality, immersive education… These are things that we can continue to scale, and improve, and add additional features to.
Can you elaborate on your engagement with the startup ecosystem?
We’re continuing to churn out startup partnerships that drive the overall business. That hasn’t changed. It is imperative for 5G for partnerships to create opportunities that marry new and innovative capabilities from a scaling-up startup with enterprises that want to see those implemented within their retail environment or their factory. The digitization that is happening to those hospitals, factories, retail environments is a faster and bigger reason to bring those use cases to life. … We are increasing our capital expenditures this year to roll out the 5G network, doubling down to ensure that the infrastructure is there.
Is startup engagement core to the well being of your business, especially when times are tight? For us, the answer is yes. The industries that are core to our business will need 5G and the innovative use cases that startups bring to be prosperous after COVID-19. That’s why we’re doubling down on 5G from a capital expenditure perspective. As people think about: What is the future of a venue? Or how do I watch a football game in a COVID-19 environment? [We look at how] 5G can help.
Has your approach to innovation changed because of COVID-19?
Innovation is a necessary word, but it comes down to what the outcome for your business is. Innovation is always a fun word, in COVID times or not. Unpacking it to really understand what you’re looking to impact within your business and the stakeholders outside it — that’s the hard part. It’s not about the number of ideas and post-it notes, or the revenue you’re going to have tomorrow. It’s on the corporate innovator to really define [what they are planning to accomplish,] and to get champions, and to really agree and get support for that for the long term.
That’s where you can hope to have [a corporate innovation strategy] that’s more institutionalized — not a flash in the pan, but something that can survive the pandemic.