Jose Hernandez, VP IT Business Operations, Information Technology Services, AARP
Service is something that is deeply embedded in our mission at AARP, including how we harness the power of disruptive technologies to empower the 50-plus community we serve. An internet search of the word “service” will generate the definition“…the act of helping or doing work for someone.” A couple of key attributes come to mind when you experience an effective service: simple interaction, easy to use, a light touch, high customer satisfaction, and an experience that keeps people coming back for more. With service as a guiding principle, we founded AARP’s first university-based innovation lab. Focused on disruptive technologies, the lab - named The Tech Nest - offers our organization a rapid prototyping capability that is a simple and easy-to-use experience.
Hubs of Innovation: World-class universities
We started with a premise that the rate of change in society, fueled by technology, is increasing exponentially, outpacing traditional sources of innovation. To harness the power of innovation and explore its application and implications to AARP’s mission, we needed to look to the core of invention and innovation: world-class research-based universities. More specifically, we look for a vital set of ingredients: student talent, culture of innovation and research that has the potential for commercial application. And we are not alone in this pursuit; university-based research parks have grown exponentially in the past few decades.
In 2016, AARP established a presence at the University of Illinois Research Park. Our initial focus was operational in nature – deliver a prototyping service that is fast, easy to use, and costs pennies on the dollar. From the time the initiative was given the green light by our CEO, we selected a site, designed and built the lab, hired a lead manager, interviewed and hired students, and began working on the first set of prototypes within 90 days. We quickly established a framework that delivers a prototype in weeks to months for a few thousand, not years and millions in investments. That’s what we mean by fast and cost effective. Our business partners bring us an idea and after initial ideation- which at times challenges us to collectively dream bigger and bolder-we are off and running.
Business partners invest a minimal set of hours throughout the experience, focusing on the outcome, not the tools or process. That’s what we mean by ease of use. With an eye towards practical results, we have delivered over 20 prototypes through the hard work and dedication of over 50 talented students. Our initial work at the lab focuses on leading-edge technology such as artificial intelligence, biometrics (techniques to recognize and verify an individual’s identity), and voice-enabled technologies. Staying true to a mission-based organization, we believe that our interactions with students are a two-way street. We want students to not only work on exciting technologies, but also get a chance to experience AARP’s culture of social mission. We assign each student an AARP mentor to share professional experiences. Students also take part in a volunteer event each semester. As a result, we have established a strong brand on campus, engaging and recruiting the best the university has to offer.
We are shaped by our experiences. Everyone is someone’s son or daughter or grandchild. As technologists at AARP, we strive to leverage these experiences and make them applicable to those we serve. The Tech Nest affords us an opportunity to do so. The result is a prototyping service that delivers, is easy to use, with a light touch, and that keeps delivering and allowing us to come back for more. Everything we touch should be built with the elegance of simplicity in mind.
Is Rapid Prototyping Right for Your Organization?
The prototyping lab provides an enterprise capability posing a fundamental question found in product development: Will it work? Key to the question of “will it work?” we also needed to know if it can be answered quickly and economically.
As with any methodology, rapid prototyping as a service is not “one-size-fits-all.” In fact, after you read this article, you may decide that your needs are not for prototyping, but for full product development or somewhere in between. To help you make that decision, here are some elements that will make the exploration of rapid prototyping as a service worthwhile:
Define an internal or external business outcome. Ask yourself, what do I want to effect on behalf of the organization?
Spend time understanding your customer, your market, and work backwards. This may seem simple, but it’s an important step towards defining the opportunity.
Location and scale matters
This old adage comes to mind: location, location, location! As you will find, not all universities act the same or engage industry in the same manner. Depending on your business outcome, seek the university that has the resources and talent that best fit your needs and is readily accessible to your organization.
Now, contemplate how you can combine these elements to address emerging technology with the potential to disrupt a market or business model or to address established/ emerging technology in markets that are waiting for a “network effect.” This is not an exhaustive list of elements for prototyping as a service, however they are a few recommendations to get you started in your discovery.
My parting advice for organizations interested in replicating what we’ve accomplished is to be astounded by the potential of student talent. Whenever I speak to industry leaders about AARP’s Tech Nest, I find myself focusing on the brilliance of our students. Don’t limit yourself by being tied to one particular solution or any solution for that matter. Just show up with a problem and let the students’ unleash their full potential.