Lake views from the Milwaukee innovation labs

Tim Poppert

Senior Director - Digital Innovation and Research

Chad Wright

Architect

Topics: cream city labs.

A Space to Innovate: Lessons Learned While Building Cream City Labs

When our new innovation space, Cream City Labs, was unveiled to the public a few months ago, it marked a major milestone for our company. The space will allow us to scale our innovation efforts and contribute to our goal of advancing Milwaukee as a tech hub.

The lab supports three uses: First, it is a space for collaboration. Anyone in the company can use parts of the lab for teamwork and other work space needs. Employees can spend the entire day in the lab if that’s what works for them. Second, it is a co-working space, with seating for up to 48 people to work in the lab on a short- to medium-term basis. This is where startups and some of our internal innovation teams can be found working together. Lastly, there is an event space for up to 160 people that supports moving innovation forward. Events for employees and the community can be hosted here, which allows employees involved in meetup groups and other community organizations to use the lab, thereby supporting the wider tech ecosystem.

Now that we’ve been open for a few months, we’ve heard feedback from several different groups and it has all been overwhelmingly positive. Throughout the lab’s design and development, we learned a lot about why it's so important to build a dedicated space for innovation.

If your organization is considering building its own innovation space, here are some things to keep in mind:

Culture is king. Develop the culture, then build the lab. Five or six years ago, there were countless articles on the need for organizations to have innovation labs. A few years later, we started seeing stories declaring the “death of the innovation lab.” What happened? Companies wanted to create a physical manifestation of innovation, so they built a lab. But they didn't actually create the support system needed for it to succeed. They just created space.

So, we flipped the script. Space is space; you need culture to support it – and there is a lot that goes into building said culture. Innovation culture isn’t just a mindset – it’s ensuring teams have the capabilities, resources, funding and capacity to experiment, as well as leaders who encourage pushing the boundaries. And we’ve spent the past 10 years building out a robust program that supports the culture for Northwestern Mutual to transform.

Now that the foundation is in place, we’re investing in a physical space. The lab is a tool that allows us to take full advantage of cross-collaboration and nurtures an ecosystem for people both within and outside of the company.

The space has to be different. One of the things we tried to do right from the start was make sure Cream City Labs didn't look like anything else we have around campus. A lot of times, “innovation labs” will have the same colors, carpet and lighting as the rest of the office, just with some additional game tables and soft seating. It doesn't feel like a different space, it just feels like you changed furniture.

We believe that when a space is completely different, it gives people permission to think, act and work differently. We wanted Cream City Labs to have a modern, industrial feel, but also give the sense of being at home. And because the kitchen is the heart of the home, we wanted our kitchen to be the heart of the lab. We designed a big, robust café area to allow people to gather and have conversations – just like at home. The environment actually changes the mentality and the mindset people have, which helps with creativity, ideation and the free flow of communication. It matters.

Logistics can be daunting. Unlike most innovation labs, which are typically located off-campus (often on the east or west coast), we wanted Cream City Labs to be right on the campus of our Milwaukee headquarters. Because of this, we had to spend a a lot of time developing policies and procedures to allow non-employees to access the lab, which is inside one of our main buildings. This included designing a system where video conferencing, printing and digital collaboration tools could be leveraged by the people on our network, as well as guests. From a security perspective, we discovered many scenarios that we hadn't thought about initially. We take our clients’ data very seriously, so we had to ensure we had the right pieces in place to secure our physical and digital environment while still being able to support collaboration.

Maximize the opportunities the space can provide. When someone walks into our lab, the look on their face says it all – they are in complete astonishment. We often hear, "I have to dedicate time to come back and work from here!"

Internally, we want Cream City Labs to be a place that can be leveraged by anyone in the company. Many of our leaders have expressed interest in running an innovation session with their teams in the lab. We’ve already had a small team move into the lab for a three-month period. If it weren’t for the lab, we likely never would have connected with this team – but since we have a space that allows different teams to come together and collaborate on ideas, we can.

Outside of the company, several local startups and the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute – a partnership with local Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee – have set up shop in the lab. And surprisingly, we've already received a large number of requests from people and organizations in the community to use the lab as an event space. While it’s not in the plans right now, it’s a good affirmation that we’ve created something special when people are asking to rent it out.

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