Open Innovation

How Heathrow Promotes Innovative Technology

This is the 3rd part of a new series by Heathrow Airport’s innovation team. Part 1 was How Heathrow Innovates and part 2 How Heathrow Launched an Easter App. It’s a good idea to read both to best understand how we work when it comes to technology innovation. Today, we’ll look at a process we internally call showcase which we used to launch a new digital game. This method is also used to collect ideas that may not arise from a challenge-gathering team session.  

What is a Showcase?

In our team, we avoid what we call ‘tech push’. This is when you find a new technology and try and sidestep it into the business. Instead, we use technology as a solution to a business challenge and then think about the right technology. Sometimes when the area is completely new, we introduce it to colleagues using a showcase.

Not only does this provide a great way of showing innovative technology to colleagues, but it also provides a great opportunity for us to network within the business and to speak with suppliers about their technology and learn more about a particular area.

Devices Showcase

The devices presented were ones that were being trialed: touch screens, laptops, tablets, ruggedized devices

Showcase Format

The Innovation Team likes to do a few showcase presentations per year. The most recent was around new technology for kiosks, large format ‘glasses-less’ 3D screens and wearable technology. Today, I’ll focus on the most recent one we had which was on wearables.


Glassesless 3D screens that were to go into trial to aid security compliance

The event is held in Heathrow’s head office, the Compass Centre. It’s an ideal spot as many employees are either based there, or are likely to visit the Centre as it is the operation training suite. Because of this, we get a large number of visitors. For example, the ‘wearables’ event had over 2000 staff members attend over a 3 day period.

Right now, wearable technology is a trend that is gaining traction with consumers, as well as enterprise. Some well-known trials have occurred in the aviation industry using wearables – with the most well-known being the Virgin Atlantic Upper Class Google Glass trial at Heathrow Terminal 3.

The wearables showcase was a hands-on style event. We did this by approaching our suppliers of wearable devices, and we spoke to new suppliers at trade events and through LinkedIn asking them to loan us equipment for the event.

As a result, we had around 10 different products, from 2 distinct categories of wearable: wrist worn and head worn. Then, we arranged to have the equipment on display and ensured that the stand was attended to throughout the day with people who could talk it through and engage with Heathrow staff.

When doing an internal event like this, the aim is to get feedback from staff on how they might use that technology. With this approach, we can draw out any potential business challenges that the technology might solve. In addition, we see how staff see themselves use the technology as presented.

To incentivise staff to take time out to come and see what is on show, we offer a competition prize - usually with the same question: ‘how would this technology change how you work at Heathrow?’

For the wearables event, we had in excess of 100 ideas come in, the winner of which (as judged by the Innovation Steering Group (see blog post 1)) won a Samsung Galaxy Gear S smart watch. This was one of the products on display.


Wearables (virtual reality, wrist worn, head worn)

Winning Wearable Idea

The winning idea came from a member of the Winter Resilience Team, who are part of Airside Operations. Their business challenge was around situational awareness on the airfield - where stand clearance teams are during snow events, and efficiently we can manage them during times of snow. The current system involves using the radio system, the trial would be looking at using smart watches as a hands free notification system to send updates and actions to teams out on the airfield. The watch also lets the Winter Resilience team report back on the status of their current activity.

This innovation was recently trialled during a summer snow practice drill day on the airfield and with great success. As a result, we will be pursuing this concept further within the wider Heathrow IT team.  

How to Make the Event a Success

To run a successful event, do the following:

  • Relevancy - A technology area might be new and exciting, but completely irrelevant to your business. We chose wearables because of several trials we had seen already in wearables, and we were noticing a push for more enterprise mobility using wearables in the wider sense.
  • Have it in the Right Place – you need to position yourself in an area with high footfall to drive engagement. So, use a space in your office where people congregate. The space we used had a coffee outlet, casual meeting space and lift cores in a wide open space. This meant plenty of people were waiting around for meetings.
  • Advertise in Advance– Tell people about it in your company’s newsletter or email run and advertise what people will see and get out of it. The event was advertised on our Intranet and through the departmental email system.
  • Run a Contest – It doesn’t have to be much, but if you want to get people to write down ideas, they will want to feel rewarded in some way and incentivised to give up a little bit of their time and thoughts.
  • Make it Popular with Key StakeholdersSpread invites throughout the day for key people you want to attend, perhaps people you have had conversations about the technology before.
  • Ensure Your Stand Constantly has a Team Member in Attendance– Empty stands don’t generate ideas, and having engaging team members there can help you get insights into a particular business area.
  • Gather Challenges – We’ve tried both paper submissions and online survey tools. Some people prefer to write their ideas out, while others want to think about it more and enter these from their desks online.
  • Interactive – Let people be hands on with the technology, and show them examples of its benefits. A lot of work has to go into creating demo content so people can have a good idea of how the technology might work. Suppliers helped to make this really useful.  
  • Right Time and Length – Consider the best opportunity to run the showcase. Be careful not to choose days that are stressful for different departments (e.g. end of month) or school holidays when your audience might be more limited. Consider the number of days you run it for – 2 or 3 days is ideal.
  • Follow Up – make sure you go back to people who you speak with and those who contribute ideas. We triaged some of the best ideas that were most relevant to the business and spoke to those people individually. The remainder we emailed to personally thank them for their contribution

Summing things up, these types of events are a great way to introduce colleagues to new technology and to engage with many members of staff in a relatively short time.

Also, they are superb opportunities to introduce one’s self and break into teams that one had previously struggled to engage with.

As you can see, planning and follow up are the most time consuming parts of the event. But if you plan it well, it provides great insights into the business, so it is well worth it!

Images: by Robin Gissing.

This is How Heathrow Airport Innovates

Editor’s note: We are excited to bring you a new series featuring insights from Heathrow Airport exclusively on New Airport Insider. Today’s post introduces Heathrow's internal process and upcoming ones will cover projects delivered by the innovation team. In this new series by Heathrow Airport’s IT Innovation team, we will share with you how we operate and provide context as to why Heathrow Airport Holdings (HAL) formed an Airport IT Innovation team. Also, introduce our mission, goals and detail processes and practices. The posts will be written by different members of the Innovation department and we will go into detail about some of the initiatives we have been working on.


Heathrow needs no introduction. It handles 73 million passengers per year and runs at 99% capacity across 2 runways. Our groups’ mission is to “make every journey better” to become a world class airport. To achieve this, we continually leverage new and innovative approaches to ensure our operation delivers exceptionally high levels of passenger experiences.

How It Started

Since we already delivered large-scale engineering projects, from building award-winning terminals to re-laying the runways, our planning and programme governance practices were already geared around delivery of large scale projects. And in 2012, our Chief Information Officer (CIO) Neil Clark made the decision to develop an innovation capability that would work closely with the business to understand and deliver solutions more effectively.

Starting with a small group of 3, the first challenge was to build support across the entire organisation. This was done through delivering smaller scale wins to build momentum and immediately demonstrate the team’s benefits.

Initially, the goals were to:

  • Drive effective business case development through trialling and testing initiatives to provide the evidence to prove the business benefit.
  • Engage with colleagues and partners and provide an environment to enable them to innovate
  • Bring “lean” and “art of the possible” thinking to all business challenges
  • Be able to identify, embrace and provide potential solutions based on new and emerging technologies

In the first months, we gave careful consideration as to how to create the “right” type of culture that allows innovation to succeed. As you would expect, Heathrow is geared towards managing risk and driving operational efficiencies. This is done with a successful Continuous Improvement programme, however it was clear more needed to be done to enable an innovation ethos.

The key to the team’s early success was creating an environment where the right levels of support were given, and in developing a culture where it was acceptable to try, and in some cases fail (as long as it was done quickly and with the learnings shared in a comfortable environment). So support from the senior team was garnered through forming an Innovation Steering Group (ISG), chaired by the CIO but also alongside exec members from Commercial, Operations and Communications teams.

The innovation team specifically focused on meeting business challenges and not simply adding shiny new pieces of technology. This was crucial for two reasons:

  1. We didn't want to simply push new technologies for the sake of it.
  2. By targeting business challenges, we ensured that if we successfully found innovative solutions, there was a greater chance that there would be support from the business for the operational development costs.

The Process

The process is formed around a classic funnel where challenges and ideas are collected on the left. Then by using a series of lightweight tools (shown at the bottom), the team is able to rapidly triage this large group in order to leave a subset that are then moved through the phases.

Heathrow Airport Innovation Process

Challenges are collected in a variety of ways, from entries to either our global innovation competition, or smaller challenges with people emailing us or suggesting ideas to us in our roles. By far the most successful way of collecting ideas has been through challenge-gathering sessions held by the team. These are 90 minute facilitated sessions, where we ask representatives from business units across Heathrow to tell us about their challenges. We ask questions like, “What keeps you awake at night?”, “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you ask yourself ‘if I could only change that, this would be so much easier?” or “what missing piece of data would transform the ability to do your role?”.


Once challenges are collected, metrics are used to score and prioritise. To make scoring less biased, we ask colleagues from around the department and the wider business units to join in this process. Then we use a short Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13), which helps in emphasising positive outcomes, to score each challenge.

Shape and Amplify

If a challenge scores above a certain threshold, we assign a resource from the team to begin to “Shape and Amplify” by using some lightweight tools, for example a vision card. A vision card is a one-page document that collates information about the challenge (detailed description, success criteria, sponsor, champion, business benefit, etc.). This enables the Innovation Steering Group (ISG) to make an informed decision on whether to move the challenge forward to an innovation trial of some sort.


The “Proving” stage may take the form of a Proof of Concept (POC) trial, or a piece of detailed research. So the team takes whatever steps are necessary to deliver the insight required to proceed with a business case to full project funding.


This can mean developing an app, manufacturing a new device, borrowing technology or changing an existing process.  Whatever the trial or POC requires, the aim is to demonstrate a clear understanding of the measured benefits we'll achieve and the challenges we will face in implementing the technology.

Final Thought

In delivering Innovation in Heathrow, one key lesson learned has been the importance of providing a variety of approaches to engage with colleagues and partners. We try to make sure that everybody knows where and how they can come to us to talk about innovation. And we run technology showcases, deliver lectures, write papers, attend workshops.

Also, by starting with the goal of solving a real business challenge and creating new value through a product or service, we can instigate and engage in brilliant conversations.

Hopefully, you enjoyed this post. In upcoming posts, we will introduce to you some initiatives and the challenges delivered in the last few years.

Airport Survey

In collaboration with ADB Airfield Solutions, we are conducting a short online survey to identify top issues that concern airports and key priorities for 2015. The survey results will be published on both websites in May 2015 and all data collected will remain confidential. Will you take the survey?