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Are seesaws and bean bags really Standard Bank’s answer to innovation?

South Africa sits with a unique ecosystem when it comes to its innovation, where the major banks are often referred to as the country’s top innovators — a title that’s quite unheard of in the rest of the world where startups “on the ground” are the ones usually disrupting bigger systems. This trend seems to be amplified with their new focus on the country’s trendy startups.

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Largely under the guidance of former CEO Michael Jordaan, First National Bank for instance has been dubbed “the world’s most innovative bank” a couple of times — by the BAI Finacle Global Banking Innovation Awards in 2012 and again in 2013 by the Accenture Innovation Index in South Africa.

Last year, FNB invested a much-needed R3-million in Cape Town’s popular entrepreneur network Silicon Cape. Now, in an attempt to cater for the country’s Northern counterparts, Standard Bank has opened up the PlayRoom innovation hub — a novel space designed to unearth disruptive ideas from staff, customers and startups.

Read more: Silicon Cape gets over R3m in funding from FNB, big changes to come

Why this sudden focus? Well more and more talented startups (and skills) popping up are being acquired by international multinationals, the space is growing exponentially. The latest case in point being Stellenbosch’s radar tech company iKubu which exited to the NASDAQ-listed Garmin. Even though a radar company won’t necessarily be relevant to Standard Bank directly, it might be to one of its major JSE-listed clients for example.

The significance of fostering a relationship between bank and startup has already been shown when Standard Bank “partnered” with the trendy mobile payment startup, SnapScan, before the Stellenbosch-based tech company grew to serve over 14 000 merchants in the country. This is something the brand would obviously want more of. That, and in-house innovation.

Read more: From stores to the streets: SnapScan’s road to a cashless society

The PlayRoom is said to have been put to the test with Standard Bank’s new-generation internet banking site which will be launching soon. The concept, redesign, beta testing and extensive group testing sessions all took place at the PlayRoom. “This experience proved not only to be valuable in terms of creating a remarkable user experience based on customers’ needs but also a learning curve for us in how we use this space,” says Vuyo Mpako who’s head of innovation at Standard Bank.

With a dash of Google flavour, the area is designed around creativity. As you can see in the pictures, the space is filled with bean bags, designer’s chairs, climbing ropes and even seesaws.

According to Mpako, “The PlayRoom will allow Standard Bank to continuously engage, listen to and co-create solutions with our customers with the aim of bringing every day banking value to them. Innovation sits within our overall strategy that starts with the customer in mind — taking an outside-in approach.”

Read more: From stores to the streets: SnapScan’s road to a cashless society

As nicely summed up in the press release, Standard Bank admits that customers are living in a rapidly changing world, which means that having an ear on the ground wouldn’t hurt. “Evolving customer needs, coupled with technology, are shaping the way that businesses operate. The sum of this was the birth of a new type of business model for financial institutions — collaborative innovation,” Mpako explains.

As true as that may be, the question remains whether a play room is really the answer to foster innovation, whether that be within the confines of Standard Bank or not.

MasterCard is another company that has actively been pursuing this model of keeping an ear on the innovation ground after it started launching innovation hubs around the globe, from a cashless-focussed hub in Nairobi, Kenya to a hub in New York City which looks at digital payments innovations from Pebble to ApplePay.

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