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Pieter van der Horst and Joeri Aulman compare and contrast the structure and goals of pioneering innovation labs at Amsterdam, Munich, Singapore and Edmonton airports.

Have you thought about the recent upsurge in airport innovation labs and wondered what was behind the new phenomena?

What are they? What’s it in for airports? And is launching a lab now the smart thing for smart airports to do?

We decided to take a look at four different examples of airport innovation labs across the globe in this article in a bid to help answer some of these questions.

Innovation test lab – Amsterdam Schiphol

The initial goal of Amsterdam Schiphol’s innovation test lab is to help it improve its processes and procedures through the development of new equipment and technology by innovators, research companies and universities.

It is also designed to provide suppliers with the opportunity to show that their products within an airport environment, allowing Amsterdam Schiphol (AMS) to stimulate innovation without having to invest in it themselves.

And the lab should reduce the cost of integrating new products as the airport will be aware that the new technology is compatible with its existing systems before buying it.

The initial plan is for a 5,000sqm facility, leased from 100% owned subsidiary Schiphol Real Estate, which will essentially be made up of low industrial space with some small offices.

The building will have a flexible modular design to ensure that it can be used for multiple activities and that it can be easily expended, if demand dictates, in the future.

Although the innovation lab is the brainchild of the airport, the idea is that its partners will also rent space in it and add their systems as an open source which, in itself, should act as a catalyst for additional innovations.

The long term goal is to create a cluster where companies and employees can easily find each other, collaborate and innovate. Futhermore, it is an add-on for Amsterdam Schiphol’s Airport City, which will benefit from this new development.

LabCampus – Munich Airport

Munich Airport (MUC) is aiming big with the creation of its LabCampus (pictured above). The idea is to develop a centre of innovation, serving as an international meeting point for renowned companies, start-ups and research facilities.

They intend to create space for cross-industry innovation and collaboration by bringing the right blend of industries and companies together and creating a innovation cluster.

MUC provides the opportunity for companies to use the airport as a test lab to showcase their innovations to the audience on their doorstep (airport users). Tenants are promised the support of a community manager and a large network of innovation partners.

The LabCampus business model focuses mainly on generating revenues through real estate leases and also on generating income by offering innovative services. Apart from the innovative focus, this is comparable with the general business model of many other Airport City developments around the world.

The plan is to develop around 500,000sqm of buildings in a SMART city area. There are no plans to develop retail or manufacturing facilities on site. The first of four planned 128,000sqm developments will contain office space for large and medium sized companies and is planned to be ready in 2021.

Living Lab Programme – Singapore Changi

Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) has established an innovation suite it calls its Living Lab Programme (LLP).

The programme invites innovation driven companies, start-ups and research institutes from Singapore to use the airport as a live test facility focusing on ‘Automation and Robotics’; ‘Data Analytics and IOT’; ‘Non-intrusive Security Technologies’; and ‘Smart Infrastructure Management’.

To date, three companies have been selected for the programme and are now referred to as “innovation partners”. The philosophy is a simple one – develop prototypes first for Changi, then globally market the products that are successful.

The programme offers a rich test-bed and valuable data to Changi’s partners for developing and refining their solutions. As mentioned, this is more a programme than a physical lab.  There is no specific facility dedicated for testing and developing, although it could be argued that the whole terminal is a dedicated lab, both physically and virtually, given the fact that Changi is further developing its ‘digital twin’, coined the ‘Changi Airport Virtual Experience’ (CAVE).

Alberta Aerospace & Technology Centre – Edmonton International Airport

It may come as a surprise to some to learn that Edmonton international airport (YEG) Alberta, Canada, is also involved in the lab game.

This airport is smaller than the other three and is not a hub, but that certainly hasn’t held them back in terms of an innovative approach towards start-ups.

Its activities are centred around the Alberta Aerospace & Technology Centre, where the goal is to build a cluster of activity in aerospace and technology, which will serve as a centre for R&D innovation in aviation.

Ultimately, the goal is to drive regional economic growth and revenue sharing from the successful development of different innovative technologies/products.

YEG also expects that working with innovative companies will further enhance the entrepreneurial culture of the airport.

‘Flight simulators & training’, ‘Managing wildlife with robots’, ‘Remote operated vehicles’ and ‘Fuel innovation’ are a few of the areas being explored under the umbrella of YEG’s innovation lab.

It is worth noting here that the airport has teamed up with advanced technology development group, ACAMP, to help entrepreneurs move their ideas from proof-of-concept to manufactured product by providing access to engineers, technology experts, specialised equipment, and industry acumen.

On top of this, Edmonton International Airport arguably takes some of the risk away for innovation pioneers by offering flexible lease contracts, while approved start-ups at the very beginning of their journey are charged little or no rent at all.

YEG’s innovation lab today comprises two buildings covering some 9,000sqm, although they do, for now, also include some more traditional airport tenants.


The table (above) summarises some of the main characteristics of the four airport labs covered in this article.

All the airports are developing an Airport City, and in three of the four examples, there are physical facilities involved in the lab programme, which are leased to third parties, meaning that airports have found new revenue streams to stimulate their business activities.

Outsourcing innovation to third parties makes good business sense, especially in today’s challenging labour market where airports worldwide are increasingly struggling to recruit new staff.

In our research for this article, we found that many airports found it difficult to lead in innovation driven activities because of difficulties attracting top IT staff who don’t believe that airports offer them the right culture to nurture their talents and allow them to flourish and grow.

Indeed, as David Feldman and Pierre-Alain Goujard noted in their ‘Time for innovation?’ article in Airport World last year, airports usually have a risk-adverse, hierarchical and closely regulated organisation and culture. This is, of course, quite different from the cultural style of innovative start-ups, where risk taking, entrepreneurship and OK-to-fail philosophy are crucial elements of success.

So, if an airport wants to focus on innovation, maybe an airport lab is the best way to achieve it? It is also logical that a lab that focuses on innovation at airports or the wider aviation industry, should be located at an airport, which could potentially “live test” different technologies/products.

I think our examples show that there can be many different business models and goals for an airport lab, depending on how much skin the airport wants to have in the game.

Without doubt they are an interesting concept, not least because of the potential rewards they offer – more innovation, more revenue and the opportunity to attract a highly skilled and specialist workforce.

For all these reasons, we expect the industry fascination with innovation labs to continue to grow and, who knows, one could be opening at an airport near you in the near future!


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