Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance 

Supun King-Jayawardana moved to London nearly two years ago, for reasons both personal and professional. Passionate about blending business strategy, human-centred design, rapid prototyping, and disruptive technologies to generate new ideas, concepts and commercially viable innovations, Supun was an obvious choice to head up the Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s (CBA) Innovation Lab in London.

Looking to firmly establish its roots as part of London’s impressive fintech scene, the CBA open the doors to its Innovation Lab in 2016.

The premise of the CBA innovation lab is to not only create an environment to test new ideas and run experiments, with both external organisations and staff, but also to instigate cultural change within the organisation, running programs to help staff think innovatively.

Supun spoke to Advance about why London is a fantastic place to be based, particularly when working within the technology and financial services industries.

What was the main impetus for your move?

From a personal perspective, the main reason for moving was because my wife and I had always wanted to live in a different part of the world and London appealed to us because of all the accessible travel opportunities. From a professional perspective, there was a great opportunity for me to head up the CBA Innovation Lab in London. It was a great opportunity to create something new, build a team and explore how, as a large bank operating in Sydney, we can operate with smaller companies around the world.

Head of Innovation is a very cool title. What does your role involve?

The idea behind the CBA Innovation Lab is how do we, as a large organisation, design and run products and services in an ideal way, especially within smaller companies like startups or scaleups that are operating within financial services. And then, how do we scale that globally.

The goal of the London lab is to find a way to connect with the ecosystem of venture capitalists, other banks and smaller startups. We bring them in to test their technology or business models to try and solve some of our internal problems, in a way where it's not a traditional product development cycle that takes a long time, but instead over a three-month period. An example of this is trying to understand what are the implications of trying artificial intelligence technologies so that we can understand any type of regulations that the Commonwealth Bank has to deal with.

How do you come up with the new innovative ideas for a traditionally regulated industry?

I see that from two perspectives. If you look at the way traditionally large organisations manage the development of new products, services and concepts, it's quite a long process because there are a whole range of internal stakeholders that need to sign off on certain things. When you're in that particular mindset, especially within the context of a very regulated industry, a lot of new ideas that challenge the status quo may not go ahead because of it’s too risky.

Instead of ignoring these ideas we try to discover a process where the ideas can be tested in safe environments, where we're not really using real customer data. We're not actually creating a new product or service but running an experiment for three months where we can take a particular technology or business model and trial it with a small subset of users and we manage that risk that way.

The other perspective is that a lot of financial services regulators are much more open to the idea regulation should not put a stop to innovation. An example of this is an experiment we did with the Financial Conduct Authority, the chief regulator of banks in the UK. They observed an experiment we conducted and gave us their views as to this particular form of technology. By involving the FCA in the experimental process we have hopefully gained a regulator that’s comfortable with us and exploring this new way of working.

What’s the rate of success between coming up with new ideas and them being implemented or being successful?

If I look at the number of experiments I've done in London, which is a young Lab, we’ve run about five now. With the one that we did with the FCA we're now in conversations around potential scaling and commercialisation, so that's a one in five.

In Sydney, we probably have that same run rate. It's difficult to say because there are certain ideas that actually experiment really well but it's difficult to commercialise them for reasons around feasibility, which lie outside the Lab's control. But at the end of the day our metrics shouldn't be based on a certain percentage of things being commercialised. It is a portfolio theory where we’re creating an environment where we don't have to spend a lot of money to test something. If we test ten things and one works well, it makes up for the other nine.

Why do you think innovation is important, particularly in the banking industry?

I think in today’s world industries aren't necessarily so black and white. You can think about either finance or the banking industry, or you could think about a huge company such as Alibaba, for example, who operate within payments. They're one of the largest payment providers through Alipay. So arguably, they're a retailer that operates within the banking industry. Because of the emergence of cheaper, faster technologies that are far more scalable than traditional technologies we're getting to a point where industry lines are blurring.

The world changes rapidly, so it's important for us to maintain our core business while still having a process where we can start thinking about what's going to happen in the next couple of years.

Have you developed any philosophies about training yourself to think in a particular way?

My background has spanned many different kinds of jobs and industries. I trained as a corporate lawyer, then went in to banking, then to strategy and consulting and now I'm in innovation technology. So there's a whole range of different things I've done, but I think in terms of philosophy, I'm a massive believer in continuous education and in having an open mind. If you're in a role where you don't feel like you're learning then you should take stock and think about how to change it. The world is going to keep changing you have to invest in yourself. What's in your mind is the biggest asset you have.

Could you give me an example of an experiment that you've worked on in the innovation lab that's gone on to be commercially viable?

In the Sydney Lab, we were working on a particular digital application which allowed people to use Commbank's digital app to donate to their preferred charities. The philosophy there underpinned how hard it is for NGOs and charitable organisations to collect donations and we already had a significant platform of digital users which was the gateway to payment. That took about six weeks with the prototype to develop and then about six months before it was deployed as an application.

What surprised you about moving to London in terms of culture change?

I didn't realise how many Australians were in the UK! There's a much stronger connection to a community in the UK than I would've expected which I think is really awesome. There's a lot of Australians in senior positions throughout corporate and government organisations which is great. The other aspect of it is that there's a huge appreciation of Australian openness when it comes to how people interact and how they communicate at work or socially that I think is sometimes a little bit different to the UK culture. 

What appeals to you most about living and working in London?

London is a phenomenal city. I had travelled there a couple times before as a tourist so I didn't really get a proper grasp on it until I moved. In a professional sense, what appealed to me most was having all the major banks headquartered or having a presence there.

Do you have any plans on moving back to Australia any time soon?

I do. While London is fantastic, it is still 25 hours away from Australia. I’m sure as my wife and I get older we’ll want to settle down in Sydney, what I think is a fantastic lifestyle city.

But for now we’re happy in London, there's so much you can do there. If you can deal with the sheer rush and all the people it’s the furthest thing from boring.

What surprised you the most about moving to London?  

Moving to London the first year was really hard, I didn’t like it so much! It's easy for me to say London is amazing now, but coming from a (comparatively) quiet, relaxing city like Sydney, I found the change in lifestyle to be quite difficult.

Having said that, I would definitely advise anyone to experience some time living overseas. I think dealing with the change of moving to another country is a great way to deal with adversity in general. If you really want to go get used to it or develop a sense of resilience around change then there is no better way than moving to another country.