A vending machine meets the eye as you enter Nets' industrial-style Digital Lab. Red sofas and table football send out distinct non-corporate vibes while in the adjacent room someone has scribbled quadratic equations on whiteboards spread across three walls. Not a chair in sight.
"When you stand up, you interact, walk around and see things in a different perspective," explains Jan C. Plenge, SVP Digital Innovation at Nets, although he has not shied away from placing the odd armchair in the corner. Plenge has a 20+ years background within strategic and operational IT and is responsible for the Digital Lab.
While table football and soft drink machines go together like block and chain, this particular vending machine is not just there to keep the Lab's postgrads happy:
"We modify the Lab's food vending machine to test features such as face recognition or proximity payments. The machine represents a merchant and allows us to test out a myriad of potential payment acceptance technologies. Some will turn into a product or service, while others won't – sometimes you won't know until you've tried it," says Jan C. Plenge who seems to appreciate the playful aspect of modifying the instrument to test different payment methods.
The writing on the wall
The payment industry moves at a rapid pace with early adoption of digital technology in the Nordics. According to First Anapolis and Nets' own projections, the Nordic region will see a 4% average annual growth in Nordic electronic payment transactions in 2015-2020, with 79% of payments made in stores being card-based as early as in 20151.
"Understanding demands in the market - often user-driven - and being able to respond faster than the competition is a main driver for setting up our Digital Lab. This is a place where you can test new ideas that are not part of the daily work in the organisation and not necessarily part of the business plan – in fact, they may not have a use-case today but could be tomorrow's critical solution," says Jan C. Plenge.
“We work with blockchain much in the same way as we do with other innovation work carried out by the Digital Lab, testing it in various contexts. Some will turn out to be just what a bank or another customer needed, some will be of use to our own company, while other hypotheses will be impossible to carry out in real life. We won’t know until we try it,” says Jan C. Plenge, SVP Digital Innovation, Nets.
The Lab assists in qualifying and materialising ideas into proofs of concept designed and implemented into a non-production ready version. This is tested, for example, by the use of a virtual reality headset that provides immersive virtual reality for the wearer.
A team of many flavours
Most team members are postgraduates with a variety of academic backgrounds. Typically, they will work at Nets for 2-3 years before graduating, and while The Digital Lab is not a trainee programme as such, a positive spill-over effect, other than the product development in itself, could be a pipeline of experts with an inside knowledge of Nets and the needs of the company's customers and end-users, and indeed the organisation itself. Some may even base their thesis on the work they have done while at Nets.
"We had a student from DTU last year doing a bachelor project on Betalingsservice. He kept in touch, and this year I hired him as a postgraduate student for the Lab because he proved himself last year. He'll be writing his master's thesis in two years' time, and I know we've taught him well," says Jan C. Plenge with a smile.
 Sources: First Anapolis and Net. The number of card payments as a percentage of the total amount of consumer-to-business (C2B) payments in the region. In 2014, it was 77%.