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INSIDE MASTERCARD’S INNOVATION LABS

From smart phones to connected washing machines, MasterCard wants to lead us toward a cashless society. An interview with John Sheldon, MasterCard’s designated disruptor.

MasterCard is a technology company that has a long history of innovation. We pioneered the world’s first contactless and mobile payment solutions, and continue to bring to life safer, richer and more compelling shopping and payments experiences for consumers around the globe.

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There’s been plenty of buzz about the digital transformation of commerce, but for many it became a reality this holiday season with the emergence of Apple Pay as a seamless, secure way to shop with the tap of a smartphone. Considered as a taste of the “Internet of Things,” Apple Pay is helping to remake the way consumers interact with technology, businesses, and even each other.

Against the background of this digital revolution in how we pay for things — the most significant development since the introduction of plastic — MasterCard has created a Labs division where innovation rules. For John Sheldon, MasterCard Labs’ head of Innovation Management, the freedom to “be our own disruptor,” as he puts it, is nothing short of transformative. Sheldon sat down at the company’s sleek, humming technology hub in New York City’s Flatiron district to discuss his teams’ signature innovations – and share news about one of the boldest moves in MasterCard’s 50-year history.

In a nutshell, what is MasterCard Labs’ mission?

John Sheldon: Labs was created four years ago, to help us stay ahead of the changes in both payment and commerce. This company has a reputation based on tried and true processes, technologies that never fail, stability – all of the things that don’t play well with the process of innovation. We needed a space where we could safely innovate while protecting and growing the core business. Labs is charged with looking ahead three to five years, taking risks, failing smart, quick, cheap, and learning something along the way – and creating products that, ideally, we then share with the broader MasterCard community.

What’s an example of how “being your own disruptor” has seen tangible benefits?

Sheldon: MasterCard doesn’t just support innovation because it’s something we should probably be doing, or because others are doing it. We want to embed it in the company’s DNA. A great example of this is Qkr, a product that offers a glimpse into what a “world beyond cash” might look like.

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A smartphone payment app, Qkr grew out of one of our innovation events, a 48-hour contest called Innovation Express. We gather four teams — designers, developers, business people — and within 48 hours they have to define an idea, write a business plan, build a working prototype, and even make a video to pitch their product.

We’ve piloted Qkr around the world – at Yankee Stadium in the U.S., and in Australia at Gold Coast Suns Aussie football matches, for example, where fans order food and beer from their seats – and also in Australia for schools, where parents use their phones to pre-order their kids’ school lunches or buy uniforms and school supplies.

How are parents reacting to it?

Sheldon: Moms and dads have told us this is their favorite part of the week, snuggling with their kids and planning the week’s meals. It’s emotional for them, and it’s a chance to talk with their children about nutrition, health, technology, even finances and budgeting – all of these real-world things.

It’s also an example of how we’re improving consumers’ experiences before, during, and after transactions. The transaction has traditionally been MasterCard’s moment, and that moment has to remain secure – but we also want to surround it with great ideas and improved experiences.

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We’ve heard MasterCard say every device has the potential to become a commerce device. What do you mean by that?

Sheldon: That’s a mantra you’ll hear across our company, and I can give you two distinct examples that illustrate just how valid the notion is. First, there’s ShopThis! with MasterPass, which we recently launched with Allure magazine. ShopThis enables anyone to engage in what we call “in-context” purchases while reading Allure on any digital platform — whether mobile or desktop. The publisher can tag any page in the digital edition with a ShopThis! button. Products on that page are embedded in the app, and when a reader hits the ShopThis! button she finds multiple merchants, including Saks Fifth Avenue, selling items on that page. This is what we mean by in-context shopping. You’re reading about fragrances or makeup or shoes, and with ShopThis!, you can immediately buy one or more of those items — without leaving the magazine.

Another example would be the work we’ve done with Maytag Commercial laundry. Maytag came to us and asked if we could help improve the customer experience in laundry rooms and laundromats. After all, in 2014, why are people still using quarters to pay for washing their clothes? So Maytag Commerical’s people and ours got together, and in four-and-a-half days developed a way for people to pay for the use of washing machines and dryers with their phones and our digital wallet technology. Figuring out connectivity between a smartphone and a machine, making a secure payment, making the machine spin – together we solved for everything. Imagine knowing when a machine is available, getting alerts when you’re laundry’s done, and paying for it with an app.

We’ll be piloting this at laundromats in several cities, and hope to commercialize it widely next year. That’s how we use our Labs to partner and solve real problems and make consumers lives a lot easier.

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What’s the one transactional problem or scenario you’ve never been able to solve for, but feel could be a true game-changer?

Sheldon: Can I give you two? The first one involves solving for greater financial inclusion across the globe. People everywhere who live in poverty are trapped in cash-only economies with huge and often hidden costs, and I am personally excited about and happy to announce our seventh Lab opening up in Nairobi with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We’ll be exclusively focused on creating practical, affordable innovations that help people mitigate risks, plan for their futures, build wealth and, frankly lead better lives. I am thrilled about the challenges and the potential of this.

Closer to home, I also want to solve for giving the tip to the guy at the garage who brought my car back without a scratch – because it represents the barrier between where we are now and the cashless society we envision. It’s a personal moment. There’s an intimacy, eye contact, a “thank you.” That’s the pet problem I dwell on. I can’t think of anything harder. If we can solve for that moment – effectively, cashlessly – then we can solve for anything.

This article was authored by FastCo Works, Fast Company’s Content Studio.