Energy Transition Now - Episode 23 with Thomas Boermans
In this episode David spoke with Thomas Boermans, Head of Foresight at E.ON on the relatively new discipline of strategic foresight.
They consider the role foresight can play in organisations, and how E.ON embeds it into its strategic thinking and business planning. David and Thomas then focus their discussion on the E.ON Trend Radar; an initiative that looks at the themes and topics shaping the future of energy.
With 16 years’ of consulting experience in energy efficiency, renewable energies and climate strategies for companies, associations, national ministries and the European Commission, Thomas Boermans joined E.ON in 2016. He heads foresight activities within the group strategy team, working with innovation, business and strategy teams as well as with the E.ON Board and Supervisory Board on the mission of making E.ON future ready. Foresighting activities are shaped to provide insights on future opportunities and risks based on the analysis of technological trends and social drivers.
David Linen [00:00:00] Hello, everyone. I’m your host, David Linden, the Head of Energy Transition for the Westwood Global Energy Group. And you’re listening to Energy Transition Now. With the world changing so fast and essentially becoming more volatile. How do you stay focused on what really matters to be successful in the long term? To help answer that question and what we need to be thinking about in the energy sector, I have Thomas Boermans, the Head of Foresight at E.ON with me today. Welcome, Thomas.
Thomas Boermans [00:00:29] Hi, David. Thanks for having me here.
David Linen [00:00:32] Absolute pleasure. And as I always say, thank you. It’s down to people taking the time out of their busy schedules to tell us about their wonderful world, which is the great thing that we get to do on this podcast. Thank you. So to get us started, Thomas, you know, not maybe everyone kind of knows what a foresight function actually does. And of course, it’ll be slightly different in every company. So let’s start with the most obvious question. Essentially, what is it that you, and what is your function essentially, do.
Thomas Boermans [00:01:08] Yeah. Good. Good question. And maybe more difficult than you think, because there’s something we want to achieve. And that is also something we will come to later probably. And then there’s something we do. And then I was thinking, okay, that’s probably different than what we do actually, is that we anticipate what is coming ahead in the next 5 to 15 years. And provide actionable insights so that something can be done with it in collaborative formats. And we do that to support the management and innovation in business teams. So that’s what we do. And then let’s talk later of what hopefully comes out and what our experiences are.
David Linen [00:01:56] And it’s interesting, you actually wrote a blog not too long ago as far as I remember, and you mentioned something about consistency as well. So one of the benefits of foresight is consistency. I like that. And I just wonder whether you could maybe just explain that a little bit for the listener as well as to the benefit of foresight, is creating that consistency. And I don’t know whether that’s a fair question to ask you, but as you wrote about it, I thought I’d ask.
Thomas Boermans [00:02:23] I should have a plan about it. Yes, sure. Yeah. The consistency thing, it basically it’s very simple and not too different from what we do in our daily lives because like you compare it to driving in a car. Of course, there’s you look out of the front window and you look where where you going? But to be to really arrive safely where you want to go. You would also check the rear mirror, once in a while, you look left and right to not miss anything which is passing by or that you pass by. And so while looking ahead and looking what the road will be, in which turn actually you’re having a pretty much a 360 degree view and it’s a bit similar like I think if you jointly as all the employees of a company want to move that ship along with the management, with everybody working there. It also makes sense to look ahead. And that’s what we do is foresight, but we also look left and right and we also need to consider where we come from. Where do other players come from to really get a holistic picture? And that’s why I also say some people think foresight is only around looking ahead. It’s like steering the car again, of course, mainly you’re looking ahead, but you would do a big mistake if you would not consider all the other things around it. And that is creating a consistency that driving a car you hopefully have and driving a company. We and that’s also research showing that this consistency in throughout what you do how you see your journey and what you do to change it and move it to a path that will be successful for everybody in the future. And this consistency is quite helpful and foresight can be a part of delivering such a consistency. So that’s a bit of a story around that one.
David Linen [00:04:19] Great. Now that I think it’s important because people often get confused between what general everyday strategy is, “Here’s my five-year plan, here’s my three-year plan” versus what foresight can do and support in a company, right? In that sense. And I think when you and I have talked before. Your part sits under the strategy side of things within E.ON, but you do things maybe within that strategy department that not every other kind of average strategy person does. Is that fair to say? So you look at the world slightly differently.
Thomas Boermans [00:04:54] Yeah, that’s true. And there’s two elements on it. Let’s say firstly, we’re looking indeed more far ahead than usual. Let’s say strategy cycles too, usually strategy cycles would look like 3 to 5, maximum five years ahead and would make a plan. And of course, people also looked way beyond that, for example, in the energy world. Since many years, the 2050 targets for climate targets and so on play a role. And so people looked, of course, beyond these five years, but the actual planning and the focus was in the next in the coming years. With a very good reason, because that’s where you need to make the near-term mid-term decisions, how to steer the thing. But looking more beyond was also done. But at least I see that in recent years it’s like four or five years or so that the topic gained speed to really structurally look beyond this timeframe of five years. And that is something different because people all the time were thinking of the future. This is not the new part. The new part is probably or the new discipline that has been that is developed in the last few years is to do that very structurally and to think how it can be really impactful. So not only, let’s say nice pictures or so for inspiration, it’s also very important. I don’t want to play that one down, but if you’d only would be pictures, it will fall short of very important elements it can add.
David Linen [00:06:30] All right, so now we kind of got a bit of a sense of what foresight is about and how it sits within E.ON. And interesting to hear about the kind of, the, newness in some respects, I guess of, that concept. You yourselves as a business and yourself as a head of foresight and your team have recently I think it was the start of May please feel free to tell me if I may have got that date slightly wrong, but the start of May you published your first trend radar in that sense. Can you, you know that that is a visual in some respects but of course it’s built up with all that analysis that you guys have done around what you see going on out there. Now, I don’t want to talk about it myself. I want you to talk about it in that sense. So can you maybe just explain the what is the trend radar that you have pulled together? You know, what does it do? What’s the idea behind it?
Thomas Boermans [00:07:32] Yeah, the trend radar is one, as we call it, one of our anchor products. To summarise what is our view on the future on this next five, ten, 15 years. So it is not, let’s say, the only thing we are kind of doing, it’s the thing that makes it possible for us to discuss with others how we look at the future. Because at the future we are looking, let’s say, 24/7 more or less all year round. But the trend radar is something that we update once a year. Of course, if something happens major things in between, we would change that as well. But roughly so once, once a year, there’s a large update of how we see the world here. And it’s also important to say it’s yes, it’s the first version, let’s say that we put online on Eon.com. But actually we’re doing this since around four years. So there have been iterations internally before and it’s now that we decided, and we can come to the reasons later, we decided to put it also online to have it outside visible for other people. And yeah, basically the trend radar is such as, as a product, it kind of visualises what we see is really important topics, themes that we see developing in the next 5 to 15 years and that are of such an importance that we think at least we should care about these and form an opinion on how we should tackle these or go about these or even maybe do nothing about them. But to be clear, what we anticipate will happen in these areas.
David Linen [00:09:25] And for clarity, I guess, for folks who haven’t had the chance to look at it before, this is focused on the EU markets, if I’m rightly remembering that.
Thomas Boermans [00:09:36] Yes, exactly. So, as a company we are active in European markets, so not globally. And the trend radar as such focuses, let’s say, on developments that impact our business in Europe. That does not mean that there aren’t topics on which have a truly global aspect, and it’s actually quite a lot of the topics that have. But if there would be a topic which would be very important in one part of the world, but it would not have any meaningful relation to our European business or so we would not put it on the radar. But actually that’s in this connected world, it’s only little things which are, let’s say, that frame that they are just in one corner of the world. But basically our filter is also at the end, is it of any direct or indirect impact for us as a company? Because again, we’re aiming for impact. And if it would be stuff that would be reasonably interesting but not something that should change our course of actions as a company, it would at that point kind of distract.
David Linen [00:10:51] And I think you’re right, and I think this is one of the reasons I’m very interested in the foresight side of things is because the world has become more volatile, become more complex, become more interconnected. You know, ultimately, I guess it comes down to the question, how do you start to choose what goes on and what doesn’t go on? So you alluded to it a little bit there. And of course, that’s because we address the geographical side of things. But can you maybe just talk about, okay, so how do you take that entire world of everything in theory and go, okay, look, these are actually the things that are relevant and this is how I start to categorise things and talk about them. Yeah. If you’re not in, you know, I’ve talked to many sort of tech firms and they go, well, depends if business if there’s an S-curve, I’m going to put it on my top ten things to watch this year. And that’s the difficult thing here. You often see these are the top ten things now. And then you see someone who talks about things that no one’s ever heard of. And this almost sounds like it’s in between, but you haven’t put a framework around it. So how do you go about that kind of selection process as such?
Thomas Boermans [00:11:58] Yeah, let’s say before diving into that, I think it’s also interesting to quickly speak about why we were putting it out, let’s say, because that also explains a bit better how we pick and choose and what we do. And because actually, let’s say when we put it out, I got quite a lot of people reacting to it through different channels and happily most are actually everything was really positive and people were interested and found it a good initiative. But also there was quite some people who said people I did know already or I didn’t know or did know very well before, said, Hey, Thomas, why are you putting that out? And to me it sounded like, why do you put something out which seems of some value and why do you make that all available? I think the question was not in a way, Thomas, what have you put out? Let’s say that’s that. What have you done? So I interpreted or actually some people literally asked “So, okay, this seems to be interesting and to some extent valuable. So why is it out?” And actually, this is a good question because we ourselves have been thinking about that before. And I said, we’re doing this in four years, so let’s say for three years, the decision was to not put it outside or we didn’t even think of it. But now we put it out basically out of two reasons. One is we expect to get even more in exchange and sparring with other experts, which will challenge us on a certain trend or see the whole development differently or what have you. And that’s something that we think in so far it works like that, that we don’t get a shitstorm or so, which could also happen that someone doesn’t like a topic or sees it in a different place or so and would get nervous about it or so. But the directions we get is that people are interested or want to add something or have an opinion or say, “Hey, there’s something we see very important. How would that be reflected?” And so on. So we use it as something to, if you would like to put it that way, to get better in what we do. The other thing is that innovation today, and especially in our industry, we are always dependent on partners. You see, E.ON is not producing anything, basically, with maybe very little exceptions. We buy different stuff…
David Linen [00:14:40] Energy-wise you mean.
Thomas Boermans [00:14:41] Yeah. We’re not. The funny thing is, we are mainly. Let’s say we compile things. We have our electricity grids, we buy cables, we buy all kinds of stuff that then is being placed on on the customer’s premises and is producing energy or using energy or what have you or transporting energy. But we are not producing that stuff. That means that all the time we collaborate with partners. And at the same time, we also see industry lines blurring like between the electricity sector and the transport sector. With electric mobility kicking in. That’s impossible to do that without the other players, the car manufacturers and so on. And that means that and now the tough job starts that we do not only have to convince ourselves as a company to where developments might head to, which is difficult enough already, I would say. But in a way, we also need to convince other people to at least explore these routes together with us. And in that sense, it’s meaningful to put that out and start a discussion. And then, of course, the very details of it and what you decide or so that might be confidential decisions or contracts with other partners, what have you or so. But to think of the future alike or to see where we might clash or have super different views, that’s something we consider helpful in our innovation processes in the end, and that’s why we basically do it. And I said, so far, the feedback is good, but let’s see what we see in half a year or so. But we’re looking forward to that.
David Linen [00:16:31] Can I ask maybe a question that you are unique in doing this and sort of taking this foresight? I mean, you call that, you know, a trend radar, say similar sorts of things. You know, everyone has a different name, I’m sure, for it are you unique in publishing something like this. So everyone has an inside, you know, internal kind of version of this. But actually going out there, is this unusual, shall we say, or is it, a common theme in the industry? And it was just like, look, actually, it’s our turn if we want to be part of this, we need to get out there.
Thomas Boermans [00:17:09] No, very unusual and well, partly joking. It is not unusual to put out a radar or trend radar. Unusual are two things. Firstly, I’m not aware of many of these radars that are put out from the energy industry. So I’m aware of trend radars, let’s say, from innovation companies or consultancies that have radars on everything or very large parts. Yes, there is stuff, for example, in the mobility sector or so where other companies do that or in other sectors in the energy sector, I think we are more or less the only one that was also part of the thinking that we said, well, that’s not there, at least not from the energy field, or we didn’t see it. So we put it out but happy if we see others as well. And secondly, it’s different also because a lot of foresight radars or innovation radars, or tech radars, they look at, let’s say, all what’s out there and sometimes and they have a different purpose and that’s fine. But they’re to pick examples, they’re tech radars that look at like 50, 60 technologies that will be important over time, including 5G, IOT, Internet of Things, applications, what have you. And that’s all good. But our trend radars more focused. We have 16 topics on it currently and not 60. So yeah, that introduces a focus which on the one hand side helps us to get it impactful in the company. On the other hand, it’s a bit dare-devilish, I would say, because the likeliness of missing something important is of course bigger. And so in that way, let’s say being on the energy industry and being in a way that focused, I think that’s what makes it unique. While trend traders as such is a very common tool to be used in foresight and some companies or actors have moved theirs out. But the specific one, as it stands now in our case, is relatively unique I would say.
David Linen [00:19:30] It almost sounds like something like that should be part of know companies are listed, it should be part of the future, I don’t say the word risks because of course there are opportunities at the same time, but the way that people talk about themselves, you know, what are the things that are coming up that are going to impact our business? Beyond on the next cycle as such. You know, essentially these are the types of things we’re thinking about. And in some companies, it’s as big as the energy transition. You know, it’s like, oh, that’s really broad, great. It’s lots of stuff. But actually what you’ve always done there is, well, here’s a company’s view of the things that we’re thinking about that we think are going to impact us, but also the energy market as a whole. And what I’m hearing is, so let’s work together and help solve those to make sure we’re at the forefront.
Thomas Boermans [00:20:15] And then I think you as you said, let’s see what is the selection process then? And then? Then I allowed myself to make… No, but it didn’t forget the question. But yeah, let’s say we do the selection process in a way that it suits the purpose. That means we might change that any time that we think it should be done differently or so. But for the moment, we’re doing it in a way that we as I said, we’re constantly scanning, let’s say, actually reading a lot of stuff, actually talking to a lot of people internally and externally that that’s what we do all year round as a team. And then we have a kind of what we call a core team of teams within E.ON that we talk dedicatedly on the update of the trend radar. So it’s people from the R&D field, from the innovation field, from the digital team. So a handful of teams that also look at the future in their fields, but not necessarily for everything, that is more our job, let’s say. And together with these internal partners, we are better able to dig deeper, but also kind of agree on what are the main, main things, the most important stuff. And then actually we are we have a filter in the way. We’re seeking very broad to not miss too much, let’s say. And then we also have our thoughts in a way. So is it in any way impactful for our business? It can be directly or indirectly. And this filter still leaves a lot of stuff because not everybody is aware of what E.ON does, but what we are energy company was a big portion of running electricity grids and gas grids and selling also electricity and gas. But we also have broadband for, supplying or moving around data. We have the water business, we do district heating systems, we do energy efficiency projects. So in the end, there’s quite a lot of stuff that is still interesting for us in not only.
David Linen [00:22:30] You’re like a service company now, right? Yeah. If you don’t mind me interrupting there. Okay, cool.
Thomas Boermans [00:22:33] Exactly. So it’s it’s not only electricity and then after this filter as I said, there’s still a lot. But then we are actually thinking, okay, what, what is really move the needle. And there’s many things which are important for a country or certain business as part of a bigger business somewhere. But that’s the point where you usually say, okay, that’s important in some place, but at EU level, overall level, overall, corporate level, it’s not that important. And then we rather leave it out. So that is a bit the filter process and way how we come up with our topics and then it’s discussion like should the topic move closer to the here and now on the radar, should it be renamed because it’s a bit changed it’s notion in public or should the topic be added to it or even removed from the radar? That’s kind of very concrete stuff we are discussing in that group then.
David Linen [00:23:35] Yeah, okay. It’s actually quite a collaborative process. I mean, I guess you can’t do it in isolation, but.
Thomas Boermans [00:23:41] You better do not. Yeah.
David Linen [00:23:43] Yeah better not, not exactly. That’s. But I guess that’s the whole point. Okay. So look, I mean, we’ve talked a lot about the process, what foresight is, all these different things. But let’s maybe talk about the trend rate a little bit itself in terms of what’s actually telling us. And maybe if we start at that 100,000 foot level kind of level. Essentially, you know, once you’ve gone through that and you’ve selected your 16 or so trends. What’s the kind of overarching theme or themes that you do see coming out of there? What what what it’s telling us about, I guess, energy markets.
Thomas Boermans [00:24:23] Yeah, good. Good question. Actually, there’s stuff that the trend rader says and there’s stuff that a trader does not say. But we have different ways or different formats to talk about it. And I’ll explain. I mean, what the trader very obviously does. It says, look, these are very important topics or fields of action that we see and where we have formed an opinion about it. And then describe these. What are the trends, the drivers behind what could be road blockers? We also thinking, at least in the internal version, what does it actually mean exactly for E.ON and what should we take from it and things like that. So it is kind of yeah, it can introduce strategic search fields for innovation. So it’s in the end a quite actionable tableau of what are fields of action. And introducing this additional focus that I mentioned that it’s not the 60 but 16, so that we can and I can explain that later also how we work with teams very concretely with this trader. But that’s what it does. It shows these fields of action, of course, and we actually had recently a discussion also with people in management in the company who said, okay, now, like you said, what is the overarching story? And of course, the overarching story is a bit of a different thing because the overarching story where everything moves to that’s happening between these lines, let’s say. So as we progress into the future, these are the activity fields, but there’s stuff developing in between. And what we, for example, see is that due to the recent crisises we’re having around the pandemic, around increasing impact of climate change, around the war in the Ukraine, there’s, for example, stuff happening around new ways that the world is sorting in. Let’s say it’s a new, new world order, you could say. It’s also a lot of scarcities developing over the planet. We see that in the supply chains. Everybody has issues, but it’s getting a market political thing. And we are also assessing these kind of developments and deriving what is the impact on us and so on. But that happens in different formats and it can later come to that one because that would be something that you would not visualise in the trend radar. So in that way, the trend radar is a bit limited. Yeah, obviously it’s one tool. It cannot be everything but what it is, its strong point is, let’s say these actionable insights and certain topics that you then can directly address. And that’s also what we developed in the end when we set up the process and so on. Like five years ago we asked a lot in the company, what is it, what you need? And this was these actionable insights on what is it, what is the areas that we should work on probably, and why that was the strongest wish at that point. But the other things like where does this all where is the overall train going? Then that’s something we look at as well. And like mentioned, the multiple crises we’re now moving into and the overall scarcities it might produce also on very long term. That is something where we look, let’s say beyond these things.
David Linen [00:27:58] The worlds are both quite different but overlap in some way because everyone’s always looking for actionable insight within the crises or the change that’s happening. And so I guess having to overlay some of that and we can talk about maybe some of those, as you said in just a minute, but ultimately, what is that you can actually do is the interesting one. And, you know, for hopefully the people who are listening to this, they will go in on your website and or even Google, you know, E.ON Trend Radar and start to have a look at what some of those 16 are as provide, as you say, actionable insight. And actually, by the way, it’s very accessible. I like it. It’s a nice visual tool and you can go in and if you don’t understand, like I hadn’t really understood what quantum computing was until you watched a little video that you provided in a link. Can you describe what it is? It’s actually very helpful for some people like myself, who look at some parts of the energy industry but never thought about quantum computing maybe is it’s actually making a difference. And you’re saying it’s, you know, the next ten years? Well, that’s very soon, really, if you think about it, because every forecast, everyone does, at a minimum, it’s 5 to 10 years. Right. So it’s very interesting to see the impact of those sorts of things. But, you know. There are different ways that you’ve categorised it. I mean, maybe if you just briefly could talk us through you’ve got the, you know, the futures of etc. so you’ve got those different categories and then you’ve got the different 16 different areas in there. Could you maybe just describe the sort of I think it’s the four segments or so as far as I remember of the radar. And then maybe we can pick off one or two of the specifics within that to understand. Okay. So there’s some really near-term things. What are those and some really much longer terms, all of those, and how are they going to impact the world to be interesting, just to pick a couple of examples.
Thomas Boermans [00:29:54] Yeah, let’s say on the radar as it’s structured. I think the most important thing is that it’s structured in three horizons, as we call it, which is also the general, we didn’t invent that, that’s a general term for these kind of radars. But we have three of them, let’s say, for the next five years, 5 to 10, 10 to 15. And we place the stuff, the topics on them where we think that these themes have a really major impact in the market. So not when they’re first time invented or seen in a lab or so, because all of them are basically already there in one or the other way. But the moment in time where we think, okay, that is where it will get really impactful in the market. And the other thing is that we also say we’re not looking at, like said before, a single technology or so, but we look at topics where there’s usually with some exceptions, but usually there’s a certain need for something. Then there’s a technology to address this need. And then there’s typically also some regulation, policies or what have you around it so that it’s not a single topic. You don’t find IOT on the radar, but you find stuff, and we can come to that, like the hydrogen race because that already the term how it’s phrased gives a message. And it was actually called differently before, before we said it would be let’s say the measure to address hard to abate sectors at the very end of the energy transition or towards the end of the energy transition. And this has changed, let’s say, and our view on it has changed. And it turned actually into a hydrogen race where people now are following after it and have massive, let’s say, activities or develop massive activities, the activities to do so. And that’s that makes the topics, let’s say, kind of actionable field and not just a single technology. And then finally, the four sections. Yeah. On the one hand side, they look nice. We can use four different colours. Admittedly, it also structures a bit the radar, and for us it’s important. On the upper left side, you see future of society. So to make people aware, okay, this is not only energy, not only tech. We look into the future of lives. So how do people live? And so on. Then obviously future of energy and future of work is a bit different. It is, let’s say, all around how we work, but also production, industry, stuff like that. But honestly, let’s say a lot of topics are having, interaction or are should appear in maybe two or even three or even all of these fields. And we are placing them in the one that is most obvious for us. So it helps a little to structure, but we should not typically I say let’s not get too academic about it or so. And it’s not a drawer where it’s in, and it could not escape or so, but it’s a first try to structure a bit the source. And I said the more important differentiation is on which horizon of the thing is really far away, or is it something we should assume could come pretty, pretty soon?
David Linen [00:33:21] Okay. And look, I think your near-term ones are essentially new customer interfaces. Trust in the metaverse and the H2 race. I think your three most you know nought two five the next five years or so. But you touched on the H2 and I am particularly interested in that because of course, in my day to day job, that’s you know, that’s part of the topic I’m dealing with a lot because precisely because people are thinking something’s going to happen in the next five years. In fact, yeah, some would argue it’s already happening. Others would say, no, it’s a 2030 story. So as the interesting debate around that, well, I really felt very interesting was your description as to how it changed this topic for you in terms of the industrialisation, sorry, the decarbonisation, essentially industry to it being an H2 race. And I guess it may be interesting to hear your thoughts about this. When we look at it maybe just as a context, why I’m asking the question is, is, there is still that debate around the a) the different colours of hydrogen, of course, there are multiple colours, but there’s also the concept of CCS out there, which essentially I would argue competes with hydrogen in some of these industrial decarbonisation concepts. And I’ve seen companies, go in and go, “Right, so how do I decarbonise what I’m doing now?” Of course, if you start to get to each individual industry, you can have a debate about which technology is best for that particular thing, etc. But there is still a bit of umming and ahing between those worlds. And essentially is it a bit of both, you know, is it a combination, etc.? Rather than just being H2. Now H2, I agree with you as a concept is, well, about to be big in that respect. But is that especially if are focussed on Europe here, is that not a combination with carbon capture or was there a reason, you sort of, I’ve noticed I think you’ve not got carbon capture in here at all. Unless I’m misunderstand, there’s no carbon capture in here. It’s very much an H2 story. Can you maybe just explain the background as to how that sort of change happened and why the H2 race, in your mind is?
Thomas Boermans [00:35:33] Indeed, we see this as separate topics that are linked. Of course, we have the carbon capture thing would be in this negative emission business that we have on and on the lower left. But let me explain around the hydrogen, because I think that is a that is a topic where you see how, in my view, important it is to look at the development of things and not just what we have here and now. And with hydrogen, for example, I would depict the story as follows. And I’m jumping around since, oh my God, 20 years in the energy industry. So the good thing is that for some of this stuff, I know how the discussion developed and who was driving it and why and how that changes also. And hydrogen is a good example, how the notion about it changed, while the thing as such was always the same. So the first thing is the technology is quite old. To use electricity and electrolyser to produce hydrogen is very old technology, is by no means something, something new. And it was indeed, let’s say, since a long time, it was always part of scenarios like of the International Energy Agency or the International Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, and that they said at some point in the decarbonisation roadmap we will need hydrogen or derivate of it, because there’s quite some sectors where it’s difficult to think of an electrification, think of very high temperature processes in industry or specifically where you need hydrogen, which is now most of the time developed from natural gas, which is split up. And if you need hydrogen, it’s not a good way around it to use electricity or so if you need the product. But also in other applications, like if you think of air transport or so, it’s difficult to think of a plug that is behind just a cable behind the aeroplane. And of course batteries could be used, but they are relatively heavy. And so for more heavy air transport, also, a lot of people think, including myself, okay, there are not many ways to do it or I cannot think of reasonable ways to do it without something like a power fuel. So a fuel which is developed from hydrogen or directly hydrogen. So it was always there and they said at a certain moment we will need that. But in the market, it was very clear that this, let’s say green hydrogen produced from electricity and electrolyser was all the time more expensive than hydrogen just developed, cracking up natural gas. And there was no vision that this would ever change in a way. So normally in the old times you would lean back and say, “Hey, it will never be competitive. It will not come.” The point is that quite some people thought, including myself, that basically hydrogen is too nice a silver bullet for politicians to resist, and out of good reasons, they’d say, because policies were all the time asked. Okay, please show us what is the way now to a decarbonised society and industry and please lead the way. And typically policies says are difficult to say you know better let’s make it technology neutral and you invent and compete. And it will be a world of full of invention and competition, good prices for customers. It’s not a bad idea, let’s say. On the other hand, you also need to present solutions. And for these hard to abate sectors before introducing hydrogen, really as a policy measures, it was not really clear what else you would use. So it was also clear that at certain moment we need to introduce hydrogen in one or the other way. And for policies, as I say, it’s a very alluring thing. And that’s what we saw already three or four years ago with that we said, hmm, it’s a technology that is viable. It’s there since ages. So one thing. Secondly, it’s a technology which allows shipping around the product over the world. So it allows fuel imports into Europe. And it is foreseeable that we will need more green energy than we can produce in Europe ourselves. So we need something to ship around. And hydrogen is nice because they’re no big incumbents. Let’s say that the commissioner or someone else would just push because basically it’s new for everyone. That’s not completely true because some are more advanced or are in a better position to address it. But basically, it’s a new field. So I think for policy, it was a way to address all these difficult areas with one measure or one idea and opening up a field which is free for everybody to compete and invent. And I all the time had the feeling that this is so alluring in a way that if something happens. It will come. And the thing that did happen was the pandemic, where then the economy was in trouble and the idea was, okay, we should put in money and support schemes and have a green grows out of this crisis. And that is where, let’s say a bigger funding scheme and so on were put up to develop something like that, to have a green growth. And that is a bit the in my view, the story behind it, let’s say, and it’s not necessary to seed exactly like that to do something. Now, it’s also not absolutely important to know about all the history or so. But I think thinking of that and having this kind of development in mind helps also to understand a bit better what are the interests of the different parties, who does what. And that also makes clearer, maybe for us as a company where the sweet spot, where is it that we can bring in ourselves in that in that process? So that’s the story about hydrogen, which is on the one hand side, a ubiquitous or how would you say it’s everywhere in these days? But people look at it sometimes as a very new or fancy thing which it basically, isn’t. It has quite a trip behind it.
David Linen [00:42:16] Yeah. I think if I was to look at the news flow that comes out there, it also takes over most of the news flow these days. So it is sometimes about, you know, I agree with you, you know, it’s ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. It has potential and it seems to have a lot political will. And, you know, the RePower EU kind of concept that’s just come out as well essentially reinforces if not accelerates that even. Right. So that’s brilliant. The question is what’s real within that, what’s actually happening and those things. And that’s not necessarily your job, Thomas, but maybe more, by job, in some respects, trying to help my clients work out the difference between marketing and reality of today in some respects.
Thomas Boermans [00:43:01] Yeah, maybe just to add to and we should not go into discussion now of what it will happen exactly and when it will come or so. But I think, let’s say when you think of the development of the topic as just explained, I think it’s also gets clear that it is a bit more than a straw fire in a way, because it offers a kind of real solution at the end. So that makes it different from other straw fires, which are just hype. But in the end you think, well, it doesn’t really help. In the end, it maybe helps now or appears to help now then this is a straw fire. Doesn’t mean that it could not, you know, go down again out of some reasons or so, but let’s say different from other hypes. I would say it is really substantiated or it has a very strong basis I would say. But also to be said, it is one out of 16 topics we have on the radar. So what we are also saying is boys and ladies, there’s also something beyond hydrogen that we need to keep an eye on and also not forget. And that’s also, I think, at least for us, an important function of the radar to not forget things, because sometimes you have the feeling all this all the time, new stuff or so. And then we say yes sometimes, but actually some things really just travel, you know, and the radar is also a way to keep track of that and not forget about the other stuff that might have a little less limelight.
David Linen [00:44:31] Well, the problem we always have on these podcasts is we forget about time and time is flying. So maybe, and completely my fault for asking all the questions, Thomas. But look, I mean, maybe if we start to skip a little bit ahead that in terms of some of the other topics, just very briefly, maybe you’re right, there are other things going on. What in your mind though is maybe your top one or two most disruptive things that you’ve seen as it just you can kind of toggle between things that have gone down and important things. Are they neutral and things that are rising importance and actually both of them are rising in importance. So you might go like, okay, I got I’ve actually that’s a tough one to answer, David. But, you know, I like quantum computing, for example, because it’s not something I was as much aware of and potential sounds huge, but will it be quite nuanced and specific? But maybe it’s a more holistic side of things. Is it the new Cold War that you talked about? Is it, you know, the the the new customer interfaces or those sorts of things? I know it’s hard to pick one, but maybe to give folks a flavour is kind of a timeline. But there’s also disruption as such. Is there one or two that you would really highlight? And maybe, why?
Thomas Boermans [00:45:47] Timing of course, we should keep it in limits. The good news is we are not out of this world and the trend radar is still there. So we people can go to that. But yeah, also to make it pinpointed here. Let’s talk about the how we see quantum computing in its application because as we said, we’re trying to see as if the technologies in their environment and what they do. And they’re I must say, on quantum computing, I in my view, I underestimated that for 2 to 3 years or so. And what really made me change my mind, at least on my side, was that I was digging deeper into a very simple thing. And the thing was before, I underdstood, yeah ok quantum computers will be faster. Yeah, okay. And how much faster? And then I looked that up and let’s say in full, if it’s full fledged quantum computing with all the effects, it’s like 100 million times faster than normal computers to date. And even today, let’s say as we speak, they’re kind of quantum like computers that are offered not that own one and have it in your in your living room or so. But you can send questions to larger companies that have one. They will let the thing run and send you the results. So it’s also not that far away. That is one message. The other thing, it is 100 million times faster. And then I thought, okay, if if you have a car and its runs 200 kilometres per hour and mine 100, it would be factor two, two times faster. And of course on the German Autobahn you would just pass me very, very rapidly. So if your car would be ten times faster, it would be a thousand kilometres per hour. So that is like let’s say we’re like a very speedy aeroplane already. That is very fast. And that was factor ten now. Now think of factor hundred million. That is really incredible. And for the fun of it, I made a calculation. It’s about the difference in speed between a rocket which you go to the moon or so. And how do you say it’s a snail, this little animal. A snail moving on.
David Linen [00:48:16] The difference between the two of those?!
Thomas Boermans [00:48:17] Yeah. And the point is that the rocket to go to the moon, it’s not that fast that you reach your appointment in time on the moon or so. That’s not the point. It is that fast to basically escape the gravity of the earth which the snail will never be able to do, although it will not appear on the moon. I can see you and I imagine the snail who with the astronaut helmet or so. But that’s just an example to make clear that we’re talking about not something faster, but you can do completely new things. And on the energy field, for example, you now use or steer the networks to balance supply and demand. And that’s difficult because it’s a lot of data and typically you can do analysis and run computers and then. Some developments happened in two or three days later. You find out that in these cases or in that specific case, it would have been good to do this so that with quantum computing, you can basically do that or know it ad hoc. It’s a real time calculation of what could you do best? And that offers incredible new things. But I said, beyond that, there’s so much more that we cannot even think of because like, we would have that speed on earth, let’s say, comparing it with how we move. We could be anywhere on the planet in a fraction of a second, and that would not allow us to travel more conveniently or so. But it would offer completely new business models, activities, way of lives and for something which is so woven into everything we do, like digital, such an amplifier or how you would call it, would make a tool digital, which is already strong today much, much, much, much stronger. And that is, of course, something where, even I saw a bit around it. And even still I think, Oh my God, what is it that we can do in energy and beyond? So I think that will be a real, real disruptive game changer. But once again, one of the few ones that you could see.
David Linen [00:50:28] I agree and, I guess for a company like E.ON, where ultimately service and infrastructure, the core of what you do. Imagine doing that with a quantum computer or quantum. Right. As I said, time is flowing. But look, you know, there’s also a lot happening in the world as we speak. I think not long ago, the 100 day mark or so of the Russia Ukraine conflict passed. And that’s obviously a major disrupter what’s going on. And you talk also about the kind of multiple crises that are happening in this time. You know supply chains, scarcity, etc. does literally what’s been happening as you published the trend radar, if you don’t mind me asking this, Has that changed something already in your mind? I mean, essentially, I’m assuming this is almost like you put it in time, but of course, the minute you publish it, it’s out of date because that’s the reality of the world we live in right now. But there is a more fundamental change going on in the world, it seems. What is your sense of maybe a) what’s going on in terms of the enormity of it and b), how much of a shift change we’re therefore seeing and how that impacts the trend radar right now. It’s an enormous question. We could probably have a separate whole conversation. But I also ask you for your sense on that. That would be useful just to hear.
Thomas Boermans [00:51:49] Yeah, true. Yeah, it’s an important question and it highlights a bit the trouble that that foresighters are in, that the world is moving all the time, let’s say, and you need to keep track. On that one, let’s say the story unfolded like this, that the war happened earlier this year, let’s say before we published the trend radar, and we more or less had to decide whether we change it now or not, anything on it. And the answer is yes and no. So no on the short term. And that’s how we put it out, let’s say. So it did not differ from exactly the sort that we had in January or so. But the point is that this will change in now in the update that we will do during summer now, because obviously such events are not without consequences and the consequences are super severe on first hand where the people suffer in that war. But secondly, of course, also around the globe with specifically on energy, of course. Now the point coming up, okay, how could we reduce the dependency from Russian gas, Russian oil? And that has indeed started to accelerate things. I’m saying started to. So we were confident in putting the radar out as is. But it will. For example, the topic of hydrogen has of course, been accelerated because it is one way out, let’s say, of its dependencies from fuel imports from any or from fossil fuel imports from Russia, but also from anybody else or any other countries. But of course, it needs to be shaped well because it will develop new dependencies. I don’t know where this is being produced somewhere else in the world, but it will partly be the same countries. Could be that it could also be new countries that weren’t famous for exporting energy. So and all of this accelerates, of course, the developments around hydrogen with the escape route, let’s say, from natural gas and or oil, but also topics like, I don’t know, the renovation. It’s also an important topic we have here, a topic which is super powerful but also locked up in not being that effective as it could be because it’s also difficult to upgrade a building. And still it’s rather yeah, it’s a bigger investment. You don’t do that with your just out of pocket money. But there are many solutions. But it’s also, let’s say, changing built environment, which is already there since many years. But we also see here and that’s a very good thing also to combat climate change, that, of course, now people are thinking, okay, how can I get rid of the oil or gas heating? And also because of climate change, but also with a view to maybe oil or gas, not the best thing. And it accelerates developments around deploying heat pumps, insulating homes and the like is has not accelerated it yet that fast, unfortunately. But that’s something that I would also see coming in the next years.
David Linen [00:55:13] Well, I look forward to your update over the summer on this. I do have one final question in terms of how do you take something like this? And, you know, we’re having a good conversation here, and I’m sure you have good conversations internally, but you talk about actionable insight. As well. So how do you take what you’ve got here and then literally turn that into what let’s be blunt, actual insight as such like and people using that insight to action.
Thomas Boermans [00:55:41] Know that that’s good and also good with don’t stop the podcast here because if we would also in real life stop here, as you say, we would have a nice conversation or interesting. But yeah, what now and without impact it’s maybe it would be a hobby, but of course we want to have this impactful. And for that, basically we’re trying to be very customer centric. Customer centric for us means we have internal customers who could or should or would like to, work with such kind of thoughts and information? And basically we do several things. I focus on two, which are also, let’s say, maybe the most powerful versions we have. So one is we providing this kind of information to the board and supervisory board. Like roughly once a year. And let’s see what we do there is we make a very compact report, ten pages, not, not 11, not 12, ten, or maybe we manage nine, but typically it’s ten. We do this now in three or four years, and it describes the updated trend radar embedded in something we call it 360 view on the market developments around it. So to also show that it’s not only the future, but the future is embedded or around this market developments that are happening and a lot of what’s happening in now, you see glimpses of where things will go to. And that is a way where we have this compact report and we discuss it together with the board and supervisory board in an online or in person meeting. And that is a way to, to bring this information to the board and supervisory board, including something that we call a strategic early warning. So there’s stuff that we specifically want to highlight and say, hey, look, this is something that might be dangerous or a super opportunity that we should not miss and mainly risk. And chances are just the two sides of the coin. And that’s the way I mean, these people, they’re used to read contact reports. They are used to discuss something very pinpointed. So what is now the conclusion? And we fine tune it to that. And the other part is where we work with business or innovation teams and there we develop the kind of workshop format and it’s almost stupidly simple. We, we look at, for example, the innovation portfolio of the innovation team and we compare that with the topics on a trend radar. We compare it with our thoughts on, uh, future customer demands, customer drivers and the E.ON strategy. So it’s a very, let’s say what strategy people do. They compare portfolios and then you end up with graphs like, okay, this upper right area would be a very good fit and a very attractive market. So what are we doing here? And in this kind of way, we come out, we have a discussion about all of that, the trend radar and so on, but it ends with something like, okay, and having thought around this, you could shift your portfolio in this direction, maybe do this less, do this more, enter a new field. And that is a very tangible strategy outcome portfolio management, that is something which is done since ages in strategy and we kind of make the foresight an input or integral part of that. And that’s two very different ways. It wouldn’t work for the board, by the way. They would not want to go in such workshop and the ten pages report would not be suitable for the innovation teams. But it’s good to do both because that’s maybe a final conclusion before I talk too long about that, because that’s something we focus a lot around because we want that impact. But it’s actually also important we do both because the innovation teams, they’re of course even more interested in what we tell, if we can say that we have an alignment and discussion with the board around it, because even if it would be true and we would be the best foresighters in the world if the management doesn’t follow. It’s also for innovation. They would not get the okays for their stage gate processes in innovation or so. So they need that buy in as well. And same goes for the board, of course. They also ask us, “Hey, sounds interesting. Have you talked to the innovation guys and ladies?” And we say, “Of course”. So it’s also, yeah, very important to do both things. But yeah, there’s also more you can do in terms of impact in a company because as I said, compared to other disciplines, it’s this foresight or strategic foresight is relatively new. And while we have developed some stuff that works for the moment for our company, I’m sure there’s so much more to learn. And that’s why we are also interested in any kind of exchange, not only on the topics of the radar, but also how to make it impactful, how to make it really useful and actionable in the end.
David Linen [01:00:46] So you’ve got some good internal, but I would say also external customers, right? So the fact you’ve now put the radar out there, folks are going to be engaging with you all, hopefully even more than you have already, so. But look, I mean, anyone should go onto the website, have a look, it’s there and probably well, I don’t want to put your name on it. I would say reach out to you if they’ve got questions, Thomas. But I certainly found it fascinating and our conversation as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk us through that. Talk us through about essentially what foresight is, but also how your trend radar works, the value it provides and how you can implement it as well. So I really appreciate you talking to us.
Thomas Boermans [01:01:30] Thanks to you as well was fun.
David Linen [01:01:33] And thanks everyone for listening as well. I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. Please do subscribe. Give us a good rating and share with your friends. Thanks very much.
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