Today with Thomas Boermans, Head of Foresight at E.ON and passionate Energy Transition Manager. In his role at E.ON, Thomas develops foresight based on trend and technology developments and provides strategic guidance to capture future opportunities and risks.
Thomas takes us on his mission to think, plan and implement the energy transition - at scale! We learn more about impactful trends in energy and whether we are on the cusp of the next energy revolution. He also points out why E.ON, as one of the world's largest private energy service providers, needs foresight and how it is changing the way the company invests in growth opportunities. Also, if you want to know what Thomas' secret tip is for making foresight a real game-changer in companies, stay tuned for the next 30 minutes.
Below you will find the full transcript for the episode.
3 megatrends driving the energy transition
Chris: Hi, and welcome back to the Innovation Rockstar interviews. My name is Chris Mühlroth, and in this episode, I am thrilled to welcome Thomas Boermans from E.ON. Thomas is an energy transition expert and manager with exceptional insights and a network among manufacturers, energy companies, consultancies, associations, NGOs, and governments in Europe. And his passion is to think, plan, and implement the energy transition at scale. I would say this is spot on and an incredibly important topic in these times. So Thomas, thanks a lot for being my guest on this episode.
Thomas: Thanks for the invitation, Chris. Looking forward.
Chris: Alright, so we will kick things off with a 60-second introduction sprint about you, your career, and your role at E.ON. So for the next 60 seconds, the stage is yours. Let's go.
Thomas: I am Thomas Boermans. I'm five years with E.ON now. At E.ON, I'm heading the foresight activities within corporate strategy. And before doing so, I spent 16 years in consultancy around energy efficiency, renewable energy, and climate policies. I did so for associations, companies, national governments, and the European Commission. And in my private life, I have a family, and I'm trying to play football as often as I can.
Chris: Alright, that was spot on. Thanks. Next, here are three sentence starters for you, and I would like you to complete them. Number one: To me, foresight is…
Thomas: The effort to build a bridge into the future that we can walk over.
Chris: Great answer. Number two: I believe in what we do at E.ON because...
Thomas: At E.ON, we're working at the heart of the energy transition—an endeavor that is as pressing as it is meaningful. I think we're spot on and in the right corner there.
Chris: Definitely. Thanks. Lastly, number three: We can dramatically speed up the global energy transition if…
"If we consistently combine our views on the future—where we need to head to and step by step building the roadmap for the energy transition—in the end, we believe we will get there."
Thomas: If we consistently combine our views on the future—where we need to head to and step by step building the roadmap for the energy transition—in the end, we believe we will get there.
Chris: Yes, all for consistency. I like that. Perfect. True words. Thomas, I'm pretty sure you are familiar with Kondratiev waves, right? This is a concept proposed by and named after the Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratiev, someone in the 1920s. And Kondratiev essentially described three phases: expansion, stagnation, and recession. According to this concept, each wave includes a technological revolution, such as the steam engine, railroads and steel, electrification, automobiles, and information technology. Each wave lasts somewhat between 45 and 60 years. Here's my question for you. The question is, in your opinion, are we at the beginning of such a new wave? And if so, will an energy revolution possibly be that new supercycle wave?
Thomas: Yeah, I would say definitely we can call it one of these waves. I would only say we're not at the beginning. Actually, when I started working on the energy transition—that was in the year 2000—then it was really about pilot projects [and] demos. Now, for a few years, it's only around scale—ramp up and massively get the impact done. And then, in the end, in 2050, we all together hopefully have done it right. But it could indeed be such a cycle over such a long period. By the way, there's also a term called capex supercycle—capital expenditure supercycle—which the energy transition is connected to. There is the anticipation that we need massive investments over a longer period in energy infrastructure for the transition. And just to show the complexity: that's not the only thing we need to do. There's infrastructure like roads, there's telecom, there's water. So there's even much more than energy, which is already a big challenge. That doesn't make things easier, I would say.
Chris: It definitely does not make things easier. Talking about the future, what are some of the current and most impactful trends in energy? Apart from the typical ones such as renewable energy—which, by the way, my personal opinion is this is actually a misleading term because you cannot physically renew energy. But anyways, what are the current and most impactful trends you see [in the energy sector]?
Thomas: In the energy world, I would say it's sustainability. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it's not only renewable energy; it's all the concepts of sustainability, including the value chains and things like that. This is something that drives the customers, really. It's, for example, about using heat from industry for cities. Secondly, we think that convenience is a super big topic. It's the convenience of using energy services, not only for private clients but also for companies to perfectly fit [these services] into their business environment. For example, digital assistance that helps you buy and use energy services. And certainly, it's about resilience. We've now seen many occasions where the resilience of systems seems to no longer be a given. If we think of the energy infrastructure, it needs to be resilient against hacker attacks, pandemics, storms, and the like. This is a value that comes very clearly these days. Altogether, these three trends will lead to certain products and services that we believe will help address these trends.
Chris: That's true. Now let's turn to E.ON. With E.ON being one of the major public utility companies in Europe and the world's largest investor-owned energy service provider, I think the majority of the audience may still think that E.ON's business is mainly around electricity from classical nuclear power plants. Is that actually still true?
Thomas: No, it's not. We are indeed winding down the nuclear activities according to Germany's exit plan. But the real focus of our company [comprises] two pillars. It's, on the one hand, the so-called energy networks business. You could call this the backbone of the energy system with the electricity and gas grid. And the other is, as we call it, the customer solutions, which is our sales activity on electricity and gas. It's also activities like charging for electric mobility, heat networks for cities and buildings, and heat recovery used in the energy industry or efficiency projects. So it's a wider range of things and by no means the old world that some might know.
Foresight at E.ON
Chris: To me, it sounds like E.ON now already knows what's important in the future. Let me ask a somewhat provocative question: Why does E.ON actually need foresight or foresight capabilities?
Thomas: Good question. Once you think that all of these focuses are already there. But actually, while the main route is already clear, there are still so many answers open. Even if we form the backbone of the energy transition and if we work at the intersection with our customers in these energy services, which kind of services will grow? Which ones will not be in demand? What are possible disruptive developments that could occur? What is the stuff we should actually put our bets on in contrast to doing everything just a little? On these forward-looking questions, the company not only wants a once-off analysis but a constant picture that evolves over time and provides understanding. That's what we're here for.
Chris: It sounds like there is certainly a large chunk of continuity to that. Let's dig a bit deeper into the foresight journey at E.ON. Can you tell me when did it all start?
Thomas: It was around four years ago that we started with these activities at E.ON. It wasn’t the first time someone was thinking about the future of energy; that was done all the time. But that was the moment when a clear approach was in question and set up. That's when we started to structurally work on [foresight].
Chris: How did you get started? What were the first steps, the first capabilities that you actually brought to the company?
Thomas: On the one hand, it's a solid expertise on the energy transition that I brought in when I started in this position. The other thing is a strong customer orientation. I learned that a lot in consultancy, that we really focus on the customer. In this case, it's the internal customer. And the third thing is that I was already for one year within E.ON—so knowing a little bit about the company and a few of the ins and outs.
Chris: Yeah, that gives you a great head start. Thomas, some guests at the Innovation Rockstars show told me that when they started out, not only with foresight, but actually with a structured approach and setting up all the processes and organizational units behind that. They told me often they started with some kind of a rogue unit. They had to convince a lot of people that this is actually the right thing to do. Was it the same in your situation, or did you already get a kickstart and get enough resources from the beginning?
Thomas: On my side, it indeed was maybe different than I heard from various colleagues in that area. In our way, the function was already created, and they were looking for someone who would set up a small team and approach to do foresight at E.ON. And I got the job. Then the challenge was to prove that we can really add value. So it wasn't without challenges, even if there was a head start.
Chris: Can you talk about some of these challenges that you had to overcome? How did you go?
Thomas: I would say there were quite a few challenges because we started the activities from scratch. You need to do more than fill this position on paper. Maybe you even have a [business] card, but if it says “foresight” or something like that, it doesn't mean that you are. The point is that you need to fulfill that and live it in daily life together with your colleagues. The other thing is that we also ran into some troubles or things that just didn't work. For example, in the beginning, we thought, OK, if we look at the future, maybe our job is to put forward ideas to the innovation team for what they could work on. Sounds pretty logical if you look at the future of energy. But ideas are what innovation teams have themselves. So there wasn't a lot to gain [with that approach].
"If the innovation team hits the collective view of the future and can make a clear connection to company strategy with their ideas, they’ll get a tailwind in the organization to succeed."
Then, we thought, we probably need to cooperate or [conduct] joint deep dives. But we recognized we were drawn into the work of the innovation teams, and we couldn't really add much of a different angle [than them]. So after some discussions, we found out that [the innovation teams] were rather interested in checking their ideas against the company strategy and the view of the future of the company. If the innovation team hits the collective view of the future and can make a clear connection to company strategy with their ideas, they’ll get a tailwind in the organization to succeed. That's super meaningful. But it's a more strategic approach to foresight, and that's what we then turn to.
Chris: So the innovation teams do not want you to be the ideators and the ones telling them what to do, basically. That's an interesting perspective. Let's dig a bit deeper into that and also what foresight looks like at E.ON today. Let's get into some of the nitty-gritty details. For example, how do you decide what to look at and what not to look at? This is the discussion between scanning too wide for outside information or scanning too narrow. How do you decide what to look at?
Thomas: Good question. An important question because, obviously, if you Google for energy, you get billions of hits. No way [you can] read through all of these. On the other hand, the company relies on us to do an early warning [scan] to find new fields. What we decided is to first [scan] quite broadly. We look into many press, social media, the typical energy newsletters, academia, and what have you. We also use energy or information platforms around venture capital and the like. And all of this we do to form a bigger basis, but with a more rough view. Then we decide what has a relation to E.ON and our business. This narrows down the funnel already a lot, but it's also important to know that E.ON, for example, has a glass fiber business, data, and water business. So there's a lot we still look at. What we then narrow down [based on] what we assume can be really impactful—not changing a bit the habit in sub business X, Y, Z, but what could really turn around the energy transition, make it move, hamper it, accelerate it, what have you.
Chris: So it's about the bigger and the medium and long-term questions. I get that. But how do you form your opinion? How do you reach a consensus?
"It is important to first, without judging, understand why people do things or make certain decisions. With that understanding, we can form an opinion."
Thomas: Let's split that in half. We form our opinion by looking a lot into the why. Sometimes, people ask me, “Thomas, what is happening in the future?” And I say, whoops, nothing's just happening. It's people who do it. It's you and me. It's other people who make decisions, start or stop things. So when forming an opinion about development in the [energy] transition, we want to understand the why. Who is doing what, with whom, or avoiding someone else or securing a certain position? There are a lot of underlying things that play a role. It is important to first, without judging, understand why people do things or make certain decisions. With that understanding, we can form an opinion. On the consensus part, we're discussing a lot, actually. We discuss in the team. We discuss with other teams in E.ON. There's the regulatory team. There are other people who look into strategies of certain parts of the company, the innovation teams, people in R&D. So we do that. Then finally, we have a foresight circle within the company with whom we discuss the updates of the trend radar and stuff like that. Then, finally, we have the board and supervisory board with whom we discuss the stuff we present. All of that leads, in the end, to an opinion that has a broader basis than just some fancy ideas we did in an afternoon.
Chris: Addressing the foresight circle real quick. Who actually has a chair in the foresight circle
Thomas: That's the R&D people from energy networks. It's people and teams from the digital side at E.ON who work on digital projects. It's also what we call R&T—research and technology—who look into technology developments. That is the core team we're having there. And there are wider teams around that with which we are also in regular contact, but [who are] not in this core group.
Chris: OK, got it. Now, let's focus even more. So, now you've reached a consensus. How do you move on from there? How do you generate real insights for E.ON for the future derived from those trends?
Thomas: I think it's again the point that we need understanding. Without understanding, it's just information: this and that happened, this is about to happen, or some people have a [hypothesis] that something will develop. But with an understanding of the underlying stuff, we can move it more into insights and explain which fields are specifically interesting. Also, because certain people are really pushing on it, and maybe even people who have a lot of possibilities, [for example] money, influence, political force, whatever. Then, very practically, the insights could influence our team focused on future energy ventures—that's the venture capital arm of E.ON. That is where we concretely have insights that are strategic search fields. They could look for new startups or companies. That's the kind of insights we're [aiming for] by understanding the issue and who's involved.
Moving from insights to impact
Chris: Finally, you got all this information, insights, and quantitative data, if possible. Maybe also opportunities derived from that. How to bring this to life, to practice? How do you move from insights to real impact?
Thomas: I would say the impact comes when you have the insights. It’s only then that you can even think about the impact. But once you have the insights, you need certain formats, or I call them anchor products, with which you can generate the impact.
"One of our anchor products is the trend radar alongside our core beliefs on the energy transition: sustainability, convenience, and resilience."
One of our anchor products is the trend radar alongside our core beliefs on the energy transition: sustainability, convenience, and resilience. But it's also certain formats. We have certain workshop formats to get the information and spark a discussion. Because if you only write reports and drop them somewhere, even if it's the intranet, it won't work, just won't work.
Chris: As you mentioned, there are some recurring formats, for example, for the E.ON supervisory board. Can you tell us more about these formats? What is discussed and decided there? What is the outcome?
Thomas: For the meetings with the supervisory board, we develop a report. It's a condensed thing, below ten pages, very compact but stuffed with information. Then we present and discuss. Last time, it was then virtually, but normally it's live. And in the report, we have these anchor products that I mentioned: the updated trend radar, the beliefs on the energy transition, and what really drives our customers. We also add a 360-degree view of the surrounding world. So what else is happening in energy? What are markets doing? What are competitors doing? All of this comes then in a discussion, and the outcome is actually opinions. Now, in such a board meeting, no one jumps up and says, “Hey, that's cool. Let's do this tomorrow.” It's more like [they’re] working a bit with it, chewing on it—then thinking, “There’s something in this.” And actually—these kinds of changes in opinion—that's what I'm striving for in our work. Because if we all always have the same opinion, it will for sure be old-fashioned and actually wrong after some time—even if it was right in the beginning. This is understanding and opinion changing that's quite powerful because it decides what people do in the long term. We're also measuring that because we are also asking all the time, “How happy were you with the presentation and the insights?” We want to have that feedback and not just rely on picking something up or changing an opinion but make that [feedback] more explicit.
Chris: I think that's actually a great opportunity to bring the trend radar to the supervisory board. And you've also said that there are some other portfolio elements or formats you use with the E.ON innovation team. So what is the purpose of these workshops with the innovation team, and what happens there? What impact do they have? Can you give us some insights on this format?
Thomas: What we did is actually look at not a single topic but at all the companies in the future energy ventures portfolio. It's a bit more than 60. And we compared these to the foresight view on the energy transition and the company strategy. We checked to see where these companies directly add to topics on the trend radar or where these topics match with the main drivers we see in the energy transition. How is the interaction with the company strategy? This is typical of strategy work where you end up with portfolios where you might be in a corner to the left, but in the upper right, there’s not much happening. So you consider moving [to that gap] or maybe move out of other areas. Those are concrete recommendations we can develop.
Chris: That's the real talk here. What's your twist? What is your secret sauce? This sounds really successful and already so well established in such a large corporation as E.ON. So what are you doing differently than anyone else in foresight?
Thomas: Of course, we're happy that things are moving, but it's also not without difficulties. I don't know whether it's unique to what we do, but I hear from many other colleagues who work in similar positions in other companies that they instead work either with innovation teams or businesses more at the board level. And we're always striving to do both and not just to be heard everywhere. That’s nice, of course, but it has a very practical reason. Before picking up recommendations or considering these things we're discussing and presenting, the strategy teams want to know: does the board see it similarly? Do we have buy-in from this side? And if we do, that makes things much more powerful and on more stable ground. On the other hand, the board wants to know: have you discussed this with the guys from the business? Have you talked to innovation? Because they also want to know whether this really has a good foundation in the company. That's why I think these two sides are important.
Chris: So you're embracing the duality here and managing expectations on all those different levels, which I think is a very smart move. And if we would talk about the impact for a moment, all the foresight activities and capabilities, how did they actually change how E.ON invests in future opportunities today?
"Our work is not only to do foresight but to consistently link the story between foresight, innovation, corporate strategy, and business—to make that a logical chain."
Thomas: I think there are two answers to this—when the question is, “How do things change?” On the one hand, we brought in a new structural element for dealing with the future with these foresight capabilities. And also, our work is not only to do foresight but to consistently link the story between foresight, innovation, corporate strategy, and business—to make that a logical chain. Luckily, we have been successful until now, but we're not yet there in terms of having everything structurally embedded. We're trying to do more of these workshops with other teams. That's something that we want to do. That's also something that changes over time—the way you address opportunities. I mean, we didn't just grab things that were flying by, but now we have an even more structural approach to do that. The other thing is that topic-wise, at E.ON we do quite some work that was [influenced by] foresight. For example, E.ON formed a cross-domain team to work on energy for cities. That wasn't the case in the beginning. It was more about combining different skills. Now there's a dedicated team. That's something we looked into earlier. There are a lot of actions around hydrogen—something that everybody knows today, but we have been looking at already for quite some time. Also, for example, there's a new way of looking at urban city centers. Because we now gradually see—which was already visible a bit earlier—that people might move out of the cities to suburbs. That's now seen as important for our regional businesses, which are more around the cities or in smaller cities rather than in city centers.
3 hacks for building foresight capabilities
Chris: Let's quickly talk about the future of foresight at E.ON. So what's next? What do you want to achieve in the future?
Thomas: We're never done. We want to continue to watch how things develop. As we speak, there are thousands of reports coming out. There are new initiatives that are being built. But keeping the momentum and spinning the wheel is one thing. The other thing is that, very practically, we would like to do more of these portfolio or strategic portfolio analyses for innovation teams or business teams, analyzing the kind of projects they're doing. That's something that can add value. We also want to strengthen our foresight network so that we can link to more experts with whom we can exchange foresight best practice—how to develop it and not stand still. And actually, this talk and this [podcast] format is part of building that network.
Chris: It can be for sure. Now, let's imagine the following scenario: you know that there might be someone in the network or the audience who is in the process of building foresight capabilities in a large organization, for example. What would be your advice? What three key takeaways would you give to someone like this?
Thomas: The one thing is to work toward addressing both the innovation and strategy teams and the board level—to have both these sides. I think that is a crucial part of success. The other thing is to have a customer focus and always strive for win-win situations. That, with the foresight activities, everyone wins—not just sometimes but all the time. That's the difference. The third thing we haven't touched on yet is to have a compact team with diverse capabilities—not a bunch of people thinking all the like, but more like people with different views.
Chris: Just a quick question on number two, focusing on the customer. Do you mean internal customers, external customers, or both?
Thomas: I would say the internal customer for 90%, but there's also an external customer where we talk with partners about what could be possible, and the same holds for these.
Chris: Thanks for the clarification. Now, before we close the episode, I would like to ask our signature question. Looking back at your career at E.ON so far, what would you say was your greatest Innovation Rockstar moment?
Thomas: I would say there are two. One, I remember when we first presented our approach to foresight and the first activities to the E.ON board. It actually started a bit complicated. We came in and then were told, “Hi, guys. We were thinking of skipping the topic from the agenda. We’ve kept it on now, but please convince us that this is an important topic we should listen to.” I stood there and thought, oh, you better perform now. Then after some minutes, they said, “OK, and what is your background again? And what is the background of the team?” I explained a bit. And actually, these questions were quite OK because they wanted to know why we are doing this. What's the aim? Is it convincing? And secondly, who is doing it? Then the feedback we got, in the end, was very positive. That was a rockstar moment. The other one was quite hidden or maybe only visible to me. It was when we did the workshop with future energy ventures to assess their startups. Somewhere in the middle of the workshop, I thought to myself. “Hey, this is working!” So that was really good.
Chris: Two rockstar moments, one on-stage and one off-stage. Both are great. Congratulations on those moments. And with that, we have reached the end of this episode. Thomas, I would like to thank you very much for sharing your insights. It was exciting and inspiring at the same time to listen to you.
Thomas: Thanks for having me.
Chris: To everybody listening or watching, if you want to learn more about this topic, simply leave us a comment on this episode or just drop us an email at email@example.com. Now, that's it. Thanks for listening, and see you in the next episode. Take care and bye-bye.
About the authors
Dr. Christian Mühlroth is the host of the Innovation Rockstars podcast and CEO of ITONICS. Thomas Boermans is the Head of Foresight at E.ON and a passionate Energy Transition Manager.
The Innovation Rockstars podcast is a production of ITONICS, provider of the world’s leading Operating System for Innovation. Do you also have an inspiring story to tell about innovation, foresight, strategy or growth? Then shoot us a note!
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