Dwarskijker interview – “If the central government continues at this pace, it will be the demise of the Netherlands”

The world is changing much faster than we all think, says trendwatcher and futurist Richard van Hooijdonk. He embraces technological developments and has an important message for the Dutch government: “Immediate measures must be taken, because it is five minutes to twelve”.

Text: Pascal Lemaire

A chip in your body instead of paying cash for a train ticket or a beer at the pub. A robot that feeds your children and then packs their sports bags. Taking a nap in your self-driving car on your way home. For Richard van Hooijdonk, trendwatcher and futurist, these developments are a lot less futuristic than many people think. “It’s one decade away, perhaps. Two at the most”.

“We are sitting on a technological volcano”, says van Hooijdonk. “Mark my words. In the next five to ten years, more will happen technologically than we’ve seen in the past couple of hundred years”. According to the sought-after keynote speaker, the proverbial volcano is ‘on the verge of eruption’. “You can already see signs of a completely new society. Now is the time to think about how we organise our society to cope with these kind of major technological changes”.

Does the central government respond adequately to all these changes?

“No, on the contrary. The big problem is that it’s extremely lagging behind. The current structure dates back to the years between 1970 and 1990, when there were no revolutionary technological developments. If you ask me, that’s when the ultimate bureaucracy was born. Because the world is changing so fast now, agility is an important requirement, and I see a tremendous shortage there. In my opinion, changing the organisation is a much bigger problem than discovering new technologies. The most poignant, in my opinion, is the lack of collaboration. Take healthcare, for instance: all hospitals in the Netherlands are individually reinventing the wheel. They are innovating individually. They don’t work together at all. Many partnership-enterprises are still in charge, and that’s not how you work towards the future. The government should intervene and say: at least twenty percent of the overall capacity of hospitals must spend their time – collaborating – on innovation. So quit the bureaucracy. Another example: not long ago, the National Police wanted to experiment with Teslas – the future of cars, if you ask me. But this didn’t happen, because there was already a framework contract with Volkswagen. That’s the kind of stuff that makes my hair stand on end. I see these kinds of examples on a weekly basis. At the Ministry of Defence, the Water Management Department, the Dutch Central Bank, but also at municipality and province level. I do understand it, in a way. The changes are happening so fast, and we’re not quite sure of our destination yet”.

But last summer, State Secretary Knops of Interior and Kingdom Relations presented the NL DIGIbeter agenda, a digital strategy for the entire government

“Yes, but as far as I’m concerned, this is only a gateway. I see it more as a case of window dressing. Building a beautiful website and putting some money into a few digital projects doesn’t mean that the message actually gets across to all levels of management. A real cultural change is needed. Soft skills like passion, curiosity and resilience are needed. The techniques come naturally, but the big challenge is to change the mindset of employees. Managers should be judged on the ideas they bring to the table. Only then will it work. The government seems to lack the urgency to strengthen this digital culture. How do you ensure that you’re really well-prepared for our changing society? You do this by getting specialised people to work together in small-scale, new platforms where they can work out ideas. This is not happening often enough, and therein lies the biggest challenge”.

Will the central government ever have a sufficiently technological and digital mindset?

“For that to happen, immediate measures need to be taken. As far as I’m concerned, it’s five to twelve. We’re dealing with large ministries with a large permanent layer of directors-general, board members and managers. This bureaucratic structure should be replaced by ecosystems: dynamic, functional units. Build a much smaller fixed layer and a large flexible shell with specialists, startups, and (inter)national experts who can really solve problems and work on the future as quickly as possible. The most important is for the central government to consider citizens more as customers. People should have their concerns dealt with in the best possible way, by providing fast, digital service. Failing that, you’re dealing with unsuccessful digital policy. The government should put egos aside and seriously invest in this. Because if the central government continues at this pace, it will be the demise of the Netherlands”.

What’s a good example?

“Companies like Facebook, Google and Uber. Despite the fact that they’re huge organisations, they can make very fast sprints. In the Netherlands, I’d say Philips Healthcare, but also companies such as ASML, DSM and Unilever. They’re able to accelerate extremely fast by means of ‘cells’ around the company. They should put money into those kinds of technological ‘wings’. Support the smaller teams that deal with all kinds of disruption, from digitisation to robotisation. Perhaps the best example for the government is the company De Telefoongids (The Telephone Directory). They used to have a large tower where the actual telephone directory was manufactured. When it looked like this directory model was becoming obsolete, they anticipated this and started a new ‘tower’ of digital marketing services. They were skilled in building websites and making analyses, and now, as DTG, they’re even bigger than they were before”.

What is the government doing well at the moment?

“I am pleased to see that for instance the TNO Institute (organisation for applied scientific research), but also universities, are increasingly invited to congresses and meetings. Also within ministries I see more and more young ‘changers’ and older managers taking the plunge and altering course. Politicians are increasingly investing in knowledge about technological developments. I was recently at D66 (Dutch social-liberal political party) to present my vision of the future. I noticed that awareness and passion were increasing. And I see that local authorities, such as municipalities, are developing good initiatives like smart cities. Municipalities like Utrecht and Eindhoven are profiling themselves with the use of data and algorithms to devise smarter policies for the city. But still: it’s too slow. On average, organisations need 5 to 7 years to change course. The central government will probably need even longer. And we don’t have that kind of time”.

Aren’t you completely overlooking the people who don’t keep up with digitisation?

“No. I think that’s purely a matter of mindset. People who may feel less comfortable now, should be taken by the hand and guided to the ‘new world’. Long ago we had to learn how to withdraw money from ATMs. Many older people were afraid that they couldn’t do it, that they would be robbed. Those fears quickly dissipated. The same is true of digitisation. Eighty percent of people between the ages of sixty and eighty have a smartphone. Not too bad for people who supposedly can’t keep up! To me this actually sounds like an argument not to have to change too quickly. Out of fear, inspired by the government. I really think that we shouldn’t underestimate our elderly and the so-called digital illiterates”.

We’re in the midst of a technological revolution and the trends, technologies, and innovations to look out for are all game-changers. They bring competitive advantages, increase the effectiveness of operations, make our daily lives more efficient, improve healthcare, and significantly change the landscape and beyond.

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