“Only managing uncertainty can bring a more stable future”

This article about trendwatcher and futurist Richard van Hooijdonk about managing uncertainty was previously published in eComMag.
  • Mixed reality and gamification are gaining ground in retail
  • Drones and autonomous robots are set to revolutionise deliveries
  • How do retailers survive?
  • Avoid the Blockbuster pitfall
  • What hinders change?
  • Work hard and stay humble
  • What specific actions can an organisation take?
  • Embrace visionary and inspiring leadership
  • Three tasks for management

Dutch trendwatcher and futurist Richard van Hooijdonk is constantly on the lookout for disruptive changes, analysing their impact on specific industries and sectors. He has delivered over 2,500 keynote lectures in 35 countries. The future is quite literally a part of him. He has had several subdermal chips implanted that serve various purposes, such as making payments, starting his car, and unlocking his front door. Soon, Richard will undergo surgery for a brain chip. “Are you ready for the future?” Richard van Hooijdonk calls out to the audience at eComTalk at the Antwerp Expo.

He then leads them on a whirlwind journey through disruptive innovations, challenging bankruptcies, and motivational advice. The result: an intensive crash course on ‘Dealing with the Future’. “Every sector is changing”, Richard says as he starts his keynote. “In agriculture, cameras are employed to gauge the ripeness of tomatoes. In the music industry, AI is capable of creating a new rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody — sung by Michael Jackson and Queen. At airports, robot dogs are now used to meticulously search through luggage for drugs”. The retail world, as well as e-commerce and logistics, is experiencing significant disruption. While these changes have been underway for some time, Richard believes that we are only at the beginning of an even more substantial transformation.

Mixed reality and gamification are gaining ground in retail

The retail landscape, encompassing both online and offline experiences, is evolving rapidly. Richard reflects on this shift through the eyes of his 11-year-old son: “He’s unfamiliar with the traditional stores of our past. Instead, his world is shaped by video games like Fortnite and GTA. For the upcoming generations, interacting with avatars and holograms is far more engaging than navigating through yet another dull website or boring app. The stores that will captivate their interest are those that create a ‘mixed reality’ experience, blending virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to revolutionise shopping”. Holograms are becoming an increasingly common part of our reality. They are accessible through VR headsets like the Apple Vision Pro, and soon, they will also be available in compact VR contact lenses. The Swedish fashion brand House of Dagmar unveiled its latest collection with a unique twist, featuring the avatar of model Maggie Maurer. This innovative approach allows you to virtually place her in diverse settings — be it your own living room, amidst the artistic ambience of your favourite museum, or atop a solitary mountain peak.

Drones and autonomous robots are set to revolutionise deliveries 

The way customers interact with products is evolving, and in the future, the methods of delivering these products will also transform. Richard points out that companies are currently incurring significant losses due to inadequately integrated supply chains. “Supply chains and logistics are on the brink of becoming more intelligent and efficient”, he predicts. “All repetitive and predictable tasks will soon be managed by robots. Brands like Mercedes are at the forefront of developing self-driving trucks. In the future, these autonomous trucks will form convoys, efficiently coordinating their movements to either follow one another or disperse along the most effective delivery routes. Rolls Royce is developing the ‘Internet of Shipping’, involving connected port systems, autonomous ships, and soon, drones communicating with each other”.

The trendwatcher showcases the innovative use of technology in logistics, highlighting how Posten-Norge, the Norwegian postal service, employs Buddy Mobility robots for the delivery of letters and packages. He also sheds light on the advancements of the American company Zipline, which specialises in drones designed for transporting blood and medication to hospitals, with potential for direct package delivery as well. Furthermore, he discusses Amazon’s development of landing spots in conjunction with local warehouses, a strategy aimed at enabling drone deliveries to customers within just 30 minutes.

“Whatever you do, try to aim for more than just offering a website or an app. That’s just the bare minimum”.

How do retailers survive?

Are traditional brick-and-mortar stores and e-commerce shops destined for obsolescence? Richard believes this is not necessarily the case. “However, we mustn’t kid ourselves”, he promptly interjects. “I came across a video of myself from six years ago. At that time, I predicted that within five years, half of the retailers would go bankrupt. People reacted with scepticism and mild amusement back then. But in the Netherlands, the reality has hit even harder — 60 per cent have since gone under. In the past few years, we’ve seen BCC and 15 other brands vanish. Evidently, I had underestimated the extent of change”. “Proactive measures are essential — especially when it comes to physical stores. You need to fully commit to creating experiences and immersive environments. The hardware store of the future should evolve into a true DIY hub: a space where customers can learn skills like carpentry or painting. Nike is a good example of what experience stores could be like. In some of its stores, you can test boxing gloves in an actual ring. The retail landscape is shifting from mere transactions to rich experiences. Consider the case of a struggling children’s clothing boutique in Amsterdam. It underwent a dramatic transformation by focusing on building connections. Now, the boutique hosts a DJ, offers drinks, and has become a meeting place for mothers to share ideas”. 

Alongside the rising trend of personalisation, Richard notes the effectiveness of subscription models. “Ekomenu is excelling in this area in the Netherlands. WE is another great example. They send me a personalised clothing box each month, and it’s consistently a hit. Their success hinges on their use of data, which gives me the impression that they genuinely understand my preferences and needs”. Richard emphasises the importance of specialisation in addition to connection and personalisation. “Success can be sustained by excelling in a specific niche market. Stores specialising in fireplaces or piano shops, for instance, cater to a distinct clientele. Whatever you do, try to aim for more than just offering a website or an app. That’s just the bare minimum. Customers today, and in the future, are looking for something extra!” You need to change faster than the future itself. Richard points out that implementing change typically takes about 5 to 8 years. “However, you don’t have the luxury of that much time. You need to manage the change immediately. The challenge is that most organisations are not adequately prepared for such rapid transformation”.

“Realise that if you simply continue with your physical store, your boring app, and your uninspiring website, you run the risk of becoming obsolete”.

Avoid the Blockbuster pitfall

In December 2022, Netflix premiered a comedy series about a Blockbuster store. However, the real story of the American video rental chain Blockbuster is more of a tragicomedy. At its peak, Blockbuster boasted over 9,000 stores worldwide. Remarkably, Blockbuster once had the opportunity to buy Netflix for just $50 million but the management laughed at the idea and dismissed it. They believed Netflix had no future in a world of slow internet and limited screen sizes. Fast forward to today, and Netflix’s valuation is in the billions. In contrast, Blockbuster declared bankruptcy in 2010, drowning in $1 billion of debt. Ironically, the series about Blockbuster was also short-lived, cancelled after just one season. “Avoid becoming another Blockbuster”, Richard cautions the audience during his keynote in Antwerp. “Realise that if you simply continue with your physical store, your boring app, and your uninspiring website, you run the risk of becoming obsolete”.

What hinders change?

“As humans, we have a natural resistance to change, both in our personal lives and in our organisations. We often fear it. This fear leads us to establish processes that maintain the status quo, particularly when current methods are perceived as successful. However, a word of caution: success in the present can be the greatest obstacle to future change. It’s crucial not to fall into complacency while enjoying success; always stay alert and adaptable. Blockbuster, Kodak, Staples, Big Bazar, and the Dutch BCC were once thriving businesses. And they all observed the rise of giants like Amazon, the Dutch bol.com, and Cool Blue. Despite this, they failed to anticipate future trends. Consequently, they tragically missed the opportunity to adapt to the evolving market landscape, leading to their eventual downfall”.

Work hard and stay humble

“Don’t let success go to your head. Maintain a critical perspective. Humility in observing your surroundings allows you to perceive details that might be overlooked if you were arrogantly claiming to be the best in the market”. Richard is also critical of the current education system. He advocates for companies to develop their own training programmes. “HR becomes pivotal in companies aiming to thrive. Success will hinge on your employees and their mindset”, he emphasises. “It’s essential that your employees are not only passionate about your business but also about change. You need curious individuals who are eager to experiment and bold enough to take risks. While expertise in their respective fields is important, the ability to see beyond their own specialisations is equally crucial. Seek out those who can act as bridge builders and communicators. Strive to find change ambassadors who have the skill to unite colleagues around new initiatives and projects”.

What specific actions can an organisation take?

“It’s not the strongest but the most adaptable that survive”, Richard quotes Charles Darwin. “This principle doesn’t only apply to humans and animals but also to companies and brands. It is, therefore, time to move away from long-term planning. How can you plan three years ahead when you have no idea what next year will bring? Instead, focus on developing the ability to respond flexibly and adapt promptly to change”. How can a company adapt swiftly and flexibly to change? Richard emphasises the importance of collaboration within an ecosystem. He highlights a vital initial step: “To build resilience in your company, establish the role of an ecosystem designer. This role involves identifying specialised talents beyond the confines of company walls, across different countries and universities. The ecosystem designer’s task is to unite these talents for specific projects. Look beyond Europe’s potential; the era when everything revolved around this continent is far behind us”.

“Requirement one: Embrace and manage uncertainty. Set aside your focus on profits for the next five years. Don’t prioritise revenue generation alone. Instead, invest in uncertainty and approach it with a playful mindset. If you’re concerned about platforms overtaking your business, proactively engage with these platforms. Dedicate time and resources to experimenting with future trends and technologies. It’s only through effectively embracing and managing uncertainty that you can secure a more stable and prosperous future”. Richard’s third principle for effectively managing change is somewhat unorthodox: “Adopt the tactics of modern warfare and so-called special forces. In challenging times, small is the new big. The ability to adapt creatively and swiftly to future challenges is seldom found in large office environments. Instead, foster this in small, dynamic teams that operate independently from the larger organisation. Create future labs that can respond rapidly to change and in which individuals with exceptional talent can work together. These are people who, unconstrained by tradition, can identify, scrutinise, and embrace changes on your behalf”.

Embrace visionary and inspiring leadership

As he approaches his closing remarks, Richard poses a thought-provoking riddle to his eComTalk audience: “What is grey, old, and slow? Can you guess? A board of directors!” He then expresses his frustration over his discussions with the Dutch company BCC: “They were well aware that change was looming on the horizon, yet its management persisted in following the same outdated course. It’s truly baffling! A leader’s role is to guide their organisation toward the future, and this requires embracing a fresh approach to leadership. Why not provide opportunities for young individuals? Consider having a 24-year-old working alongside a more experienced director at the company’s helm. 

This concept of reverse mentoring can yield remarkable outcomes, as young minds can serve as our guides to the future. If you’re an experienced, senior manager, this is the ideal moment to shift from an ‘ego system’ to an ecosystem. Leadership also entails letting go of control. It’s time to embrace a form of servant leadership, characterised by CEOs who actively listen, ask questions, share inspiring stories, and motivate others to collectively shape the future. At the same time, we can all afford to be a little crazier. A bit more like Richard Branson, who shouts, ‘Screw it, let’s do it!’ If you’re employed somewhere, you don’t usually need an elaborate business plan. Instead, you do what you think is right and you apologise if things don’t go as planned. But positive anarchy can yield more than just another mundane PowerPoint presentation by someone who is confined by the status quo. As a retailer or e-shop owner, it’s essential to embrace a visionary mindset. You must inspire and connect, listen actively, and create compelling narratives”.

Three tasks for management

Richard assigns three homework tasks to the managers and directors that are present in the audience.

Task 1: Organise inspiration days

“Dedicate the last Friday of each month to an Inspiration Day. Create a core team that’s responsible for showcasing their innovation findings on this day. Additionally, host an annual grand Inspiration Event. Avoid hiring costly agencies; instead, manage it internally. You will be amazed by the results”. 

Task 2: Practice backcasting

“Establish a clear vision for your strategy — because without a definitive goal, where will your strategy be headed? Start by envisioning your ultimate objective, then methodically work backwards to identify the immediate steps required today”.

Task 3: Empower and support future-focused teams

“Equip specialised small teams — ‘special forces’, if you will — to plan for the future. Create supportive ecosystems for these groups. Clearly convey to prospective employees and investors your commitment to shaping tomorrow. If your current organisation doesn’t align with this vision, consider leaving as soon as possible, as the company itself might not be there anymore in the near future”.

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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