A conversation with Joachim De Vos

Living Tomorrow develops new ideas for the future in so-called visionary groups. Join CEO Joachim De Vos in how they survive and tackle the corona lockdown. 

First of all, how are you doing in these weird corona times?

Fortunately, hardly any people in my immediate surroundings became seriously ill because of Corona. It is a special time though. Days all looked alike, especially in the strict lock-down period where you hardly even had any mobility. Home working became the rule. We got to know Zoom and Teams like never before. It kept us physically further from each other but brought us closer together at the same time seeing it was the way of keeping in touch. Both of our children, students at UGent, were home all day every day following online lessons. I assume we will look back on this period as “a special time”. A crisis that radically changed our habits and that unfortunately killed more than half a million people worldwide. This is particularly tragic and will be forgotten. We will have to be cautious the time to come, until a vaccine gives us back our complete freedom. Hopefully everyone will stick to that.

You are CEO of Tomorrowlab. I know you don’t have a crystal ball but did you see the corona crisis / lockdown coming? Was this kind of (medical) crisis bound to happen according to you?  

Yes and no. Since 2004 early signs pointing to a pandemic have been part of our scenario’s.  Overpopulation, people and animals living closer than ever together, global warming, pollution. These factors all greatly increase the risk of new diseases. In addition, the world has been completely globalized since the 1960s. After production, mobility and logistics, raw materials, financing, labor, tourism and data now also disease is globalized. We already saw small epidemics in the recent past such as Spanish flu, SARS, Ebola,… but fortunately they were limited to certain regions. Because of this explosive increase in globalization, the risk of a worldwide outbreak, i.e. a pandemic, also increases exponentially. COVID19 will certainly not be the last outbreak and we will have to prepare ourselves to develop a 4T procedure worldwide: test-track-trace-tame.


How do you experience the Corona crisis on a professional level? Does corona change anything in your way of working/thinking? Are you approaching things/ differently?

The Corona crisis forces you to think about the flexibility of your organization: resilience, agility, creativity. Suddenly it becomes clear that an organization, no matter how well it ran before Corona hit, can be confronted with changing circumstances that you cannot control or adjust but greatly reduce or make it impossible to operate. This is the moment were the agility of an organization comes to the surface: who can adjust and who connot.  Organizations are people who work together through structures, procedures, data and technology. People are the central pivot in this agility. It is striking that people who often function perfectly in calm water struggle during times of uncertainty. Some certainties seem to slip away in the near future. Anxiety about health, loved ones, work, income, challenges, self-development paralyzes functioning. Others, who sometimes do not stand out at all in quiet times, develop into pullers of change, they adjust and take on a leading role that you might never have expected. This is what makes a(ny) crisis interesting. Times of turbulence forces people to develop. Recognizing qualities, allowing development and stimulating these changes to the larger group makes your organization stronger.

In terms of approach, we have worked with 3 horizons that we always apply in uncertain environments.

Horizon 1 is the here and now. On March 13, the announcement of the major lock-down, we had to intervene immediately. More than half of our business (including events, meetings, workshops, catering, visitors) was banned. People were forced to work from home. This required a series of measures in both our organizations Living Tomorrow and TomorrowLab, each in its own specific sector and service. Decisions had to be made in an environment where the government changed, deleted or reinstalled the rules every 24 hours. All employees had to be informed and assisted as quickly as possible – best individually tailored to their position and assignment. That wasn’t easy in an organization of 70 people like ours, let alone in a multinational. Clients also needed to be informed.

In a second horizon, we adapted our operations and services to help clients as much as possible in this time of crisis. Listening and trying to find out how/where we could make a difference. It worked out and spontaneously more clients called and new customers joined. In such a situation you immediately feel useful.

The third horizon is all about exploring how to change things for tomorrow. What do we no longer want to communicate after this crisis? How will life, living and working change? What about mobility, digitization of services (virtual instead of physical), …

Tomorowlab creates foresights, clearer views in possible future scenario’s. Covid 19 has an impact on all sectors. Energy, mobility, work, … all socially significant branches that need to be taken into account when thinking about the future. Where lies the biggest challenge in foreseeing the post corona future? 

We applied our own methodology in order to help our clients and others who are interested in identifying possible futures and prepare for them. By the end of March we organized a biweekly online zoomtalk about Covid19 scenarios and the evolution.  We know there are ma lot of uncertainties: trade, mobility, employees, regulations, lock-downs, … but 2 stood out in terms of impact and uncertainty.

Firstly, the evolution of the virus: will we get control (via vaccine or 4T) or not

Secondly, the economy: will there be a recession (2 consecutive quarters of GDP reduction) or will we move towards a depression (at least 2 years of reduced production and consumption).

Based on this we see 4 possible – extreme – worlds in which “control over virus yes/no” and “economic depression versus depression” are defined. Within each of these 4 worlds we must try to find solutions for during and after the crisis. These scenarios develop into real stress-testing methods that help organizations to recognize which measures are the least risky to ‘misjudge’ the future (in which they often have to cancel current plans now). Trying to score with your decisions in as many scenarios as possible ensures you that you are as prepared as possible for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. In short: looking forward with the right uncertainties into account is the biggest challenge. We help organizations to do just that. And it proves to work for those organizations where we already developed this methodology.

What will change specifically in/for the health care sector?

Several problems appear in the health sector. I would almost dare to say: everything is going to change. Not only the way in which people (in general and not only patients/employees) look at care and the way the care provider wants and can offer care. We see several big changes for the near future:

Care must become a more important part of our society. It is crucial to maintain solidarity in care between large groups of people. Best example is today. When everything is going great and you only have to deal with ‘business as usual’, you can think about slimming down, making it more efficient by regulating and structuring. Lean and mean, as is often said, because we believe that healthcare takes up too much of our prosperity (i.e. GDP). For some time now it is clear that the more rules the more complex the system has become. This implies delays and less preparation for the unexpected. We also paid for the maximization of lean and mean cash. Certainly, in regions such as Northern Italy and Spain, and currently Brazil, we saw and see distressing situations. Shortage of medical infrastructure, properly trained people, … just when we need it. It is a wakeup call.

Structures must be simplified, in Belgium anyway. We are lucky to have an excellent health care system in Belgium and that a lot of resources go to our health care. However, here too, the sector has lost a lot in recent decades, but there has also been room for growth. Where healthcare institutions, doctors and administrations have made enormous efforts to be as flexible and fast as possible, we have come up against impossible structures everywhere. At least impossible in times of turbulence. What we are able to deal with in ‘normal times’ turned out to go wrong. To begin with the chain of command in times of crisis that turned out not to work: 9 ministers, not to mention all prime ministers and prime minister. Some of the press conferences looked ludicrous: more policymakers at the table than press in the room sort of speak. It made unambiguous communication almost impossible with the ensuing consequences. A crisis situation requires a simple and fast command structure. We have to remember that. Nevertheless, a lot of good things have been happening in recent years. Minister De Block’s hospital networks have proven their usefulness, rapid coordination and collaboration between hospitals has been exceptional.

New technology should be part of tomorrow’s care. During the strict lockdown teleconsultations suddenly became possible and used. I can imagine that this is not the best way for always and everyone, but are we really going back to overcrowded waiting rooms, waiting on your turn to see the specialist? This has to be improved. It won’t be easy because from a professional perspective (hospital or specialist) there is nothing wrong: the patient arrives on time (because he or she has been there for hours), the doctor can focus on the patient in real life and when he or she is examined, the next patient can come in. This is not customer-focused. It’s out dated and has to change. A lot can and should be done digitally. Not only via teleconsultation, but why not digital monitoring of patients in their daily environment: how does the disease evolve, how does the therapy work, what about therapy compliance, what about the patient’s movement, … as much as can happen. There is work to be done. The more digitized we become, the more we can talk about real big data and build up meaningful insights. Imagine if in this Corona era we could already roll out a 4T strategy based on wearables and smartphones complemented by human call centers that follow up patients ‘humanely’. Because of course, the human aspect will never be replaced by technology, but it will be complemented and made more efficient/effective.

What is the first thing you would do if you were to be appointed “minister of health”

Tackling the structures  is what Belgium should do. It should and will be more simpel. 1 Minister of Health who works very closely with the Minister of Environment, Energy and Raw Materials (such as water) – that belongs together. Both must develop a plan for tomorrow that is radical, ambitious and will require about half of our resources. The other powers such as mobility, work, education, the economy, etc. will have to work from these outlines for tomorrow. But I am convinced that sustainable development thinking does not have to hurt us. Only then we can think of the next generation and be proud of what we do and leave behind for them. Things have to change. Short-term thinking must stop and should make way for long-term vision and action plans.

What is the most remarkable innovation you made/question you got during Covid19? Are there any innovations or ideas that are suddenly gaining momentum?

Since everyone had to work from home, this became more important than ever before. The question therefore arises as to whether we should not invest in this kind of future rather than in company cars in order to bring people to work in large numbers.

The tele working situation proved that is not easy to find a quiet place with necessary peace and order to concentrate on a video conference call in a daily living environment. We’ve seen enough disorderly bookcases via Zoom in recent months. Maybe it would be interesting to start investing in some kind of ‘mobile office’ container that you can put in people’s homes from where they can work quietly. You put something like this in the garden and in the evening you close the door of your office. Equipped with all the digital gadgets and tools to work practically and efficiently. Every few years you replace them with new “mobile offices”. It certainly doesn’t cost as much as renting and maintaining a company car and it brings immediate benefits, saves time and frustration. For the time being, it is not more than an idea.  

It is suggested that the lockdown has made people reflect … about themselves and what makes them happy, about life and what is important. Should we foresee a big change in how people will (re)act, consume and deal with whatever live throws at them? How will this manifest?

 I’m sure this mandatory change of habit will rise questions in time. Although I know that people are creatures of habit. Just look at the parties that are being held already. Unfortunately people forget the seriousness of this crisis and think that the virus has disappeared. However, nothing could be further from the truth because we are still running on the results of the powerful measures we have taken. It’s not surprising that a counter reaction to the strong measures arises but this doesn’t mean we can rationalize it.

I hope that a number of things will be questioned and will bring about lasting change:

1) Is an unrestricted mobility really necessary? Do we have to fly a speaker from one side of the world to the other side to do 30 minutes of his/her speech? Does every student need to  travel across the city to another auditorium for the next class? Should we not instead move the professor or alternate between online and physical classes?

2) Can we rethink our spatial planning, build more in height and save open space around us to allow distance? I remember the first weeks of the lock-down there was not enough space in the cities, in the parks and streets, for people to keep at a safe 1.5 m from each other. That’s because we build everything with low-rise buildings. There is no more open space. We can do better than that.

3) Radical digitalization can make a difference in any sector. We noticed that stores or services that had developed a digital lead also experienced few problems – on the contrary – during this crisis. Making services more customer-friendly online and available 24/7 is a secure future.

This crisis will leave some serious “scars and traumas”. We hear a lot about material “scars” like bankruptcies, economical insecurity but what about community life in this re-start? Will crowds be scared of crowds? Travellers versus  homestayers? “Cough”-shaming, the 6ft society, … How do you think Belgians will cope and embrace this new normal?

As I said before, a few things will change but not overnight. As soon as the measures disappear, a lot of people will return to the old normal. But things will get stuck. Wearing a mask in times of flu or a cold doesn’t seem taboo anymore. It will gradually find support. Attention to better health, more exercise and less air pollution are things that will hopefully get more understanding and support. I can’t understand why some people still think it’s normal in 2020 to drive around in polluting cars squirting a quarter of a kilogram of CO2 into the air per kilometer. And all this while we know that this damages our health, especially the respiratory system. This also became clear during corona. The healthier people were, the better they could fight against this devastating virus. Hopefully politics will also radically support the revolution with high taxes on internal combustion engines, the abolition of old-timers for non-event travel (and monitoring), logistics tax depending on the environmental friendliness of the package at home (ifv online delivery), … In Germany it is already understood: radical electric driving, heavy taxes on older cars and motorcycles, subsidies for those who switch to more modern and environmentally friendly transport, a fast charging station obligatory at every filling station from next year. In France they rescued KLM-Airfrance provided that short-haul flights are cancelled in favor of the electric TGV as an intercity. In Belgium, awareness is yet to be raised, as a minister flew the distance Brussels – Antwerp as an advertisement for private flights.

How is the future looking?

The future looks bright, but challenging. I am an optimist when it comes to the future. The future is full of challenges, especially for a planet with so many people on board. But I am convinced that technology, knowledge and creativity will save us. It is a necessity that political leaders follow. It wouldn’t be a bad thing to develop a youth task force: young people in their twenties and thirties who are working on their future at the top of politics. All plans need to be tested against a scenario background, to make sure they pass the sustainability test. That we might not grow as massively as we did in the last century of globalization is quite possible. However, growth is possible with innovations in mobility, food, materials and recycling, water and alternative energy.  Off course we should continue to be particularly concerned with education and development. After all, we know that population explosion is most often caused in countries where chances of survival are very low due to underdevelopment. As soon as people get a better chance of survival through development, education, health and good nutrition, the birth rate drops drastically. This creates new challenges, such as an aging population, but that is why the future is always a new challenge.