In Conversation with Dagmar van der Plas, Global Lead of the Think Forward Initiative

Posted on December 06, 2017

In the recent months, the Think Forward Initiative has gone through an evolution. Having added a purpose-driven accelerator to it’s approach, a new dynamic has emerged within the initiative where both research and innovation have been brought together with the aim of creating scalable impact.

Additionally, in being a pilot, this accelerator journey is essentially a learning process. We’re now running the Incubator Program and early next year, the Growth Track begins. As everything progresses, we too are in the process of validating what the best way forward would be. Will we create more impact with a tailored incubator? Or will we achieve greater results in the Growth Track where startups looking to scale-up are engaged?

As such, a little more than 3 weeks into the incubator, we thought it would be nice to catch up with Dagmar van der Plas,the global lead of the Think Forward Initiative. She shared with us her personal inspirations, experiences with TFI thus far, as well as her thoughts on the road ahead for the accelerator program.

What were the inspirations behind starting the TFI?

The inspiration was all around. Working at ING, I came across many insights – one of them was research on how people actually make financial decisions. You expect these decisions to be made in a rational way but in actual fact, they are emotionally driven. Then, there was also the issue of governments scaling back support and new technologies offering overwhelming options in terms of managing your finances. In such an increasingly complex world, I realised that making financial decisions is getting harder and people need help with it. So I would say all these insights, combined with the inherent purpose of ING – which is, to empower people to stay ahead in life and business – was my inspiration behind starting the Think Forward Initiative.

Also, personally, I had a strong belief that an open-ecosystem-approach in working together to solve certain issues was the best way forward. So, I gathered a collaborative group of people coming not only from the corporate world but also external experts from various fields representing governments, academics, consumers, and the financial and technology sectors. Together we worked towards tackling the challenges surrounding financial decision making, in order to get to the crux of the “why” and the “how” behind financial decision making. The goal of TFI is a financially resilient society where people make conscious and informed choices about their money.

How did an Accelerator become part of one of the pillars of the TFI?

I feel we really did a great job in getting insights with our research. Through our collaboration with external academic networks, like the Center for Economic Policy Research and other experts working on several projects, we got a good understanding of the issue at hand. Insights are great of course, but if it’s only about insights and not about action, you’re going to get nowhere. Our community really supported us in identifying the true pain points in financial decision making – but as a next step we really wanted to translate these insights into something tangible. That’s exactly where this accelerator kicks in.

Where do you think the Accelerator brings in the biggest value-add to TFI?

The biggest value is in the fact that this accelerator brings research and development together, to create something tangible that is based on true insights. And of course, this process also brings tremendous value to the participants in the incubator teams – they now have this great opportunity to collaborate and be inspired by other individuals, outside their own professional networks.

What are you most excited about, with regards to this part of the initiative?

The further we progress with this accelerator program, the closer we come to achieving real impact. I’m hopeful and excited for a few of the solutions to be adopted or implemented somewhere, in the outside world. I would be really super thrilled, if sometime next year, a solution that was moulded through TFI and this accelerator proves to be highly relevant and useful in financially empowering people.

In adding an accelerator to the mix, you’ve had to deal with change and sometimes uncertainty. What have been some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome and what challenges do you foresee, as the program progresses?

I would say, the biggest challenge has been in bringing together research and innovation. These are such different expertise, but they can learn so much of each other! We already saw it happen at the deep dives we organise, the interactions between the researchers/academics and the innovators delivers a new kind of chemistry which is essential to gain insights. To the incubator teams it is now the challenge to go into the outside world and validate the research that was generated and solutions that they’ve built.

I also see another challenge in the future in terms of scaling. The Think Forward Initiative can only have its impact if we deliver valuable insights and solutions that matter to people. We’re conducting our own research as well as curating everything else out there that is related and relevant, in order to reach as many people as possible with our insights around financial decision making. For that you need to tap into the power of collaboration and really engage everyone in the ecosystem. From the academics, to the partners, to the startups – we really need to engage society at large if we want to scale impact.

In running this accelerator, we’re ‘learning by doing’. How do you feel about that?

Oh, it’s a journey. Sometimes, I’m super worried about where we’ll be in 6 months. Will it all be fine? Will we be able to achieve the intended impact? And other times I feel really proud, to see everyone that is part of this initiative being highly driven and committed to the cause. It is truly a journey, and what’s great about this journey is that (to my knowledge) it has never been done like this before. The learning experience of everyone involved is a testament to the fact that you can really make a difference, if you work with purpose at the back of your mind.

Additionally, at ING, we are encouraged to learn fast and fail fast. This idea of ‘learning by doing’ is not something new to me but what I find really special is witnessing this chemistry between researchers and innovators. You start to see output you’ve previously been only dreaming about! Yes, there have been failures along this journey but as always, we learn and we iterate!

You’ve spent some time with the teams and had a few chats with them. How do you feel seeing them in motion, coming together as a team and diving headfirst into this journey?

They’re developing like little families, like close friends. I feel that their shared purpose, of bringing this to the next level is like the glue between each of them. I see so much value in having them come together in such a context, where there is so much to gain and learn from each other.

What advice would you give to the participants as they work towards Demo Day in February?

I would say don’t be afraid! It is all happening in 3 months and it sounds like a short period of time but you will be amazed with what is possible, with the help of TFI, Startupbootcamp and all the other experts who are ready to help you. I’m more than positive that each of the teams will have a smashing pitch surrounding their purpose-driven, validated solutions at Demo Day.

We’re now running the incubator program – so at the end of these 3 months what would success look like to you?

In three months, I would be very happy if we found sponsors to adopt or implement the solution we created during the 3 month program and show the first impact we were able to make during our annual Summit on April 10th in Amsterdam. The hope is that the structure and the concept which works for us – will also be implemented by others. To trust each others strengths and work together to solve a certain issue (holistic and multidisciplinary), to look outside your well-known bubble, to be open to opinions and expertise of others.

Given the chance, would you like to be part of such a process? Why?

Without a doubt! It would be a super nice experience, to create something from scratch, with access to the extended TFI ecosystem and a diverse group of teammates, all poised to really make a change.