Wednesday, 31 October 2012

How Technology Can Re-invent Housing - Part One

If I were to generate one of those word clouds that you can usually find in a blog's sidebar, then I'm fairly sure that looming over everything would be one word: innovation. I have a (hopefully healthy) obsession with looking at innovation and new ways of doing things. In part this is because the change in the housing industry means we are forced to find new ways of achieving our objectives. Another element though is simply that I am a fan of new technologies and software, as the various gadgets I carry with me at all times will demonstrate. 

Recently I've been looking at some of the emerging technologies to try and imagine how they might shape the housing world in years to come - some amateur futurology if you like. I thought I'd share some of my thinking so far in a countdown post this week and next, as ever it would be interesting to hear your own ideas. 
It's worth pointing out that a) predicting the future isn't easy and I make no guarantees! b) a lot of these technologies are available to us for free or at very low cost. This isn't a future where you have to spend half your budget on a killer piece of technology, which if it fails to deliver takes your margins with it. This is a future where experimentation and innovation should be a natural part of our work. In this way we can mimic the lean start-up's mantra of build, measure, learn, pivot and potentially that new approach will become the norm...

10) Sense repairs before they are required
One of the many exciting developments is the so-called internet of things, this is the point when it's not just people that are wired up over the internet but appliances and "things" are also allowed to communicate as well. This could be achieved by any number of simple RFID devices, they don't need to be complicated. What would be the point of that? Well, how about a smart plumbing system that ran regular diagnostic tests on itself and emailed a technician when it felt that its performance was beginning to slip? You could equally apply this to central heating, green energy solutions, you name it.

9) Protect the vulnerable 
Some of our tenants are vulnerable, which means that services like TrustCall are a vital add on to what we do. Add the internet of things to homes and we could have a number of factors which provided early warning for anything amiss. How about a fridge that alerted a warden if it wasn't opened for a few days - or a front door which told a nominated person if a tenant was displaying an aversion to going outdoors? This could feed vital information to healthcare providers which could be part of a tailored long-term care solution.
8) Think of the possibilities of If This Then That is a site which claims to allows you to "put the internet to work for you". It works by monitoring dozens of different sites and allowing you to set conditional rules for when specified things happen. The site is built around the rule IF x happens THEN make y happen. The site is integrated with many major social sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, but also more mainstream information sites such as weather and news providers. It offers an unlimited number of applications. A full rundown of the recipes (the name the site gives to the rule sets) created by other users can be found here -

Off the top of my head you could very easily create an early weather-warning system for elderly tenants where they were texted, emailed or called if the weather forecast in their area showed ice (equally the same rule recipe could ensure that maintenance were warned about clearing ice). Other applications could be a community-curated online website where every time someone uploaded a photo to Instagram or Facebook and tagged the location then it automatically posted to a Trafford-centric WordPress blog. How about every time your organisation is mentioned on any of the social networks, an email is sent to a customer care team who respond in kind to see if they can help? 

Add in that IFTTT also connects to WeMo and you have the possibilities of a truly smart home - a home that starts heating up and putting the lights on when your GPS enabled phone tells your WeMo devices that you're entering your postcode? It sounds impossibly futuristic, but you could have it set up within 10 minutes.

7) 3D print new building components on site
3D printing is an outrageously exciting technology. This video gives a basic introduction if you've not yet seen how good it could be. There are no end of applications for this technology in housing but one that immediately springs to mind is if our maintenance teams had access to a 3D printer. In this way they could simply print any parts that they needed, rather than returning to base and ordering the part. This would represent a huge saving in time, energy and money. 

6) 3D Printing buildings
It sounds ridiculous but it's already being done. After all, if you can print the individual components needed to repair a building, why not just print the building itself?

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Home Truths (With A Small PS)

The party conference season saw the economic arguments in favour of building more homes gain significant traction, and Trafford - in common with most of the NW of England - is a part of the world where unemployment is still rising despite the national figures indicating an overall fall. So this economic argument is a powerful one. Building homes boosts jobs on site and through the supply chain and, keeping as it does most of the spend within the domestic economy, creates further jobs up and down the supply chain, profits for distribution and tax revenues for the Government. But housing is also about meeting the inexorably rising demand for homes in this country. It shouldn't need the NHFs annual "Home Truths" publication to remind us, and politicians, of this. 

So what do this year's figures tell us? Rates of new house building are way below the rates of new household formation. Put another way, overall, demand for housing is rising. This shows in increased waiting lists, more homelessness acceptances, lower mortgage take up and higher rent levels in the private rented sector which in turn lead to more working families being eligible for housing benefit. With rent taking a higher proportion of disposable income comes, for me, the most telling phrase in the NHFs report: "Aspiration is stopped in its tracks".

I've been cautiously welcoming of the recent approach from government - what's not to like about a further £300m mini-round of the Affordable Homes programme and the prospect of a £10bn loan guarantee fund? But Minister - there is more that can be done; and it doesn't need to cost the government anything, there are three steps the Government could take that would ease the housing situation without needing funds throwing at them.

Firstly, please start to get tough with other departments that won't release their unused public land to provide sites for the new homes we so desperately need. Secondly, please give us certainty about our income stream in the medium term - we are doing our budgets now for 2013/14 and the current rent formula runs out the following year in 2015. Either tell us what the new arrangements beyond that date will be, or, even better, give us the freedom to set (within some form of local cap) our own rents in the light of local markets. Thirdly, echoing Jake Berry's call in The Spectator can we have some kind of land tax that encourages reluctant developers with land to build it out rather than just to sit on it.

And my PS? To be covered another time - but is anyone else intrigued by what's going on in local government at the moment? Civic leaders have woken up to the fact that outsourcing services is not the answer, that big is not always beautiful. When the leader of Britain's second city comes out and says as much, others really should start to listen. Who knows where this will lead - could merger mania within our own sector be the next conventional wisdom to bite the dust? Cosmopolitan anyone?

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Strivers, Skivers and Trafford Treasures

On the one hand strivers, on the other, skivers.
This isn't particularly topical, it's not even an especially new slant on an old problem, but I believe it is important. We are at real risk of ignoring some inconvenient truths. From time immemorial, attempts have been made to classify, to categorise and to divide: whether into sheep and goats, or saints and sinners, deserving and undeserving poor, or, in the latest version, David Cameron's "skivers and strivers".

Now I'm as big a fan of digital as anyone, and, of course, digital is powered by binary "off/on" logic. I want to see digital expand into even the most unlikely corners of what housing organisations do (look out for that topic on the blog in future...), but even I don't want to extend that binary logic into a classification of human society. "Strivers and skivers" is so dangerous because it is on the surface so appealing. It's a message that seems easy to understand: we all know what a striver looks like - we house many of the hard-working families that the term conjures up. They are the people who put back into society, the ones who play by the rules. And yes, we also house some people who are skivers. 

But look at examples and this all gets more complex, more difficult. Let's take Family A: both adults work, but despite two incomes they still need to claim tax credits and housing benefit. Striver or benefit-dependent skiver? (By the way, living wage campaign anyone? - we've signed up to it and you could too). Or how about Family B: single mum, not working because the last of her four children from two different fathers isn't yet a year old - classic skiver material eh? Now add in the fact that she is the pillar of her local community, volunteering her time to organise events for children, helping out whenever she can, being an active citizen and living the Big Society ideal. Not so straightforward now is it? And that's before we add in the feral rich and the tax-avoiding corporations - where do they sit in world of only strivers and skivers?

All this was thrown into stark focus for me last week when we held our annual Trafford Treasures awards night, recognising the people in our local community who do things not because they have to, not for money, but just because they want to. These are the people who really put back into their society despite the fact that some of them would probably fall into the tabloid definition of skiver.  Real people with complex lives, doing their best to find their way in a turbulent world.

The night was full of heart-warming stories - an 11-year-old raising more than £1,000 for cancer charities in memory of those in his family who have died from the disease; a new allotment group committed to a green lifestyle and healthy eating; a volunteer in our sheltered schemes and a young mum who is turning a once-troubled estate into a great place for everyone. It's always a fabulous night, but this year one winner really stuck in my mind. An ex-international boxer, now on kidney dialysis, but still putting in his stint training local youngsters in his sport. As the night drew to a close, with a beaming smile and the strongest handshake I've been given for a long time, this man, Winston, said to me, "your recognition has inspired me to keep on helping those youngsters - I will keep going now."    

It reminded me that another Winston once said: "We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." Thank you to all those who give their time so generously.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

My Secret To Productivity: Trains

I don’t want to alarm anyone but today’s post is brought to you from the web app version of Write or Die (tagline: "putting the prod in productivity"). This ingenious application is a way of suspending the sword of Damocles over your own head, as the site describes:
Write or Die is a web application that encourages writing by punishing the tendency to avoid writing. Start typing in the box. As long as you keep typing, you’re fine, but once you stop typing, you have a grace period of a certain number of seconds and then there are consequences.
Productivity in action
In order to try it out I’ve given myself the target of writing 500 words in the next 20 minutes and I’ve set it on the punishment level labelled "Kamikaze". According to the app if I stray over my self-allotted time I’ll find all of my hard work starting to delete itself and an audible punishment. Better get on with it then.

Although Write or Die is one way of focusing the mind, the modern worker really has no choice but to accept that distraction is part of office life. It’s one of the ironies of the workplace that often they’re not terribly conducive places to work. Between telephones (mobile and landline), faxes, emails, the internet, more email and colleagues it’s a wonder that anything gets done at all.

Almost as if to prove the point I’ve just had to take a phone call which has left me with five minutes before the Kamikaze punishment is unleashed…

Now I like a good interruption as much as the next butterfly-minded future-orientated CEO. But after a while that leads to my desk looking, as our cleaner tells me, like a deep litter bedding system for a small rodent. So what to do with all that "stuff"?

For me one of the most productive places to work is on the train. It’s one of the many things that I’ll miss about leaving the National Housing Federation. Once on the train,I would colonise a table and spread the six inch high bundle of papers removed from my desk the previous night across one side. My mission was that I had to have read and worked through all of the papers by the time I got to London. My own two hour spring clean. If running is essential for clearing the mind and allowing fresh thoughts to percolate, then a train journey is perfect for pushing aside thought and allowing laser-focused productivity.

What methods do you have for increasing your own productivity? I'm happy to share any brain hacks that you have discovered. I wouldn’t suggest you try the Kamikaze setting of Write or Die – I won't spoil it but I will tell you that it’s not a pleasant conclusion…

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Homes For Britain? Yes, Please.

I've recently left the board of the National Housing Federation after serving my six years there. I'll go into that in a bit more detail in a later post, but I think it's worth noting that the recent political activity of the Federation has been more vigorous and more successful than at any time since I've been on the board. The latest initiative is the Homes For Britain campaign which, well, why should I explain what it when there's a handy handsome video to do that for me:

The scale of the campaign is impressive with the Federation working in conjunction with the Chartered Institute of Housing, Crisis, The Home Builders Federation, the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Residential Landlords Association to lobby on the issue at this important political juncture as the various party conferences get under way.

You won't be surprised to know that I agree with the campaign's premise. Who wouldn't? There is a desperate need for new houses across the country (although as I pointed out in an earlier blog - equating need with demand is a schoolboy error). It's also become something of a mantra that building houses is almost a by-product of kick-starting the economy. If you haven't yet chanted "Building 100,000 new homes adds 1% to the GDP" yet today then I implore you to do so, it helps if you face Westminster I hear.   Interestingly, that’s just the number of new affordable homes Ed Balls has said a Labour government would build – all with the proceeds of the 4G sale.

It's important to see though that homes are not all we need to stimulate the economy – particularly not here in the North. Did anybody else notice the figures on the impact so far of the Regional Growth Fund? Projects approved at £200,000 per job created! Our new social enterprise – the furniture recycling project Rainbow – has created three jobs for a little over one quarter of that sum! This fund was supposed to be used to create (and protect) jobs, but it looks to me like it's being saved for a rainy day. When social enterprises and other not-for-profit sectors could be thriving on this fund you can’t help but weep when you read conclusions such as this from the Public Accounts committee.

So, before this post tailspins into negativity, a wholesale hurrah for Homes For Britain, I support it 100%, I follow the Twitter account (as should you, you can find it here @homesforbritain) and I do think it's an impressive campaign. I'll only add the caveat that it would be nice to think that other, equally vociferous campaigns, with a view to telling the story of the contribution of not-for-profits to local economies, will be hot on its heels.