The machines are coming…

but are they bringing our freedom with them?

Recently, I’ve come across quite a few articles on the idea of a Universal Basic Income or Citizens’ Income. Quite a few propose the idea as a response to a predicted rise in unemployment, due to the looming automation of many industries and jobs.

UBI is a really interesting concept and some countries/cities are already researching and even trialing it. But I find the idea of automation and the resulting lack of employment opportunities more interesting. In particular, the freedoms that it could bring for individuals to follow a dream, pursue a new direction, take a break, care for someone, retrain; ultimately to have choice and not feel trapped in any employment situation.

I won’t go in to the detail of UBI or automation, lots of others, much more expert in the topic, have already done that. I’ve pasted lots of links below if you want to find out more.

I wonder how automation might play out in the housing sector? Especially if connected to the Internet of Things; perhaps properties that pretty much repair themselves as they diagnose when a repair will be required (before it’s needed) and schedule the repair, ensuring all required materials are printed off the 3D printer and loaded in the van? Or rent accounts that are processed entirely by machines, only bringing in humans when a phone needs answering (except to take a payment) or a customer needs visiting? In an ideal world, when automation is mainsteam, processes will be cheaper to deliver and so resources can be freed up to invest in housebuilding or services that some might describe as ‘added value’.

I expect most of us are currently reviewing our processes and service offerings in the wake of budget cuts and other policy challenges, but how many of us are looking to increase the use of technology in our processes, particularly to automate them?


Interesting links, in no particular order:–introducing-the-rsa-basic-income-model/

Why fit in, when you were born to stand out?

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of being on the same billing as Terrie Alafat, Boris Worrall and Chris Hobson. We were all speaking at a leader’s roundtable event organised by the CIH East Midlands on the topic of unprecedented political change. It was a great event, very well attended with some really interesting debate during the 90 minute session. More importantly, I left the session feeling hugely encouraged; lately, housing can feel like a negative sector to be in, but the senior housing professionals around the room all spoke so passionately about their work. In particular, there was no feeling of a sector that is fracturing, everyone is still looking to work together to provide the housing their area needs.

Below are the notes from my opening pitch, titled as the young leader’s perspective (though I’m not sure how much longer I can get away with claiming to be a young leader!

As we all know, the housing sector has seen huge changes in recent years, which only seem to be increasing exponentially in their scale and number. These changes are challenging our existence and as a result we’re all agonising over who we are, what we do and why.

My perspective is that it’s vital that each housing provider is crystal clear about their vision, objectives and values and stick to them no matter what. And it’s ok for each ALMO, council and housing association to take a different approach. If that means a housing association focuses on purely commercial activity going forward, maybe that’s ok too, do they deserve to be publicly criticised? Doesn’t that just further the Government’s campaign to kill off social housing? At the very least, let’s respect each other’s choices, learn from each other’s successes and failures and focus on making sure everyone has a home they can afford.

It’s deeply ingrained in our sector to compare ourselves to other providers, to make sure we are keeping up with the Jones’s (or the Kardashian’s depending on your generation) but doing it better, faster, cheaper. And now that many of us are dabbling in commercial markets, we have even more comparisons to make.

But I think sometimes it does more harm than good to compare yourself to others, whether they are similar to you or very different. In my role managing market rent properties, I’m often asked what would a private landlord do in a given situation, so that we might follow their example, but given that there are over 2 million private landlords in the UK, there are over 2 million answers to that question! My old landlord sent us a Christmas card every year and replaced our broken boiler in one working day, but I know for sure plenty of other private landlords and even social landlords don’t operate like that!

That’s not to say that comparison is always a bad thing, I think there are definitely some key lessons to learn from private landlords and the wider commercial sector, namely the effect of being financially connected to the activity/company (through personal investment, bonuses, etc) has on innovation, culture and the service customers receive.

So maybe we could all make a late New Year’s resolution to only compare the stuff that matters, that will result in everyone having somewhere affordable to live. And if we all find a different way to achieve that, then so be it, after all, not everyone is facing the same housing crisis.

I think I’m one of a handful of people working in housing that actually sought out this career path, and part of the attraction was to have a positive impact on society and to work for an organisation with strong principles and values, and I think lots of my generation feel the same. So I’ll end by saying whatever your chosen vision and values are, stick to them, don’t let others inside and outside the sector, or the Government, distract or deter you, we’re already facing plenty of change, let’s not create any more than we need to.

To own or to rent

As it’s a new year, it seems appropriate to write a new blog post. My first in a while, actually.

My absence from the blogosphere is mainly a result of becoming a homeowner for the first time. Yes, I’ve finally achieved that Great British aspiration of owning bricks and mortar, I’m sure David Cameron is thrilled.

Unlike most, I’m a big advocate of the private rented sector and didn’t rush into the expense, restriction and responsibility of owner occupation.

For 10 years, I’ve lived in the PRS, first in student housing, then young professional shared housing, then non-shared. I’ve been fortunate to have an awesome landlord, and I mean really awesome. He sent us Christmas cards, reduced the rent when times were hard, replaced our broken boiler in one working day, let us decorate, didn’t charge fees, never increased the rent, provided furniture, gave us a rolling tenancy that lasted 6 years in the end. The list goes on.

This is how renting should be and both private and social landlords could learn a lot from my old landlord. If renting did look like this for the majority, perhaps I wouldn’t have been told about a 1000 times that rent is dead money. I was always happy to pay for the lack of repair responsibility and flexibility to move if needed. Besides, isn’t mortgage interest dead money or am I missing something?!

And finding a house to rent was so much easier than finding one to buy. This may come as a shock to those in the south, but there are some very desirable parts of Sheffield and property gets snapped up. Over the last 12 months, we’ve endured 20+ viewings, using our allotted 15 minutes to decide if we should spend our life savings, before the next of about 20 others came to do the same thing. We’ve offered over the asking price, sometimes by a £1000, sometimes £2000, one time a lot more, only to be out bid.

Meanwhile, friends of ours that had bought a couple of years earlier were enjoying the rising house prices and recalling how it wasn’t that competitive when they were buying. It was very tempting to give up the search or settle for whatever we could get our hands on, just so the ordeal would be over and we could finally say this woodchip wallpaper is all ours.

But we held out and got what we were looking for, albeit we had to offer over the asking price. But being a home owner isn’t enough is it? We have to be the owner of a perfect home, so despite many conversations that we would make do with the current tired decor and steadily improve one room at a time, we’ve spent the last three months pulling down a wall, replacing a roof, plastering and fitting a new kitchen. I was so happy the day we had a functioning kitchen sink and the days of doing the washing up in the bathroom sink were over!

I’m so grateful for everything our landlord did for us, renting from him gave us time to save up a 15% deposit and not rely on Government schemes, the bank of Dad or having to stretch ourselves to buy with a 5% deposit and be burdened with a huge monthly mortgage repayment. I know others are in a very different boat though. Wouldn’t it be great if the Government focused on providing a housing market that provides the different solutions we need during the different phases of our lives, rather than just pushing people to burden themselves with home ownership as quickly as possible?

Anyway, I’ve got woodchip to strip :)


Creative kids

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of working with our Community Development team to run activities for our youth group on the subject of the housing crisis. During three days, they would learn all about the crisis and explore what it means to them in various creative ways, include writing stories, creating poetry bunting, putting themselves in the shoes of Cathy from Cathy Come Home and inventing new super heroes. On the final day, they would see an outdoor theatre version of David Walliam’s Mr Stink.

Day two was where I came in. I’m a member of my organisation’s Creativity Club which uses creative problem solving skills to solve problems for others in the organisation. We spent an afternoon using three of these techniques: boundary examination, reversal and  super heroes and this blog is a little record of what the young people cam e up with them.

Boundary examination involves playing with, exploring and testing the problem definition. The problem I gave the group was ‘How do we solve the housing crisis?’ and this is what hey come up with during the exercise:

How we solve housing crisis
A way Me Fix House Problem
If we can She Answer Home Dilemma
Solving Us Resolve Shelter Issue
Should He Method Flat Obstacle
Could I Crack Bungalow Upset
Can You Make better Mansion Stressful
Must Them Mend Cottage Shortage
Possible Government Problematic Caravan Sadness
If Nigel Mills MP Prevent Tent Annoyed
Successfully The Queen stop Motorhome Drama
Sustainably The Country People Pricey
David Cameron Street Money
They Town

Is it possible that the country could solve the housing crisisSo you can see that by replacing key words in the definition, the nature of the problem and therefore the solution changes, try to solve the mansion shortage is very different to the Queen sustainable resolving the people problem. But I was very impressed by their understanding of how complex the issue is, what the keys features are and how it is probably made up of lots of interconnected problems. As a group we settled on two new problem definitions:

  • Should the housing crisis be fixed

We then moved on to reversal, or as I call it, negative brainstorming. In this exercise we took the problem and went mad thinking up ideas to make it even worse. We then reverse the bad ideas and hopefully they become great solutions! Here are some of the things they came up with:

Negative Positive
A house costs a gazillion pounds Make the world bigger – more places to build houses
We earn £1 a year Build houses out of rubbish
Everyone is on the waiting list Recyclable houses
Crime increases Magically appearing houses
People are scared and go into hiding Houses grow out of the ground
Riots Derelict houses magically transform when you step inside
Move to another country Everyone earns loads
Move to Mars Tree houses
Only one child per family Portable houses
Population dies out Voldemort dies
Food stamps Eco-friendly houses
Nuclear bomb to remove the problem Mobile living
People steal houses Let the crisis solve itself – like evolution
People kill others for their house Money for the homeless
Everyone turns into vampires Houses cost £1
Kill people as they get old Get used to living in another way – small, basic homes
Everyone carries weapons Living in old factories
Rich and poor people swap houses Small houses – straw and wood
Purge the population Free mansions
Take over another country that has room Old people adopt homeless people
Moon crashes into earth Rent out spare rooms
Houses float away House swaps
Ocean full of ships full of people Donate second homes to charity
Aliens invade and take the houses we have left Communal housing
Queen moves abroad Divide large houses into smaller ones
We take over Buckingham Palace Make our island bigger
People kill the Government Floating houses
Lawless state Skyscrapers all the way into space
All trees cut down to build houses, run out of oxygen Tardis houses
Finger nails pulled out if you buy a house Create another realm
Home owners turn into zombies Vacuum packed houses, buy at supermarket
Have to adopt a child if you own a home More money from the Government
Live in bunkers World peace – destroy all bombs
Whole world at war Live at Hogwarts
Voldemort returns David Cameron build the houses
All house blown up Move into no. 10
A protective shield over the countryside Same size houses for everyone
People that pay rent are abducted Move into Parliament
Just one home per family
More homeless shelters – help them find work
House bombs
Join all planets to earth
People live in space
Make money by selling things like bombs
Everyone builds their own house and helps their neighbours
Countries share info on how to solve the housing crisis
Print houses
Use barns for houses
Flat pack houses
Self-building houses
Aliens give us their planet with houses on it
Push a button on a box and it turns into a house

As you can see, some of the ideas were quite ridiculous (some of those are my suggestions!) but that’s the point, creativity is all about wacky ideas, the trick then is to make them useful, then it becomes innovation J

So finally, we pretended to be superheroes and villains and how we could use their powers to tackle our problem. Some of the ideas were:

  • Iron Man could build a gadget that builds houses
  • Iron man is famous so he could promote things for us
  • Black Widow could spy on rich people to see if they have more than one house
  • Black Widow could use her ability to extract information from the Government to see what they plan on doing to solve the housing crisis
  • Spiderman could use his web to drop houses into the right place
  • Antman has a suit that makes him the size of an ant, give everyone this suit so they would need smaller places to live
  • Antman is strong, he can hold ten times his weight, he can build more houses
  • Magneto could scare the Government into building more houses
  • Magneto could collect all the metal and build houses from it
  • Poison Ivy could grow houses from nature
  • Joker could hold the Government to ransom to build more houses
  • Batman has morals (this is possibly my favourite!)
  • Batman could make criminals build houses

We then had a go at creating our own housing superheroes:

  • Hot Head – makes bricks in his belly, can dry cement super fast, fast hands and feet
  • House Girl – has a belt that shoots out houses
  • Magic house hands – shoots out houses from their finger tips
  • Captain housing woman – can turn anything into a house, destroys bad houses

It was a really good few days, and we had a great time at Mr Stink, even though it poured it down for half an hour, the story had some really good messages in it about homeless people. Lots of the above ideas are completely bonkers but hopefully, like me, you can see some a hint of something that could work within the craziness! Young people are definitely an untapped resource with a completely different perspective on the world and we will certainly be doing more sessions like these. I’m also hoping to run a Creativity Club session on how we respond to that Channel 4 news report, I think we’ll need some super powers if we’re going to crack that nut!

On the fringe

Like many other housing professionals, I was at the CIH conference in Manchester this week and for the first time, I was not only a delegate, but a speaker at one of the Treehouse fringe sessions.

I enjoy attending the conference and its always nice to bump into people you haven’t seen for a while and have a catch up in person. However, I do often leave with the feeling that the sessions could get down to the nitty gritty of delivering some of the issues being debated, like how do we get involved with things like the devolution and health agenda when we’re not really welcome at the table? Or how do we tackle the crisis in the counties and shires where the large scale projects that are going on in Manchester and London could never work in a neglected market town?

But I do always leave feeling inspired that despite the huge, complicated and overwhelming challenge that is solving the housing crisis, there is so much opportunity out there and so many examples of people doing some truly innovative things to get people the housing they need. And it makes me excited to be a part of this profession and want to get even more involved. In the not too distant future I’d like to move into a role where I can really do my bit to influence the local policy agenda, to influence the strategic direction of a housing organisation and to design, develop and deliver the policies and projects we need.

If you’re interested in the session I presented at, it was titled the Future of Communication and alongside Boris Worrall and Stuart Macdonald, I gave my thoughts on what comms could look like in the future and then heard pitches Dragons Den style from three Delegates of the Future / GEM students. We heard great ideas including taking comms to where people are in their neighbourhoods, equipping staff with tablets and Omni-channel comms. Boris and Stuart also gave some insightful remarks on getting the staff culture right to enable great comms and how we are perceived by external stakeholders such as the Government and how this should influence our comms with them. My comments focused on the messaging and language that we use and here are the notes from my presentation:

A lot has been said in the last couple of days about the challenges facing the sector, often to quite fundamental aspects of the work we are doing each day in our communities. But as Terrie said on Tuesday this isn’t new, and as we all know change is constant and we’ve certainly been facing a lot of it for a number of years. And the result of all these challenges is that the work we do and the way we approach it has changed and I think we’re increasingly moving away from a paternalistic approach to one of co-production, to delivering services in collaboration with our customers, not just to them.

So for me the way we communicate in the future needs to reflect this and that means having a conversation, tailoring, making it personal,

People don’t build relationships with organisations, they build them with other people. And for all the focus on big data and technology, I don’t think we’ve developed anything that can replace a knowledgeable, empathetic, friendly, front line officer. Yes we can equip them with the technology and data to help them work smarter and deliver an improved service to customers, but people value dealing with a person, and they really value dealing with the same person each time. So combine an officer powered by data and tech and you’ve got some very personal and tailored comms.

On the idea of conversation, a two communication channel, and actually a two way relationship, we can see this in action in the sector already through things like customer deals or contracts, think Bromford or Yarlington and my own organisation has one in the pipeline. Here the focus isn’t here’s what we will do for you, a one size fits all approach, take it or leave it, but here’s what we each put into this relationship so that it’s mutually beneficial.

I think some in the sector are already on this path of personal, tailored, two way conversation, if you think about social media use, the tone used is very different to what you would see in a newsletter or report for example, people can respond immediately and get a personal response very quickly. and you can also see examples of it in new approaches to tenant involvement, as highlighted by the report Family Mosaic issued last week. But I think the future of comms is that this goes much further, especially given the changing needs and expectations of younger generations such as those about to pitch to us who are used to communicating with lots of other organisations in these ways already. Their communication expectations are being set by other companies from a wide array of sectors and we need to keep up with this. We heard from Google on Tues who talked us through how Google products understand and predict your needs, providing you with the info you need at your fingertips as you need it, not only is this tailored it, it’s proactive. So as well as being tailored, personal and two way, but maybe the future of comms could also be proactive, getting the info to people as they need it before they have to ask for it?

All things social

I was reminded this week of the first ever CIH Rising Stars competition and the question posed to the entrants; it was all about the word social and how it can be perceived positively or negatively depending on the context, ie. positive if it’s about social networking, but negative if it’s about social housing. My reminder of this came in a conversation with a colleague about the loss of social values in social housing by some individuals and organisations that are blinded by the promises of a fully commercialised sector.

The phrase commercial head and social heart is thrown around quite a lot but I think it’s a really important principle we must all operate under, whether you work in the not for profit world, public, private or third sector. Given all the challenges of the new Conservative majority government, it worries me that some may consider the social purpose of the housing world to be too negative, too difficult, too risky or too low reward financially to continue bothering with. As has been said many times before, if social housing doesn’t offer a home to those on low incomes, with support needs or in crisis, who will? And if the popularity of Benefit Street and other such programmes is anything to go by, there isn’t much public support out there for our cause.

I know there are thousands of dedicated housing professionals who work tirelessly every single day, sometimes with little thanks or reward other than knowing they have done their bit to tackle the housing crisis where they are. I hope that those on a commercial journey recognise this and their social roots and stay true to them. Some of my work involves managing a small number of homes for market rent, let to households you wouldn’t generally find on a waiting list. So you might ask how does this fit with values of social housing? There’s the usual cross subsidy argument, but also, whilst these households might not be in a crisis or excluded from the market because of their low income or support needs, their needs are not met by the market because what’s on offer is too costly, poor quality,  insecure or badly managed. Their’s is a different type of housing need but nonetheless one that can and should be met by social housing organisations as part of our mission to ensure everyone has a decent and affordable place to call home. But we should not prioritise one type of housing need over another, but tackle as much of each as we can.

I’ve blogged before on this topic of losing our social hearts and it seems that this won’t be the last, I guess all any of us can do is to fight for our cause in any way we can. Mine will be to always operate with a social heart no matter what and I expect my next challenge in this respect will be ensuring our market rent project indirectly benefits those on the waiting list/current social tenants and that we don’t succumb to replicating the practices of the market (such as insecurity and unfair fees) to squeeze out maximum profits but embed our social values alongside our commercial approach.

You may recall that I made the final three of the CIH Rising Stars competiton last year, but you may not know this was actually the second time I had entered the competition. At the start of this post I mentioned the topic of the very first Rising Stars competition; here is my entry from 2011:

How do we tackle the problem that the word ‘social’ is good when followed by ‘networking’ and bad when followed by ‘housing’?

Is it to be expected that the word ‘social’ has positive connotations when followed by ‘networking’ and negative when followed by ‘housing’ given the different concepts that each represents?
Whilst social networking represents a fundamental and forward-thinking change to the way our society communicates and interacts, social housing evokes images of deprivation, exclusion and residualisation.
Whilst social networking is social because it is about people, and about bringing people and information together to one place to interact in their own way; social housing is social because it was created in response to a problem recognised by society (although it’s now considered as much a part of the problem as the solution). And therein lays the source of the positive and negative feelings associated with each term.
But that is not to say that social housing is not also about people; in the same way that the people using social networking make it what it is, the people living in social housing make it what it is. So given that both are about people, I believe that their work must go hand in hand and that they must each learn from the successes of the other for the benefit of the communities they serve.
Social housing providers must recognise and apply to their own work the principles that make social networking so successful. That is, bringing diverse people and information together and empowering them to discuss and tackle the issues that are important to them. Be that through platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and hyperlocal blogs, or by facilitating community groups.
In this way social housing providers can harness the power of social networking and enable communities to tackle the negative perceptions that surround the sector. And in a world where currently the result of media-influenced perceptions becoming reality is that people suffer impoverished lives, it is vitally important that action is taken.
You might think that challenging something as deeply entrenched as the negative perceptions that surround social housing may be beyond the capabilities of a platform where users can only express themselves in 140 characters or less; but the power of social networking should not be underestimated. Earlier this year, it made a significant contribution to the Egyptian revolution and the ending of three decades of violent oppression. How? Revolutionaries used it to transmit their messages to the world and to stimulate international support for their cause.
With this in mind, I believe that social networking can and must be used to empower people to tackle important issues and to challenge the negative perceptions that surround the sector. Ultimately, it must be used to ensure that the word ‘social’ is good when followed by ‘networking’ and ‘housing’.