HACT's new Director of Innovation and Business Development, Jim Vine, reflects on his first week at HACT, and how we as an organisation can cater to the challenges ahead for the housing sector.
So, I am approaching the end of my first week at HACT, and what a week it has been! I have started making contact with users of Community Insight to hear how it works for them; I have been urged to tweet more and to blog (check and, now, check); I have witnessed the birth of a new work-stream; I have been out and about representing HACT, including at the great Orbit 2020 vision event… And above all, I have been amazed at the sheer quantity of brilliant things HACT is working on and the incredible energy being deployed to help housing providers achieve their social missions.
As well as trying to ensure I have at least a passing familiarity with everything HACT is working on, I have also been getting a feel for what is going on in our wider networks. One of the most interesting things that I have heard about was last weekend’s Housing Camp, which HACT’s CEO Matt Leach was full of praise for. It’s clear from the twitter feed and the storify that the event – the first unconference in the housing sector – saw a heap of ideas generated, a tonne of enthusiasm stoked, and a mound of sharing.
As I heard about the Housing Camp, I reflected on the last major event I attended in my previous role as the head of BSHF's UK housing policy and practice programme, the Housing Studies Association (HSA) conference. Creating an evidence-based approach to housing was high on the agenda at the HSA, which was once again hosted by York University. With keynote presentations from Grainia Long, David Orr and Kevin Dodd (Chief Executive of Wakefield and District Housing), the HSA demonstrated that, although it is primarily an academic association, it is more open to those with a practitioner focus than many scholarly bodies.
Even amongst those bona fide academics at the event, housing studies as a discipline is clearly a broad church. Not only do researchers come from a range of intellectual backgrounds (economics, geography, sociology, ...) but they also cover a broad range from the very theoretical to the highly practical. This potentially represents a huge strength for the sector, providing many sources of knowledge to draw on.
At the practical end of the scale, for example, many university housing research centres undertake evaluation projects, looking at programmes to establish what worked and what didn't. Conversely, deep theoretical scholarship is not immune to being applied too, with the right kind of effort: Daniel Fujiwara's work for HACT that allows housing providers to derive a financial value for their social impact relies on some serious thinking, yet is already useful for providers considering how to deploy their resources.
What is clear is that, given the many changes affecting the sector, now more than ever there is a need for innovation – for housing providers and the wider housing movement to think new thoughts and try new ideas. And these innovations should be viewed as a form of applied research, because if properly conducted we should be left afterwards with a clearer view of what works in housing.
So, with those two events in mind, how can we draw on the best of the Housing Camp and the HSA? How can we generate the wealth of ideas that we need, and ensure that housing’s extensive research resources and expertise are used to check which innovations actually deliver benefits for people and for communities? A good starting point would be to ensure that we build our networks, to make sure people are talking together: looking at the attendance lists of the two events, perhaps the only person who made it to both was Hilary Burkitt of Affinity Sutton. Talented though she undoubtedly is, we would be placing a lot on her shoulders if we required her to be the sole conduit between these two ways of thinking and working!
As I get up to speed at HACT I want us to build the innovation-based partnerships that will enable housing providers to deliver their social missions; develop tools that will drive increasingly compelling insight about households and communities; and continue to build HACT’s relationships with communities of innovators in housing and beyond.
As belts are tightened over the coming years, building and using an evidence base to establish what works, and driving forward partnerships to share innovation and creativity will not be luxuries, they will become absolute necessities.
Jim Vine joined HACT as Director of Innovation and Business Development this week. Previously, he was at BSHF, a housing research organisation, for six years, heading up the UK Housing Policy and Practice programme.