Time for technology to radically reshape housing?

By Matt Leach - on 03/11/2014

HACT'S Chief Executive Matt Leach discusses how the next wave of new technology will transform housing on a scale we’ve never seen before.

Every decade or so, housing technology goes through a period of transformational change.  The early eighties saw the digitisation of historic paper ledger and spreadsheet based businesses. The late eighties and early nineties saw housing management systems hitting individual desktops as network technology progressed.  Ten years later saw the effective integration of housing managers into IT systems through the deployment of mobile technology – PDAs and more recently iPads.  And we’re now seeing websites redesigned and optimised to enable tenants to self-serve – effectively making residents a part of the housing technology sphere.

All of these changes have in their own ways of being seen as revolutionary.  Providing greater capacity, responsiveness, reach and efficiency for housing businesses.  But they have been based around datasets and models of housing management operation that haven’t changed for over a century.  Housing is still a conventional business that has been digitised, rather than a digitally reimagined business that we’ve seen develop in other sectors, most notably shopping and banking.

But with public finances stretched to breaking point, putting increasing pressure on housing provider business models, not to mention the communities and individuals they serve, it won’t be enough for housing providers to simply aim for more efficiency in otherwise static ways of doing business.  We’re approaching a point at which housing providers will need to radically reinvent their businesses from the bottom up to survive.  And new technologies – and in particular the revolution taking place around big data and live sensor-based data – is going to be one of the driving forces behind that transformation.

The new wave of housing technology set to drive that change is already starting to be seen in the private sector – with the solutions like Nest and Hive coming ever closer to the mainstream.  Deploying these sorts of technology in the social housing sector offers us the opportunity of combining sensor based data from the home with elements of household automation in ways that bring benefits for residents - cheaper energy, better targeted services – with business efficiencies for providers – better and cheaper tenancy management, more effective targeting of investment.

By integrating the home itself into our housing management systems, we may – in time, and as the “internet of things” matures – be able to use live data to assess repairs risk based on household activity; spot under or over occupancy as it occurs; start to shift asset refresh cycles from age to usage; schedule repairs before the resident is aware something is wrong; perhaps target support to a vulnerable resident who we notice hasn’t used their kitchen in a week, or appears to be stuck in a particular room. 

A lot of this won’t be about inventing new technologies – some of this stuff has been used in different forms in the supported housing environment for a long time. What will be new will be its large scale roll out, supported by newly available and affordable cloud infrastructures such as Microsoft’s Azure platform, and the ways in which we will harness that new data in ways that impact on the design and delivery of housing services.  Providing the prospect of increasingly intelligent insight into how our core product – the home – is being used.

What will be most different about this new technology era in social housing will be that the systems that underpin it will increasingly be central to the design and delivery of the service.  Rather than systems being tacked around existing business processes, increasingly, technology in the home and in the housing provider, and the data that comes from it, will be the fundamental driver behind the design of housing provider businesses. 

This won’t happen immediately, and – inevitably - progress will be dependent on significant cultural as well as technological changes in the marketplace.  Residents will need to be convinced of the benefits of living in a new “smart home” – although the increasing ubiquity of technology in everyone’s lives may make this easier than some in the past have feared.  The bigger challenge will be in the housing sector itself, where we’ll need to see a new culture of investment in and valuing of technology and data – something that has been too often neglected in the past.  

We’ll also need to see a new assertiveness and visibility on the on the part of IT teams – moving from a world in which systems are “administered" and IT seen as a business overhead to one in which new technologies are driving transformation across whole businesses.  And – whilst we don’t seem many (or any?) executive board level CIOs or CTOs at the moment – I'd expect that by the end of the  decade we’ll be seeing them in increasing numbers as data and technology helps define the future of our sector on a scale we’ve never experienced before.

This is the extended version of a blog first published on the National Housing Federation blog

Big data; technology; ukhousing

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