Death to #hashtags - long live innovation

By Matt Leach - on 11/11/2014

As the war between housing’s tech pioneers and traditionalists drones on, housing data geek Matt Leach, chief executive of HACT, explains why the noise on social media will soon become irrelevant.

This blog was oroginally published on the 24 Housing website. Click here to go there now.

There’s a bunch of words out there in housing that I’m making it my mission to retire around the turn of the year due to their relentless over-use during 2014.  These include “hackathon”, “camp”, “lab”, “disrupt”, “hub”, “innovation” and anything else with a #hashtag attached.  A moratorium on articles about “tablets” and “drones” may also be in order. 

This may come as a bit of a shock to those of us who routinely write articles and blog pieces composed of a random reordering of these slightly over-used terms, with a few paras chucked in between to pad the thing out.  Its bound to upset some of the housing twitterati now enjoying their second year on 24Housing’s social media #powerplayer list. And from a personal point of view it’s going to cause me a huge amount grief with the comms team as – when the time comes – we argue over what HACT’s new strapline should look like.

If I succeed in my mission, I’m also expecting a whole load of trouble from the likes of Ade Capon and his #housingday collaborators; for Paul Taylor to eye me darkly through his Google glass; to spend a lot of time looking over my shoulder to check for stalking Halton drones; and to be put on the supervillain list by Asif Choudry, the main mover behind the #commshero phenomenon that has swept housing provider comms and marketing teams over the last year or so.

But if we can collectively manage to purge housing of these #hashtags – and I think there’s a decent chance - it won’t be because any of these initiatives have failed.  Rather, it will be because a lot of what over the last couple of years has been celebrated massively on twitter but in reality existed only the edge of housing policy and practice will have deservedly made it into the mainstream of the way we do business across the sector. 

Some of this will be due to the ever-accelerating march of affordable technology driving things from pilot project to ubiquitous everyday tool at a pace it’s hard to hold back.  When the cost of giving a tablet to a new tenant turns out to be cheaper that designing and printing a welcome pack to their property - and we’re pretty much there (and that’s before you take into account savings from online as opposed to telephone or face to face service delivery) - their use in housing will stop being the subject of trade magazine news stories and become just something people do. 

The range and increasing affordability of home automation and instrumentation systems on the market at the moment suggests it won’t be very much longer before household sensor technology moves from supported and older peoples’ housing into the mainstream (and probably just in time as the UK population starts to rapidly age).

And as more and more housing providers start to lever the power of big data to better understand their businesses either individually or collectively (and there are half a million homes’ worth of landlords pooling a significant part of their datasets in partnership with HACT and Microsoft at the moment), it will move from the experimental and innovative to become something that people just do as a matter of course to better understand their businesses and drive value for money.  In the same way that benchmarking became ubiquitous in the sector some fifteen years ago.

Some of these changes will be driven by culture shifts happening more widely across public services as new ideas gain traction and prove value.  Viridian and Bromford both have innovation teams built around service design principles (the current flavour of the month nearly everywhere with a hashtag close to hand).  Bromford’s Lab may getting most of the coverage; but Viridian’s work, led by Ed Wallace is quietly chalking up its own successes, recently fielding three of the ten finalists in NESTA’s Housing Open Data Challenge; and there are other housing providers pursuing similar, if less branded approaches to rethinking the way they deliver services.  We may be approaching a point when being innovative isn’t innovative any more…

In campaigning, we’re already seeing stuff shifting from twitter-led grassroots activism to something that transcends the channels that originally launched them.  #Housingday started out only a year ago as a grassroots, bottom up attempt to tell stories about the reality of social housing.  The phenomenal success of its first year has seen more people than ever – many not traditionally vocal on social media – sign up to share more stories this year.  Its been embraced by traditional sector institutions - both the NHF and CIH will be playing a part this year.  And as this month’s edition of 24housing demonstrates, the build up to it has included some fantastic media work, such as the brilliant launch video by Richard McCann, going way beyond the original DIY aesthetic of 2013.

I’m also expecting the housing conference industry to learn fast from un-events like #housingcamp, HouseParty and #DigitalFirst (Nick Atkins’ fantastic “hands on” digital event in Manchester this September), finding new ways to attract and engage with audiences that perhaps don’t see the benefit in attending more conventional “sit down and listen” events.  HACT is hoping to work more closely with CIH to link up our HouseParty fringe to the mainstream Manchester conference next year.  The CIH’s own initiative in inviting a thousand young housing professionals to the final day of Housing 2015 is a massive step forward in engaging with a demographic that represents the future of housing sector – I’m looking forward to seeing how the programme that day reflects the sorts of interest and excitement they’ll bring with them on their first visit to Manchester.

So where does this leave the innovators – as much of what they’ve promoted becomes a part of the mainstream? I guess we can look to the much hyped Gartner hype cycle as well as the excellent IEEE report on technology in 2022.  There’s a lot of cool new tech stuff to tweet about yet.  More immediately, though, we need to be rather urgently looking to the recent reports from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation which set out – in different ways – the grim reality of public services post-2015.  Indeed the coming post-election squeeze on public services (whoever wins) is going force radical change in almost all sectors touched by the state – as the excellent recent report by the New Local Government Network makes clear in the context of local authorities. There may be a coming ban on excessive #hashtagging (if anyone pays attention to articles in 24housing), but if we’re to deliver on our mission as a sector we’re going to need a lot more innovation yet.

innovation; big data; hash tags

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