What does digital transformation mean for residents and communities?

By Thames Menteth-Wheelwright - on 17/12/2019

“How can we, as housing providers, use technology to help residents and communities to thrive?”

That was the challenge that Gavin Cansfield, Chair of HACT, posed to delegates at the opening of the Connecting our Business and Social Objectives with Technology event HACT convened in partnership with O2.

Hosted at Wayra, the event brought together industry experts from across the housing and digital sectors, with the aim of broadening conversations around the role of digital transformation in housing, particularly in the community investment space.

As the day unfolded, various speakers and start-ups demonstrated that there are various answers to the question that Gavin posed. Meanwhile, the breakout sessions highlighted some of the huge challenges facing community investment.

A common theme was a desire to use tech to better understand the lives of residents and communities, improve their self-esteem and aspirations, and enable positive and long-lasting social change.

Tackling the poverty premium

Emma Steele from Ascension Ventures, an early stage tech investor, talked about social innovations in housing from a funder’s perspective. Having previously worked on ways of using scalable investment to make a dent in the poverty premium (the extra cost of being poor), Steele spoke about the value of working with housing associations and local councils to better understand the needs of low-income households and bring tech innovation closer to solving some of these issues.

Start-up incuto has also brought innovative approaches to this issue by thinking about how to improve low-income communities’ access to credit unions. Jase Wheatley from incuto spoke about how the company hopes to combat loan sharks by offering financially vulnerable residents access to community-based ethical finance. Jase called on delegates at the event to partner more closely with community investment teams and frontline staff working with residents who face financial difficulties so they can access these services.

Enabling better connectivity

Bev Wright, Head of Local Government & Third Sector at O2, spoke about the potential of 5G to enable a more connected world and create an integrated infrastructure that connects businesses, industries and communities. Connectivity through 5G is at the heart of O2’s digital housing vision, and could benefit housing associations, as well as residents and their communities.

Matt Spencer, Head of Public Sector Sales at O2, discussed ways of making mobile connectivity affordable for low-income residents and supporting digital inclusion by collaborating with different service providers to deliver a Shared Rural Network (SRN) that brings connectivity to people in isolated areas.

For Tom Way, Innovation Manager at L&Q Group, Hanif Osmani, Programme Manager at Poplar HARCA, and Julie Alexander at Places for People, connectivity was also a priority, especially as more of their services are being delivered online. According to Places for People, understanding “who is and isn’t connected” is a crucial step towards being a fully digital business, especially as many of their customers are rurally located. Poplar’s approach is also about ensuring that people can connect, even if they don’t have wi-fi or devices in their homes, by offering digital access in public spaces, such as community centres.

Digital training experts We are Digital are also working on solving the digital divide. Currently, many residents miss out on digital services that social housing organisations offer as well as the more general benefits of being online, such as employment, access to benefits, or cheaper shopping. By developing an app that will enable housing providers to deliver digital inclusion training, WAD is targeting these digitally excluded residents, fundamentally improving access.

Improving the customer experience for residents and staff

The second-deep dive session on using technology to improve the customer experience for residents and staff was facilitated by Unboxed, a service design and digital product development agency. Encouraging workshop participants to think about needs from a user’s perspective – whether that's a resident, staff member or other stakeholder – involved techniques including creating personas, asking “how might we” questions and concept sketching. These were just some examples of a wider toolkit designed to address the challenges faced by housing associations wanting to offer better services.

Fuzzlab, a tech start-up that provides virtual agents and AI solutions for social housing organisations, is also focused on improving the customer experience by enabling self-service. By removing call volumes, housing associations’ contact centres are free to deal with tenants who need them the most, the company’s CEO Scott Summers explained.

Another start-up, Okappy, offered a different, but equally innovative solution, through its workforce management platform. As Richard Harris, Okappy’s founder said, the app allows information to flow from the order maker right through to the engineer, making the lives of sub-contractors easier, saving housing providers time and money, and improving transparency for residents.

For Hanif from Poplar HARCA, good customer service was enabled by focusing on local place-based approaches. Schemes such as Poplar’s local partnership WellOne have drawn together three housing associations, GPs, schools and corporates in one area to work collaboratively on tackling health and wellbeing inequalities. Technology, and access to technology, has also been a big part of other areas of collaborative focus for Poplar. This is particularly the case around tackling information poverty, a need Poplar have responded to by working with service providers in Tower Hamlets to create an online directory of local activities.

IoT in housing

Bev Wright also talked about how O2 is taking a lead on IoT (Internet of Things) technologies, having done trials with Bosch, using Edge Computing and IoT, to replace quarterly maintenance of machinery with maintenance only when it’s actually needed.

IoT technologies were also the focus for many start-ups who presented. Sam Shiles, Head of Software Development at Homelync, spoke about how IoT could relieve the pressure that social landlords are under to innovate, with Homelync promising to unify existing IoT solutions. Rowley Maggs from SmartRent, a start-up from the US, declared that “smart automation is here to stay”. SmartRent has been rolled out in the private sector, but now home automation is arriving in the social housing sector in a big way and, as Rowley said, could create value for social landlords that can then be reinvested in building new housing and maintaining existing stock.

There are significant challenges facing community investment currently; barriers around government policy, geography and funding which define the current operating environment. However, throughout all of the day’s discussions on digital innovation, the importance of partnership and collaboration was a uniting theme. As the event itself demonstrated, it is by working collaboratively and sharing challenges, ideas and information across sectors that housing providers alongside digital investors can better understand the needs of residents and find innovative and long-lasting solutions together.

You can listen to the speakers and panelists, and review some of the presentations here.


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