Reading the New Year #ukhousing twitter stream, it is striking how few confident predictions for 2016 have yet been made; it would also be interesting to go back to look at the predictions from this time last year – how many would have foreseen a 12 month period in which the term ‘game changing’ became almost ubiquitous.
I guess a lot of people are playing it safe because the truth is that no-one got close to predicting the extent of change that would be experienced by our sector during 2015. A new political settlement, radical changes to our status, the way we are funded, how we are regulated, the ownership of our stock, individually and together changing the very fundamentals of our businesses on an almost monthly basis from the summer on.
We enter the new year still coming to terms with these seismic shifts in our operating environment. As we seek to adjust and adapt our businesses we will need to understand the extent of the new challenges and opportunities we now face. And we will need to ask ourselves some difficult questions about what these changes mean for our missions and values.
One area where there is a certain amount of consensus is the view that we are going to see increasing diversification of business models and business approaches, reflecting the demands presented by local markets. This is likely to accelerate as devolution starts to spread beyond London and Manchester. And, of course, we’re likely to see a fair bit of consolidation, as organisations look to work more closely together – whether through merger, partnership or through the development of shared approaches to service delivery.
I’m also hoping that as a sector we will be able to raise our sights from the immediate pressures and look to the future. This will require a much greater focus on business innovation because one thing that is absolutely clear as we enter a new era for housing is that a lot of the traditional ways of doing business are no longer capable of meeting the needs of the businesses we want to build, and the customers – the tenants and homebuyers – we sell our products and services to.
Let’s be clear, innovation is not the solution to all the challenges we face as a sector. Nevertheless, the uncertainties we now face make innovation, more than ever, essential. Five to ten years after much of the private sector (and in particular retail) started to change the way they understood both businesses and customers, we are going to need to – finally – get serious about data. We haven’t yet seen our first Chief Data Officer appointed to a housing provider but – if we are serious about using data to drive our businesses, I‘d expect to see some soon.
With ubiquitous connectivity, ever smarter cities and the Internet of Things changing the way people conceive of and deliver products and services – from healthcare to education to transport – housing’s reliance on elderly databases and antiquated technology seems increasingly unsustainable.
It’s another area where, as a sector we’re poised for some great leaps forward. And with it, I’d expect that digital literacy will become as important as commercial and financial expertise on our boards in the very near future.
All of that will bring with it new ways of gaining insight into the expectations and needs of those who rent, lease or buy our homes. And ways of understanding and driving change in our businesses that go beyond the benchmarking and survey-based comparisons that have so dominated discussion of performance over the last two decades.
At the end of last year, I succeeded Tom Murtha as Chair of HACT – the housing sector’s in-house innovation agency. Born out of what was the Housing Association Charitable Trust, it’s a not-for-profit agency wholly owned by the social housing sector, with a focus on promoting new and innovative approaches to delivering our business objectives, through both active thought leadership and real world solutions.
Over the coming months, we’re going to be focusing on digital literacy on boards, new ways of understanding value generation in housing businesses, data-led approaches to understanding resident satisfaction, and more technology-led innovation than (fellow HACT board member) Nick Atkin could fly a drone around. If 2015 was somewhat daunting for the sector, 2016 promises more challenges, but also very real and very exciting opportunities to redefine how we deliver our businesses. We have known for some time that the rest of the world has changed, re-forging the expectations of our customers and the way they want to access services and products from us. Not only do we need to catch up with what has happened, we also need to recognise that change is a constant. The outside world will continue to transform itself, changing expectations in ways we need to better understand.