21st Century placeshaping

As advisers we don’t only look at what works well (and not so well) in the current operating environment, we also look forward to see where current sector and wider social, political and economic trends might be taking us and how we should consider adaptive behaviours now to help us adapt to the future. Our ‘Future Gazing, Future Shaping’ research pieces are designed to do just that.

Much of the current discussion is focussed on the transformative – or disruptive – impact of new and emerging technologies on the manner of doing business. These discussions result in transformation programmes, digital strategies and the like; they are about adapting current organisations and their ways of working to the new landscape – in common, of course, with every organisation public, private and third sector.

What is less well developed perhaps is the impact on the fundamental nature and purpose of housing associations themselves. What I set out here is a possible future where the role of associations as placeshaping bodies is in itself radically disrupted. And That possible future may be a lot closer than we think.

Let’s start with an ordinary, well-run, middling size association in the Home Counties. As part of their ongoing commitment to excellence they wanted to know what really mattered to their tenants, over and above the ‘how are we doing with repairs?’ type questions. What was interesting is that what really[1] mattered was not so much the relationship between the landlord and the tenant but between the tenant and their sense of place – notably about personal and community safety and fear of crime. My sense was that this felt like an extension of the old legal concept of ‘quiet enjoyment’ out beyond the place of residence to the neighbourhood and the community.

Now let’s go halfway around the world to the city of Shenzhen in China, recently in the news due to the deployment of a telling combination of Artificial Intelligence (AI), facial recognition technology, the interlinking of municipal and financial databases and the concept of ‘social credit’. There is a long and fascinating story to tell but in brief the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour are encoded in the AI and tracked by means of facial recognition (and other means e.g. vehicle tracking). Good behaviour is rewarded, and bad behaviour is sanctioned – without human intervention. Parking privileges revoked for speeding? Automatically deducted fines for jaywalking? Similarly, the popular Chinese tourist destination of Wuzhen has already deployed city-wide facial recognition to facilitate ticketless access (and digital billing) to the cultural facilities and to manage the peaks and troughs of tourist influx. As an aside, I can remember driving up the M6 one summer and heard on the radio “please don’t come to the Lake District, it’s full” and, of course, the use of the technology to manage the Congestion Zone in London is now business-as-usual.

For those of you thinking that such deployments might occur in command-and-control economies but not democratic capitalist ones, let’s start our journey home with a stop-off at a gated community in Florida, USA. The same principles are in operation – legally enforceable community standards, privatised police forces, physical access control, and so on and so forth. The technology does not enable the kind of approach; it simply makes it far easier and cheaper to deploy and manage.

Returning home, is it possible to envisage an association that has promised to listen to, and act upon, the wishes of its tenants and residents? Certainly; most, if not all, do. There is already a plethora of ‘compacts’ and ‘agreements’ that set out the aspiration for community standards and the management of anti-social behaviour. Is it possible to envisage that those wishes might be best served by the deployment of 21st century technology such as AI and facial recognition? Certainly.  Particularly so if value for money is taken into account. Is it possible to envisage such a deployment gaining police and legal approval? I would say so; the ubiquitous deployment of CCTV (and its supporting legal infrastructure) means that the door is already halfway open. Would there be local authorities that would be supportive?

A more difficult question perhaps but given that we have already seen some quite radical experiments in the expression of local democracy (e.g. The London Borough of Barnet’s approach to radical outsourcing) then the answer is probably ‘probably’. The outcomes of the current RIBA/CIH/LGA/RTPI #FuturePlace exercise[2] (an initiative which will “unlock place-making potential at local level through quality in design, future thinking, and knowledge sharing”) should be really interesting to see in that context.

All the building blocks for an incredibly radical change to the nature of associations are already in place; the question is whether somebody will assemble all of the pieces. If (when) they do, 21st century ‘placeshaping’ will be a genuine combination of bricks and mortar and the encoding and regulating of an AI. When that happens, governance will never be the same – and neither, for that matter, will regulation. Have a look around your board table – are you ready? Does your board’s skill set include ethics, algorithms and artificial intelligence?


[1] OK – who heard the Spice Girls at this point?

[2] The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), Local Government Association (LGA) and Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI)