In the past, when people have discussed technology in the context of housing and certainly in the context of social housing, certain words are usually guaranteed to be used within 60 seconds of the conversation starting.
Speed. Cost. Effort. Improvement. Drive. Change. Innovation. Productivity. Solution. Automatic. Connected.
What do all of these words have in common? Well, let’s have a look at the words you are less likely to hear in that conversation and you may see the pattern.
Slower. Expensive. Sustainable. Green. Reuse. Harder. Recycle. Upcycle. Healthy. Family. Community. Planet.
You may be nodding along as you read this, thinking, “Ah, but now that everyone is talking about sustainability, I can drop those words in now and again and it makes me sound like I have my finger on the pulse.” Well, good – so those words are creeping into conversation but why and to what end?
I’d like to think that the ‘why’ is because innovative industry leaders such as Centrica, Apple, BMW, BT, Adidas and L’Oréal have got ahead of the game and started developing products that engender a change in the ethos of those companies.
Perhaps this then filters to others, businesses and consumers. People start taking notice, saying, “Well, if Apple is using sustainable materials, then it must be the right way to go”, and “Actually, I can do without everything being super cheap and easy if it’s greener and more sustainable”. And of course, in theory one should follow the other until we no longer need to make that choice.
The cynic in some of us may suspect it’s because the housing sector loves a fad. I’ve heard it said that housing is a sector that literally waits for the next change in tide to come along and then jumps on it like a drunk surfer trying to look cool in front of a beach full of very unimpressed spectators.
The reality is that the housing sector is very good at providing housing. That’s its main job. It’s never been a leading sector in terms of technology or even sustainability. That’s not to say it couldn’t or shouldn’t be. In fact, perhaps it’s positioned very well to be just that.
To what end?
As housing providers, we can tap into expert resources and develop our own in-house skillsets and push the envelope, show the way, lead the charge and strike other gung-ho attitudes. But because we’re social housing providers, maybe there’s always a voice at the back of our minds, saying, “Play it nice and cool, Trigger, nice and cool, you know what I mean.”
Are housing providers ever likely to develop sites that are initially more expensive to build and offer lower profits? Are they likely to develop homes that may cost more but are better for the planet? New technologies are generally expensive in broad terms, so their adoption is often slow until costs reduce. Solar panels are a good example of a modern, green, energy-saving technology that was initially expensive and has now become more attainable for people.
It makes me wonder where the line of morality lies. At what point do we say, “OK, money is less important to us as a business than doing the right thing for our planet and for our children’s future.”
It’s all too easy to use the latest buzzwords around sustainability and talk a good talk about how it’s important but when it comes down to the bottom line, who is brave enough to put profit on the backburner and agree that some things are more important?
How about building homes entirely from recycled materials that use completely natural heating?
How about developing areas, villages or sites that can be travelled to and from using completely green transport?
How about donating profits to sustainable housing in countries that are not as fortunate as ours in terms of financial stability?
How about funding research into biodegradable products inside the home?
This list could go on and on…
It’s unrealistic to suggest that businesses take a long term and less profitable stance on the way they innovate, create and develop. But baby steps eventually turn into athletic strides, given the right environment and encouragement.
Consider your own role in housing. How could you take more baby steps, or how could you cultivate the right environment to take athletic strides towards a more sustainable world?
We can all keep one eye on sustainability when developing initiatives. We can all try to suggest greener alternatives whenever possible.
Ultimately, we can choose to develop technological advances without forethought, as have many of our predecessors, and there is an argument that many of the world’s greatest technological innovations paid little mind to sustainability but rather focused on a solution to a specific need. Or we can choose to think; there’s no harm in at least thinking about sustainability.
Some would say that the very best technological inventions have perhaps inadvertently shown us ways to be more sustainable; computers have brought us to a place where paper is barely needed and digital music has done a decent job of removing physical waste (I still have a David Hasselhoff cassette if anybody wants it).
So perhaps sustainability and innovation go hand in hand and we shouldn’t worry about it at all. But just to be on the safe side, why don’t we all consider why and to what end sustainability is now merging with technology and innovation.
Housing already has the sandpit; we just need the creative minds to play in it and build a future that will last. And I really do have a David Hasselhoff tape you can have, just DM me.
Adam Rigg is a futurologist at Red Kite Community Housing.