Business and IT strategies within the housing sector tend to be born more from efficiency and growth than from the drive for innovation and investment that we see in other sectors. With a lack of inherent competition, this presents a challenge – a ‘digital lag’ – that leaves the housing sector playing catch-up in meeting ever-growing digital expectations. It also presents a huge opportunity to drive meaningful change and the chance to tackle environmental and customer-facing problems on a level playing field.
To scale business processes and make them more efficient, operational processes are becoming more automated, with individuals (both staff and tenants) having to adapt to this change. As we move towards a future where adaptability and situational awareness are key, digital transformation will require employees who can resolve complexity, upskill to meet advances in technology, and adapt to new models of working.
For housing providers, digital transformation should sit under a framework of a strategic plan that mirrors key housing challenges including climate change, collaboration, responding to human needs, creating resilient solutions, and delivering incremental value.
Shifting towards a zero-carbon future
Although we are seeing high levels of investment in the creation of carbon-neutral homes, it’s likely that ambitions will need to stretch further to carbon-negative solutions that, over the next ten years, will start to pay back some of the carbon debt that has been amassed over the last 150 years. The buzzword is ‘retrofit’, and it’s here that innovation and technology are needed to negate the high costs of retrofitting to 2050 standards.
Pilot schemes such as housing upgrades in Nottingham and Maldon using the Energiesprong system are being observed with interest. Like any good technical strategy, these initiatives are linked to the housing provider’s business strategy, with income received via the fee for performance paid by the tenant, as well as the expected maintenance and cost savings over the next 30 years, covering the cost of the work.
With the 2050 target of net zero emissions being one of the major challenges facing housing providers, individual businesses have looked to address the problem by not only sharing the cost but also by delivering high, ongoing value across the sector. In April 2021, five of the UK’s largest housing providers (Abri, Anchor, Hanover, Home, Hyde and Sanctuary) formed the Greener Futures Partnership to improve the energy efficiency of their combined 300,000 homes and, together, develop decarbonisation solutions for the social housing sector.
More significantly, GFP has started with a bold but potentially sector-redefining goal. Each housing provider in the group will benefit from the financial, technological and energy efficiency gains that collaboration brings. This signals the group’s commitment to “join forces and resources as a sector to support the UK’s shift towards a zero-carbon future, to help the environment and improve the lives of millions of people.”
This is where the opportunity for the housing sector lies: through more meaningful collaboration, complex problems can be tackled efficiently. With the benefits of shared knowledge and pooled experience, the housing sector can prepare for the increasingly challenging problems the future is bound to deliver.
Responding to people’s needs through technology
In addition to looking at the technological efficiency gains that collaboration brings, businesses should consider how new technologies can focus on people’s real needs, to deliver value and make improvements to the lives of both tenants and staff. The adoption of technology can play a major part in providing tenants with a voice, in making them feel safe, in reporting on landlord performance and spending, in managing complaints, and in helping landlords keep homes in good repair.
A recent survey saw respondents from across the housing sector overwhelmingly choose ‘asset management and property repairs’ as the area that would most positively benefit from investment in technology and innovation. Delivering solutions for self-service repairs gives tenants flexibility and choice, and the simplest of solutions to the most thorough integration can provide savings and benefits for the housing provider.
In a volatile world, it is more important than ever to deliver little and often against a multi-year plan. Where changes to the economy could have a direct impact on tenants’ ability to pay rent, alongside increased costs and lower availability of materials and resources, the housing sector needs to be delivering in this way; iterative benefits and focusing on agile delivery are probably more important now than they have ever been.
In housing, there can be no short-term focus; metrics are yearly and investments tend to match that. This creates a significant challenge when it comes to funding non-essential projects and initiatives. It is impossible to have clarity on budgets year-on-year and waterfall planning for any project isn’t realistic.
Successful businesses will be those that are agile enough to work in shifting climates, but the potential overall cost and timeline should always be front of mind, and flexibility should be built into any digital transformation strategy.
Simon Evans is the chief technology officer at Amido.