Harry is a consultant working in London, and on most Thursday evenings, up until a few weeks ago, he’d go to bed hungry. Thursdays are when his company’s senior directors are in the office and he, along with his colleagues, is careful to ensure he shuffles home at least five minutes after the last director has left. Harry is no fan of microwave meals, but by the time he arrives home, it’s too late to cook from scratch and too late to wait for a delivery of chilli chicken ramen.
Three weeks ago, however, Harry became aware of an internet platform, ‘if this then that’ (IFTTT) – the poster child of grassroots innovation. It lets users build and run neat little automations that knit together apps and services to perform tasks, such as, “If I am at Waterloo station between 18.45 and 20.00 on Thursday then in one hour order any one of my favourite meals from Deliveroo.” So now Harry doesn’t go to bed hungry on Thursdays and has even started to look forward to leaving late.
Now your first thoughts might be, “So what?” or, “That isn’t an especially exciting innovation” or even, “That’s not solving a particularly interesting problem”, and I’d agree. But it is Harry’s problem, and it’s a solution that is very particular to him. After all, the number of people who commute from Waterloo who like the food Harry likes and who return late on Thursdays to an empty apartment are vanishingly small.
The brilliance of IFTTT is how it provides a richness of expression that operates over a plethora of online services such as communication, calendaring, smart-home tech, social media and online retail. There is also a beauty in its simplicity. It encourages its users to build solutions that may be short-lived, or to modify them regularly in line with changing needs and circumstances. IFTTT lets users scratch all sorts of itches, however mundane.
When it comes to housing, and in particular apartment living, there are many itches that need to be scratched. So far, all of the scratching is performed by the systems and services built by housing professionals. Many of these are very innovative, such as low code, digital agents, big data, machine learning and robotics. But there is also a whole world of discomfort that big-vision (big budget) projects will never be able to soothe.
Like IFTTT, many solutions will only ever apply to one or two developments, groups or even individuals. They may need to change (profoundly) over time and will be best understood and adapted by the people who use them. And those people are not just residents, but landlords, on-site staff (concierges, cleaners, gardeners), contractors (plumbers, electricians), service providers (estate agents, local takeaways, couriers) and management. This wide array of actors, coupled with significant variations in the ways that buildings operate, means that there is not only a whole variety of problems to be solved, but that each solution will be subtly or not-so-subtly different from building to building and from community to community.
So what are examples of grassroots problem-solving? How about a ‘rebuke’ service that lets security staff quickly send a pre-written text to anyone with a messy balcony or badly-parked car? Or a display in a concierge office that shows where the staff are whenever they leave the office? Or a smart key system that releases keys to estate agents when they arrive on site? Or a snagging app that advises new owners on how to snag a new apartment? Or a diagnostics app that walks a user through a path to fix a common problem? Or an app that helps vulnerable residents send alerts to neighbours or staff? Or an app that allows residents borrow or hire tools? The list goes on and on…
We can’t expect to build an app for every new itch. Instead, we need an innovation platform for housing. As with IFTTT, it must be expressive enough to support all sorts of possibilities, yet simple to use. And by use, I mean consume and create solutions. Unlike IFTTT, the platform must support multiple actors and provide a base-level set of abstractions that are specific to housing (not least the idea of occupancy and ownership). It must also provide carefully controlled access to data, communications and services. Unlike the low-code solutions in operation in the housing sector today, in the spirit of innovation, it should be possible to build and deploy new production-level functionality in hours or even minutes, not weeks or months. It should also be possible to adapt and extend solutions continuously with no downtime or adverse impact on users.
Over the past few years, in part inspired by academic research and in part from learning from trial deployments, we have designed and built what we believe to be the first grassroots housing innovation platform of its kind: Buttonkit. This can be thought of as a remote control for developments; buttons sit on a screen (in an app or on the web) and, when pressed, do something. That something might be logging a noise report, notifying a resident that a parcel has arrived, recording the details of a property inspection, unlocking a door, displaying the temperature reading from the pool and so on.
Buttons themselves are very easy to use, though they often mask rich functionality; all of which is created using a web-based, no-code interface. We model buttons as decision trees, where each node in the tree is either a question (e.g. a set of options, a picture, a signature, text and so on) or an endpoint (i.e. something that is done once questions have been answered such as storing data, notifying users, calling a webhook, emitting a real-time event). When answering questions or transitioning between endpoints, the decision to move from one node to the next is determined by a set of rules whose conditions include the answers to previous questions.
With these relatively simple concepts, we have created an expressive environment that can be used to create a wide range of functionality. Smart solutions can be built by simply connecting nodes together in different ways. Moreover, the services that emerge are production-ready out of the box. They use the same management infrastructure operated by Google and other large enterprises (Kubernetes), containerised microservices, replicated autoscaling databases and a real-time engine built to sync data across millions of devices.
So is this the future? We think it is one of them. It’s early days, but we are convinced that standing between grassroots innovation and the housing sector is a platform that supports rapid experimentation and innovation. Such a platform will free us up to start thinking small; we think we’ll be surprised where it takes us.
Tom Lodge is a research fellow at Nottingham University and co-founder of Buttonkit.