You really needed to be there, but Mark Cantrell offers a few hindsight highlights of what proved an entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking two-day conference and exhibition
Jill Murray may have spoken on the second day of Housing Digital Live, held this week at Edgbaston Stadium in Birmingham, but with her passionate and heart-rending headline speech, she all-but stole the entire show.
On the face of it, the new president of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) came to promote her presidential campaign – be EPIC. If anyone in the audience was expecting some kind of straightforward managerial pep-talk, they were in for a surprise.
“My Be EPIC campaign is in fact my personal story,” she said. “It’s not something that I’ve dreamt up for the purpose of being the Chartered Institute of Housing president; it’s about my belief in the housing sector, and in its role to deliver positive change to people and to communities.”
Murray’s speech was powerful, emotional, and rooted in tragedy – a very personal tale, indeed – but it was a story that goes to the heart of her presidency, her career, and her own lived experience. It has informed everything that she has done.
The message is a simple one: Housing is the foundation and a launchpad for a fulfilling life. Everything we do is built on the stability of a safe and secure home.
In 2023 309, 000 people spent Christmas without a home, she began; “more than the whole population of Newcastle-upon-Tyne”. Later, she added that 48% of children in Newcastle still live in poverty. Stark figures, indeed.
“No matter who you are, home is the place where everything begins,” she said, “and yet in the UK housing is not considered a basic human right.”
She added: “Be EPIC is also about the housing sector, and the important role that we each play in delivering positive change to people’s lives by being the best professionals that we can be.”
In its way, Murray’s speech went to the heart of what Housing Digital Live is ultimately all about. The event focuses on innovation, of course, but at the end of the day, it’s about harnessing all those tools, and gadgets and sophisticated software machines, to enhance the sector’s performance – to deliver good homes and services, and deliver the positive change Murray expects.
Many of the sessions, in fact, found themselves threaded by a commonly occurring message that cropped up again and again. Technology is there to enhance and augment people; not to replace them, or to remove their agency.
Food for thought
Overall, there were many highlights over the two-day event, held at Edgbaston Stadium in Birmingham; far too many to share here, but we can provide a taste or two.
On day one, Richard Blakeway, the Housing Ombudsman, sadly wasn’t able to attend on the day, but the ombudsman service didn’t leave delegates in the lurch, sending along Kathryn Eyre in his stead.
She talked through the Ombudsman’s latest reports, looking at some of the big themes that have emerged out of the service’s case files, highlighting lessons learned, and sharing how social landlords can improve their operations.
It may often feel, these days, that the Housing Ombudsman is focused on placing landlords on the ‘naughty step’, but as Eyre made clear – it’s all about learning and improving. Indeed, she urged her audience to send in their case studies demonstrating the good practice out there, so these can be shared with the sector to spread a little positivity too.
One of her key messages was that good governance and culture, combined with strong data and information management is a sound foundation for delivering better services to residents. But she warned no system will ever be good enough to cope with poor data entry, so watch out for those typos…
Ryan Dempsey, chief executive of TCW, picked up the theme of data, albeit from a different slant, with his keynote speech: the many faces of data. He served a reminder that not all data is equal, and nor should we assume that ‘data’ is a synonym of ‘objective’.
Some data is subject to perception; how we see things, which invites a more subjective view of what ‘data’ is telling us. Then there’s ‘perspective’. As he pointed out, there’s a difference between ‘perception’ and ‘perspective’.
As Dempsey put it in his speech, he’s got ‘objective data’ and what he called ‘lateral’ data. A pen was his illustrative tool for objective data; everyone agrees it’s a pen. But he went on to say there are other – ‘lateral’ – things that aren’t objective, because the interpretation of the data depends on where you sit in relation to it. It’s coloured by our perception.
“Perception versus perspective,” he added, “simply means when you look at something you will have a perception of that from your perspective, from your opinion, from your experience, from your knowledge, and you will judge it based on how you feel about it, rather than zooming out … change the angle, rotate round 90 degrees, have a look at it from a different perspective.”
Culture of collaboration
Later on the first day, delegates were given a fascinating insight into the culture of innovation, courtesy of two keynote speakers Leanne Hurrell, head of UK regional public sector and former innovation leader at AWS. She talked about the gruelling – yet liberating – experience of Amazon’s approach to nurturing an innovation mindset.
The process Hurrell went on to outline could, perhaps, be described as a turbo-charged brainstorming session; where ideas are intensely questioned and critiqued by colleagues. Crucial to this is a culture that accepts – indeed expects – failure as part of the process, as part of the learning; one where colleagues have the confidence to put across their ideas, but also to speak up and challenge the status quo.
It is rooted in a total focus on what the customer needs, she pointed out; not what they might think a customer wants, and that underpins everything Amazon does. As Hurrell put it, being customer focused is about being an “advocate for the customer”.
As Hurrell went on to say: If you are “really experimenting” then you aren’t going to know the end results until you have done the work. “Failure is part of the learning process.” A lesson there many an organisation would do well to embrace.
Following Hurrell, Susie Braam, former head of innovation at UK National Security Services, brought the first day of the conference to a thought-provoking close by building on the theme.
As she pointed out, there are challenges coming our way whether we like it or not, and it’s up to us how we meet them (or not). Innovation, she said, is anything new that adds value. And she went on to tell the audience that adaptability is an increasingly important part of innovation.
On day two, Tom Robins, chief executive of Switchee, had a hard act to follow, taking to the stage, as he did, following Murray’s powerful performance, but he rose to the task nonetheless.
In his talk, he explained why a needs-based operating model is key to improving services for tenants, especially in these difficult times.
As he explained, a needs-based model acknowledges that housing organisations have limited budgets and resources, but it is allocated on the base of need. It’s not a traditional top-down approach, he said, but more of a bottom-up model, somewhat decentralised, if it can be put in those terms, and collaborative.
Of course, knowing where the need is, how it might change, and how best to allocate those finite resources to address it to best effect, requires strong intelligence. That means measuring and gathering data, and interrogating that data effectively; this is paramount.
Innovation with purpose
Mary Kathryn-Adams, chief executive of Simetrica-Jacobs, had a key question for delegates later in the day: Who are we innovating for?
She was presenting the session: Human-centred decision making: Using social value to drive innovation. In the end, it’s not about technology, she argued; it’s about the people. Technology is there to help people achieve their aims; empower them to deliver, one might say. If we concentrate on people, we can be sure we’re innovating for the right things, she went on to say.
One key takeaway from the conference’s final speaker is all-around food for thought: That we should start thinking more for ourselves, than thinking of ourselves.
It was a profound message, delivered through an engaging presentation by Anthony Taylor, joint managing director of AQR Consulting, who talked about developing the right mindset to embrace the challenges and opportunities ahead.
In a very real sense, he and Murray bookended the day, as his talk quite consciously built on the key messages underlying the CIH president’s morning speech.
Taylor argued that mindset is about more than how we see ourselves; it’s also about how we see others and the world around us. It can profoundly affect our attitudes and our behaviour, and our resilience to life’s swings and balances. But it’s not written in stone; nurturing self awareness, nurtures adaptability, and capacity for growth.
You might almost say much the same for organisations. Echoing some of the speakers from day one, Taylor added that learning organisations accept mistakes without blame, because innovation involves mistakes and misjudgement, as part of the process of discovering what is right, and what works.
At the end of the day that’s what innovation is all about; it’s also something fundamentally born of human creativity and collaboration. Fear of blame stifles the all-too human elements that are necessary to explore and deliver the right change.
Lesson for life, one might think; not just for the sector’s day-to-day work.
Main image: Jill Murray, president of the Chartered Institute of Housing, at Housing Digital Live. Credit: Housing Digital
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