It’s now been a week now since attending my first unconference, Housing Camp North West, and in the spirit of the day I wanted to share my thoughts of the event. I’m sorry I can’t share any of the delicious lunchtime food provided, but 3D printers are in their infancy – maybe in a few years such culinary conveyance will be possible?
I digress. To move away from food (a direction of travel I’m unaccustomed to), Housing Camp North West – or #nwhousingcamp, to use its Twitter appellation – was a gathering of 80 individuals with a shared passion for housing. Held at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, the event was appropriately not restricted to those from the immediate locale, or, indeed, those with a predilection for mechanistic mandarins. Anyone and everyone was welcome, even bearded, besuited outsiders from Birmingham.
The discussion points were self-determining. Jayne Hilditch and Sasha Deepwell invited attendees to pitch ideas for sessions, essentially asking the question “what do you want to talk about?” After a cagey start – this was, for most people, (myself included), their first unconference, so a certain hesitation was to be expected – the trickle became a flood, and the floor filled with housing’s best and brightest (and me…) pitching ideas for the day. Whether a pitch received a session slot was dependent on that most democratic method of raising your hands in the air, and unlike the oft-repeated song lyric, people did care – every pitch was accepted by the attended.
Thirty different sessions were determined in this manner, and assigned various stations and time-slots throughout the day – as Adrian Capon and Sasha Deepwell have already offered write-ups of the day in general, I thought I’d give a summary of the five sessions I attended to give some insight for those that have never been to an unconference into what people actually talk about.
Grab some post-it notes and a selfie stick – it’s time for you to camp vicariously.
Session 1: How Do You Expect Your Customers To Do Digital When Your Staff Don’t?
In my first session of the day, pitched by digital-demiurge John Popham, there was much talk of ‘business-Twitter’ app Yammer, which I found surprising. My experience with Yammer at work has been one of receiving occasional ‘popular posts’ emails which are mostly just advertising someone’s charity run or similar good deed – I haven’t seen anyone use it to actually facilitate (let alone do) work. Of course, that was the point of the session – organisations need to embrace digital ways of working before they can reasonably expect their customers to ‘channel shift’ to digital engagement.
- Look for digital champions / ‘buddys’, both internally – colleagues supporting each other within the organisation – and externally – more digitally confident customers supporting those who are not.
- Don’t wait for senior management approval or ‘buy-in’ from the organisation; JFDI. John said if you don’t know what that means you should look it up, but I’m a brute so I’ll spell it out for y’all – Just Fucking Do It!
- People use the internet for fun, so make the digital experience enjoyable, easy, and interesting – perfunctory business (filling forms in online) will follow.
- Be human, not just a corporate mouthpiece; there’s nothing worse than accounts mindlessly spitting out automated tweets.
- Don’t tweet / email angry!
Session 2: Who Controls The Asset – Tenant or Landlord?
I’ve joked before that the job of asset management would be a lot easier without tenants, but of course without tenants you wouldn’t have a job at all. From the question ‘Who controls the asset?’ and issues of who determines the nature of a maintenance programme, gaining access, etc. came a more philosophical discussion – and appreciation – for the role of effective customer engagement in running capital investment projects.
- Asset management guilty of seeing property as just technical thing that needs to be maintained, but these are homes – if we’re going to change the wider conversation from houses (financial investment) to homes (places for people), then asset management needs to support this.
- Tenant must be involved in the journey of maintenance, not just dropped into programme – that’s not engagement!
- How are we telling the story of asset management? If we don’t, misinformation will propagate (PV panels don’t increase energy bills, despite what local scandal-snooping papers might want to believe…)
- Tenant engagement and consultation vital for active connection to an organisation’s homes and their maintenance.
- Remember – the tenant is as much an asset to your organisation as the property.
There is a worry of mine that many housing events are rooted solely in policy, politics, and the ‘softer’ aspects of housing, so it was good to speak to others with a professional passion for asset management at #nwhousingcamg, and a testament to the event’s organisation that such discussion topics were able to gain purchase.
Session 3: Housing and Health Care Integration
Some sessions were small, some large – the number of participants at each talk was as self-determining as the topics themselves. My third session of the day was as big as the topic itself, which is to say huge. We were in danger of running out chairs, though thankfully not insightful discussion points into perhaps the biggest looming threat faced by housing providers today – the integration of housing and health / elderly care.
- Need a shared language between health and housing – too much jargon on both sides.
- Outsiders think housing is impossible to engage with – are WE the problem?
- Building bungalows won’t help without care service infrastructure – building a village retirement home without this provision is as much a prison as an unadapted or unsuitable property.
- Rather than building care village from scratch, utilise existing infrastructure (shops, gym, hairdressers, etc.) and build around that – this will save money and regenerate the local area and community, the latter of which is very important for health and well-being.
- Needs of elderly in future will be different from needs of elderly of today – homes need to be ADAPTABLE as well as ADAPTED.
- Have courage to see long-term visions through – the crisis didn’t occur in 18 months, and neither will the solution.
Session 4: Smash the Bedroom Tax!
Julie Faddon’s pitch at the start of the day for this session was a simple four-word statement – smash the bedroom tax. The room erupted with a roar of approval, and the session was well-attended and run by the fiery CIH Vice President candidate.
- The bedroom tax is costing sector millions of pounds – why has it slipped off the radar?
- CIH and the wider housing sector need to become a campaigning sector again (but understandable why difficult considering the lobbying act) – attack policies, not politicians.
- Are too many CEOs politically motivated / invested now? Where is the public anger and cage rattling? Why are chief executives not leading from the front?
- Ground roots dissemination of information (mum and dad, pub, etc.) just as important as high profile campaign – some people genuinely don’t realise harm of policy until told.
- Home Counties probably think such policies are good – how do we disrupt this?
- Building regulations are applied retrospectively, neither are electric regulations; why the hell was bedroom tax applied retrospectively? (if it hadn’t been, the at least landlords could have worked to mitigate future lettings)
- Bedroom tax doesn’t just cost sector money, but also costs social housing its reputation as a viable, important tenure – this is part of a wider fight against the demonization of social housing, and a reason to SHOUT.
I haven’t met a single housing professional who thinks the bedroom tax is a good idea, yet in a week when Grant Shapps said the ‘reduction of the spare room subsidy is working’ at the Homes for Britain rally, and was practically unopposed in saying so, I wonder whether in order for serious change to be possible we either need to allow public rallies to be more confrontational, or bring senior politicians into the housing camp environment. In a room where people are allowed to speak freely, Shapps would have more to contend with than a few disparaging coughs from the balcony…
Session 5: Asset Management – Preparing for the Long-Term Impact of Current Developments
Wait, what – it’s time for my session! Time to put my money where my mouth is (which, unless dealing in chocolate coins, I’ve always considered a poor use of currency…)
My intention with this session had been primarily to shift discussion away from the need to build new homes onto the equally important (if not particularly sexy) subject of preparation for the maintenance of UK housing assets in the future – if we don’t consider the long-term maintenance requirements of all these new homes, we’ll just light the fuse on an asset time bomb, building a number of homes we are not prepared to adequately look after.
What the conversation became was a more wide-ranging discussion on the importance of effective asset management, and its place in the housing sector…which was great.
- Behaviour changes faster than fabric / technology. Asset management perhaps shifting to require as much knowledge of behaviour and people as technical / building expertise?
- Tenants are an asset in maintaining…erm, assets! Integrated maintenance of homes WITH tenants, rather than FOR tenants.
- Tension – do we build boring squares (easy to maintain, but push no envelopes) or experiment and risk difficult / costly future maintenance? Can’t build JUST for awards and glory (although awards are nice…!)
- Developers get first pick of money over asset management – do the two have competing goals? If not, how to reconcile?
- Does your organisation know what asset management entails? Does it appreciate value and impact of work? Do eyes glaze over when you say you work in asset management and maintenance? Why? It’s interesting and important – tell that story!
- Human stories matter. You’re not just an analyst/planner in the back office – you STILL impact people’s lives in a huge, meaningful way, e.g. a new kitchen with improved storage means a tenant doesn’t have to go shopping every day, so they have more time for their family.
- Active asset management important (retrofit, etc.) – must consider community; refreshing homes where no-one wants to live won’t help
- Green tech, like all tech, becomes obsolete quickly – must manage new tech installations carefully (again, involve people on journey / story)
With a fistful of hastily scrawled post-it notes in my hand ready to affix to the station’s flipchart, my session – and the final session of the day – came to an end.
What was really nice about the event was that no matter the session conversations were natural, spontaneous, and passionate. Nothing felt forced or awkward – no cringe-inducing “time for your group work now, children” segments, rather an environment that facilitated and channelled the exploration of the housing sector’s passion and purpose. Rank was not an issue, either – CEOs, lawyers, frontline staff and back-office data analysts spoke to each other freely without hierarchy or direction; you know, like humans rather than corporate entities. That was important and refreshing in equal measure.
At the end, delegates were asked to sum up the day with a single word: open, free, safe, and encouraging were used alongside energising, exciting, motivating, and doughnuts – credit for that last one belong to Ian Gregg, IIRC – before the event ended with applause and, were it not for train bookings, a wish that it could have gone on longer.
As I commented on Twitter on my way back to Birmingham, you don’t need a lot of structure to get a lot of results – just provide a space for passionate professionals to speak freely. I had such a good time, meeting long-time Twitter friends (Jon Daley, Peter Bond, David Pipe, et al), and making a host of new connections with people I hope to see at another conference – un, or otherwise – in the future.
Speaking of which, yes; I will be pitching the idea of a Midlands unconference to the West Midlands regional CIH board – sharing ideas was a big part of Housing Camp North West, after all, and after attending I’m convinced there’s not just an appetite for this kind of event in other parts of the country – there’s a need.
The unconference was an undoubted, undisputed success! Until next time!
For those that couldn’t make the event – there will be some of you, on account that everyone in the world wasn’t there – John Popham has put together a Storify of the event; for those wanting a Twitter guest list of participating attendees, Adrian Capon’s got you covered.
- Housing Camp – How to build a grassroots network, 24Dash, Online: http://www.24dash.com/news/housing/2015-03-20-Housing-Camp-How-to-build-a-grassroots-network#.VQwNETGtbAA.twitter, Available: March 2015
- Housing Camp expands its horizons, 24Dash, Online: http://www.24dash.com/news/housing/2015-03-18-HousingCamp-expands-its-horizons, Available: March 2015