Going digital at pace

James Tickell, Partner at Campbell Tickell, discusses the housing sector’s digital future, identifying the potential opportunities and pitfalls it could bring.

The pandemic, for better or for worse, has accelerated our steps towards a more digital future. Remote working has become a reality for thousands in just two weeks, rather than two hundred. Zoom meetings are suddenly commonplace, and seem to work nearly as well as the “real thing”, if not better. 

Many transactions have shifted online in ways that may have been hard to imagine even at the beginning of this year. At the same time, human connections and experience have become more important, with successful organisations in every sector focused on the customer experience, and the wisdom and insights of front line staff.  

Suddenly, the idea of housing’s digital future has moved out of the science fiction arena and into the very near future. Exciting? Alarming? Another pipedream? Let’s imagine how such a system might look; and then speculate on the opportunities and pitfalls it could bring. And finally, some reflections on what may come about, given current harsh realities, and on how digitisation can be compatible with human values and social purpose 

Buildings and repairs: the easy bit 

For buildingsit’s easy enough to envisagewe all know about the internet of things. Embed smart chips and sensors in major building components, and hey presto, maintenance becomes so efficient. That’s easier for newbuilds of course, but existing stock can be retrofitted. Add regular drone surveys, and a landlord can know pretty much everything about its property assets, in real time, without ever leaving the home office 

When a tenant – or a sensor – actually has to call in an unpredicted repair, nine times out of ten it will be clear what’s neededNo more going back to the depot for the missing boiler or lift parts, or having to order them from Germany or PeterboroughLet’s assume that future operatives will still be human, even if vans are eventually self-driving. Robots surely won’t be ready to get down and dirty under a sink for the time being 

Artificial intelligence then applied to data allows pattern recognition and an uncanny ability to fix problems before they arise. A ‘just in time’ approach enables a reduction in stockholding, while careful journey planning saves on mileage and time. No shows by the tenants are largely avoided, as sensors will be able to indicate whether anyone is there to answer the door. Once an operative is on site, they will be able to carry out any other scheduled tasks before moving on. 

Blockchain technology creates self-verifying and tamper-proof databases; eventually it will have profound effects on contracts, asset registers, land title and more besides. Compliance and safety become a doddle, while the savings are massive in terms of staffing, materials and timeAs blockchain becomes a reality, we can speculate that internal auditors, complex assurance systems and middle managers more generally will largely become a thing of the past. Organisations will de-layer, with more horizontal structures 

The privacy conundrum 

So far so good? Or were you uneasy about the privacy implications of sensors revealing who was there to answer the door? There’s a lot more to think about. Examples already exist – you can easily buy an airline ticket without speaking to a human. Of course, if things go wrong and you do need to speak to someone, then it’s a different story. It can take hours, listening to music, pressing buttons, going in automated loops, and spending a small fortune on premium phone lines.  

Maybe lettings and routine tenancy work could be done a bit like that, although without the waiting and the music? Not sure? We can hope that 2030 artificial intelligence, unlike today’s artificial imbecility, will be better at sorting out the odd anomalyIt could also be brilliant at collecting and organising tenant feedback, giving volume to the tenant voice.  

Arrears could be dealt with similarly. Even better, AI will predict well in advance which households will be vulnerable to financial hardship, allowing support to be directed appropriately. In the same way, it would be possible to predict which households would make greater demands on maintenance services, or end their tenancies in an untoward manner. Some landlords might be tempted not to let to such households in the first instance, but the value of the business intelligence accrued would surely outweigh such concerns? 

It goes on. Face recognition technology could be just the ticket for preventing illegal subletting, and for dealing with anti-social behaviour. In fact, you could do away with keys altogether, with entry systems recognising and admitting only tenants and their families. By 2030, systems should be able to recognise people from all different ethnic backgrounds, a distinct glitch in today’s matrix, which will be familiar to many of us with e-passports 

As regards more vulnerable residents, the possibilities for automation are already considerable. Call systems, with fridge and floor sensors, can detect whether someone may be unable to get out of bed, have fallen or not be eating. In Japan, robot nurses, medicine dispensers and pets play an increasing role, so that care can be given with little or no human contact. As for company … there’s always the possibility of a chat with Alexa.  

Ethics and practicalities

A heady cocktail of ethical and practical issues begins to emerge. Clearly, new technologies are already with us, and will become more effective in time. The possibilities are endless, and things can go either way in terms of utopian or dystopian futures. Financial savings are there to be made for landlords, and these can be reinvested into better customer experience, care, support and empowerment. Or they can become more generous dividends for investors.  

New communication technologies can be used in different ways. Exciting new participative governance structures can be enabled by such platforms as Loomio. But on the dark side, very similar technology can drive towards the surveillance capitalism explained by Shoshana Zuboff, under which corporate entities can amass data about customers, and exploit it to control behaviour, sell additional services and increase efficiencyYou only need to look at Google, let alone China’s ruthless and internet enabled control of Uighurs to see how things could move that way.

Taking stock  

Where does that leave us? Looking at the fragmented and often obsolete state of sector IT systems, the possible retrofitting to millions of properties in a short time scale seems optimistic. How many organisations still use ad hoc spreadsheets, because their systems won’t really talk to each other? The gains could be huge, but so too would be the investment needed. Care of the elderly may turn out to be different matter, given labour shortages and demography – once the Japanese robot nurses are perfected, stand by for their introduction here 

The technologies needed for housing’s next stage of digitisation already exist and will be widely used by the Ubers and Easyjets of the near future. But a safe prediction is that many landlords will still be using the same IT systems as now for some years to come, with a few fancy add-on bells and whistles, and some smarter backroom trend analysis.  

The overall direction though is certain, and should not be ignoredThe technology itself is morally neutral and all will depend on how we choose to use it. Things will play out according to the balance of power between providers and consumers –governed by market conditions, demographics, economics and the legislative framework of safeguards.  

But equally important, for social landlords, as they grapple with new ways of working, it will be vital to remember and reinterpret their social purpose for the new context. Mission statements are all big on customer focus, and on how ‘our people’ are our greatest assetLet’s all try and keep it as we recover from the pandemic, and keep up Zuboff’s ‘Fight for a Human Future’.



To discuss further, please contact James Tickell on: james.tickell@campbelltickell.com

This article is based on an earlier (pre-pandemic) piece, following a seminar on the automation of housing.


Campbell Tickell is an established multi-disciplinary management and recruitment consultancy, operating across the UK and Ireland, focusing on the housing, social care, local government, sport, leisure, charity and voluntary sectors.

We are a values-based business and firmly place the positioning of our support and challenge on helping organisations to attain change that is well thought through, planned and sustainable. At CT, we want to help organisations create the landscape within which we ourselves would like to exist: fair, inclusive, diverse, engaged and transparent. We build from our values in how we approach all our work as a practice.

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