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How IoT can help us break free from a negative compound cycle in affordable housing.

How IoT can help us break free from a negative compound cycle in affordable housing.


‘Smart’ stuff is pretty pointless… Isn’t it?


Up until I was shown an IoT sensor for the first time I thought IoT and ‘smart’ stuff was all just the latest gimmick. I thought it was all about smart kettles, smart fridges, and smart coffee machines. All of which are pretty pointless let’s be honest. That said, I have a smart coffee machine. I thought being able to lay in bed and ‘order’ my coffee would be great. I didn’t stop to consider the practicalities of that (I do like a gadget so it wasn’t hard to be convinced)… What they didn’t tell me is the machine rinses itself when it turns on, so unless you want dirty water in your coffee you can’t make a cup remotely. So it was £200 extra over the non-smart one (the ‘dumb’ one) completely wasted. Yay.


Anyway, it turns out IoT isn’t just about more expensive gadgets that we didn’t really need… It’s driving the fourth industrial revolution right under our noses and it can offer our sector so much along the way.


The biggest sector in the country…. That no one knows about.


The affordable housing sector is incredible. It’s this colossal trillion-pound sector that no one knows about. Providing 4.4 million homes to 10 million people, about 18% of England’s housing. As a sector we build 81% of new affordable housing, helping tackle the country’s housing shortage. We support people that need it. We provide thousands of jobs. We support many other good causes through social value and partnerships. Generally speaking, we maintain homes to a decent standard providing safe, warm homes for people. We invest circa £6.5bn in our homes annually. People genuinely care about people in this sector. Yes, there are bad eggs, as there always are, but by far the majority of people want to do good and help people.


Sadly though, there are many many examples of us not doing so well, and of course, there are outright tragedies such as Grenfell and Lakanal House, and others, that are forever in our hearts and minds. I don’t feel it right to write about the great things we do without acknowledging such tragedies.


The world has changed a lot in the last 20 years. The internet has changed everything. People can now communicate with literally millions even billions of others, for free, instantly. People have access to pretty much every piece of information available, instantly. Data has become a word everyone is obsessed with saying. The population has exploded too, by a billion and a half people or so over the last 20 years. As a result, we’ve had to build more, build higher, build more compactly, and build more efficiently.


In short, there are more of most things. More people, more housing, more demand, more requirements, more information, more standards, yet more requirements. It goes on and on.


Much of this is nothing but good news I should say. But it doesn’t take away from the simple fact we desperately need to do more, so so much more, with less. We desperately need to create capacity.


The pace of change is incredible, and we’re struggling to keep up.


The compound effect.


Being the sector we are, we can’t just pause things whilst we catch up. We can’t just stop servicing for a year. Or stop housing people. Or ask half our residents to move out for 6 months. We have no choice but to carry on our day-to-day whilst trying to understand what’s changing. Whilst doing that, we need time to think and plan how to catch up with society and technology. And we need some time and space to look around to see how we might actually be able to do all of this in order to get ahead a bit. No easy task.


The compound effect is something you can’t quite believe until you do the math yourself. The famous chess board legend sums it up well, if you have one grain of rice on the first square and it’s doubled on each square, by the end you’ll have 210 billion tonnes of rice. 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains. More than enough to go around the world, a fair few times too.


This effect works with anything. Rice, money (Mr Buffett is a big fan), or bad data and bad processes.


Now it would be easy for me to sit and say we have bad data, bad processes in the sector. Or that we’re so outdated etc. etc. and to then suggest that we just need to sort that out and all will be well… But if it was that easy we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place and I wouldn’t be writing this blog.


No instead, I believe through nothing less than a passion and desire to do good, we’ve tried to move with the times. But that’s not been easy over the last 20 years, and the pace of change has just been a bit too much with everything else we do.


Unintentionally, we’ve fallen foul of the compound effect, negatively.


We’ve stacked not-so-great data on not-so-great data. Not-so-great systems on not-so-great systems. Then to try and solve the problem, we’ve added more systems and collected more data.

Watch me put some rubbish data in the system…


Again I stress this is with the best intentions. No one thinks “This will be funny watch me put some rubbish data in the system”, or “Let’s buy that rubbish system that won’t work with half of our existing systems”. Instead, it just happens as we grow. We get new systems over there, they’re busy, they don’t have the time to talk to these guys over here, so they get their own system. Ergo, we now have two systems on top of a questionable one, compounding the problem.


Fast forward 20 years, and the compound effect has well and truly taken hold.


In the world of property management and fire and building safety, it’s taken a national tragedy for us to acknowledge we may have an issue, to raise the awareness that it might be a good idea to actually know what’s in a building and to know for sure that a building is safe. And it’s taken a law to make us do something about it.


Don’t get me wrong the increased awareness of fire and building safety is excellent and can only be a good thing. But the fact it only came about because of Grenfell is shameful. And I say that as someone that has worked in the sector, and building safety, pre-Grenfell, and as a tradesman.


“We don’t need the Building Safety Act”.


People want to do good. The sector wants to do good. But it’s not easy. Net Zero, the Fire Safety Act, the Building Safety Act, and various other legislative changes are all adding frankly astronomical requirements on top of already stretched providers. It’s estimated over £100bn in fact. For a sector that spends £6.5bn annually maintaining properties that’s a big blow.


And that’s not to mention the cultural change happening all around us with people having a voice thanks to the internet and social media. All of this combined has given us a battering over the last few years. Some deserved, some not so.


But despite this, I still haven’t come across one person in the sector saying “The Fire Safety Act requirements are nonsense”, or “We don’t need the Building Safety Act”, or “Checking fire doors is pointless”, or “Who cares about the residents”. Instead, I’ve seen people broken from trying to do their best, from working stupid hours battling with poor systems, poor processes, and poor data. They do this because they care and have passion for what they do. They do this because they want to give people safe decent places to call home.


We want to provide everyone that needs it, a safe place to call home. We want peace of mind people are safe. We want to be able to effortlessly know what systems we have and where. We want to manage our contractors and servicing in half an hour of the week and not spend hours and hours copying data around. We want to invest in our buildings and properties where it’s actually needed, not just because some formula says it’s time. We want to be proud of what we do and confident we’re doing the right thing. We want the time to be able to think of the resident. To think of new solutions. And we want the budget to do all this.


Passion and a kind heart might get us there, but alone, it will take a long time. And the compound effect will continue to take hold further if we continue trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. And the consequences could be unthinkable.


Technology has got us in this pickle, and it can get us out.


So we have the desire, the passion and the heart to do what we need to do. We just need the tools. We need a big step forwards. We don’t just need to catch up, we need to get ahead. Otherwise, that negative compound effect will just carry on doing what it does and hampering any effort to progress.


We need something new, something different to achieve this. Something that we can implement whilst doing tasks we already need to do to remove the typical cost/resource barriers. We need something that can give us some genuine return on investment to help us invest elsewhere and offset costs. We need something that provides multiple benefits in one so we can be truly efficient.


And this is where I come back to my pointless smart coffee machine. Well, actually IoT, not the coffee machine at all. Forget that (and don’t waste your money).


The Internet of Things is all about connecting everyday things to the internet. The technology behind it enables sensors to be manufactured cheaply, last for 10+ years and communicate wirelessly over extremely long distances. Kilometres in fact.


Forget what you know about Bluetooth, dodgy WiFi networks, or batteries from 10 years ago that lasted 16 seconds, IoT is none of this. The technology is there, it’s proven, it’s safe and it works. It’s just waiting to be used and we have an opportunity as a sector to embrace it and to lead the way with it.


Two for one. Or three even. Or four.


Think of the building safety case, a ‘document’ that proves your building is safe. It needs a huge amount of data to be collected to prove the building is safe. We could collect the data, store it, produce the case file and then hope it’s still accurate when we next need it, or, we could collect this information whilst installing sensors efficiently without an additional job. They take minutes to install in most cases and now the asset is smart. Information can be logged against the asset and its sensor in the system so it’s all in one place. Now we also have eyes on the asset constantly, we’re collecting real-time data that we can use to make informed decisions about the asset. Now we know it’s actually working 24/7 and we can react instantly when it’s not. Now we have the info we originally needed and so so much more. We’ll have peace of mind.


Or let’s take the Fire Safety Act requirements for inspecting fire doors. We could inspect them as required, log the info on a database somewhere and hope the door is working for the circa 90 or 364 days in between inspections, or, we could install sensors on a round of inspections, addressing multiple things at once. We’re doing the inspections we have to anyway, and by taking a few extra minutes to install sensors we’re making the doors smart. We can now store asset info against the asset and the sensor in the system so we have a digital record that we can use to source the right part etc. and more importantly, we also have real-time monitoring. We now know the fire door is actually closing as it should in between inspections, we can now look at trends, and we can now understand usage to plan maintenance in a risk-based manner based on actual data. And again, we’ve enabled this whilst doing something we already had to do. Above all else, we now know residents are safe and we’re now able to manage the asset effectively and efficiently. We’ll have peace of mind.


What’s more, these same sensors will gather lots of other info for us like temperature, light and humidity, so we can collect more data to make informed decisions about other things like energy and building use. This will help drive savings in these other areas and we’ve enabled this without any additional work or cost. We can generate a genuine return on investment, offsetting the initial cost of the sensors in just a few years. We’ve addressed multiple benefits in one.


Whilst we’re at it we can also install a few more sensors, in minutes, to give us even more benefits. To protect against leaks and floods. Flow sensors to keep an eye on water supply & usage. Electricity meters to monitor energy and give us our carbon footprint in real-time. Vibration sensors to monitor pump performance and detect when maintenance is required. Usage sensors to help make informed maintenance decisions with equipment like HVAC, enabling us to service based on use rather than periodically. Sensors to detect air quality, anti-social noise, overheating, and overflowing bin stores, the possibilities are almost endless. All of these are quick and cheap to install too, they’ll last 10 years or so (often more), they’re wireless and they’re completely maintenance free.


Now we’re gathering lots of data to enable us to make informed data-led decisions. We can reduce servicing and maintenance programmes in some areas. We can make investment decisions based on facts. We can reduce energy waste. We can carry out preventative maintenance to prevent issues before they occur because we identified the trends of failure. We can ensure safety systems are functioning. We can prevent loss by attending to a small leak before it becomes a big leak. We can detect a flood before it caused significant damage. We can run asset reports in seconds. We can identify the right part instantly. We can improve our residents’ living conditions. And we can analyse all of this holistically so we can first time fix things by establishing the root cause, for example, is humidity the cause of fire doors swelling and not closing rather than poorly installed doors?


And don’t forget we’ve enabled all of this efficiently whilst doing something we had to anyway.


We’ve now got peace of mind. We’ve got a return on investment. We’ve created some capacity and we’ve got ourselves some time back.


We’ve taken that big leap forward. We’ve broken free from a negative compound cycle and we’re now free to reap the benefits of a positive compound cycle.


Building the bridge as we walk on it.


One last thing I’d like to say on this…


This is the future. It’s a new way of doing things. Our current processes, procurement methods, operating models and even structures may well not suit. They’ve all been based on yesterday’s technology and yesterday’s ways of working so of course they won’t. We need to change and it’s hard to do that without, well, change.


This is tomorrow’s technology. It’s not widely adopted in housing yet. There aren’t rulebooks, road maps and downloadable processes. The technology is there, businesses like nine1three are there bringing it to housing but it needs leaders willing, prepared and excited to build the bridge as they walk on it. To draw that roadmap for others.


It’s not as daunting as we think. After all, look around you, I’m pretty confident you’ve got a whole bunch of people willing and prepared to do it with you because they all care and want to do good.


There is a better way.


We just need to be brave and take that first step.


Jack Bernard




Note – IoT as referred to in this article is LoRaWAN IoT. LoRaWAN stands for Long Range Wide Area Network. It is a protocol for transmitting small packets of data using radio waves. IoT is more than one protocol, it refers to connecting everyday things to the internet –and there are various ways of doing this but LoRaWAN is perfectly suited for asset management and smart buildings because of its low power long range abilities.