How to be the AirBnB of Social Housing

It was good to see in the latest edition of Housing Technology Magazine (January 2020) profiles of 40 of the next-generation technology companies focusing on the social housing sector. Several of the sector’s most influential people have also been writing about digital in the trade press this month.

James Tickell is a Partner at Campbell Tickell, and like many others, he sees technology as the driver for change. It most definitely is an enabler but is it the disrupting influence we think it is?

“The technologies needed for housing’s automation will exist by 2030, for sure, and will be widely used by the Ubers and easyJets of the day. But a safe prediction is that many landlords will still be using the same IT systems as now, with a few fancy add-on bells and whistles, and some smarter backroom trend analysis.”

Mark Henderson, CEO of Home Group in his recent article in Inside Housing,  sees the huge potential of collaboration.

Imagine if we established that common service standard and then embraced the type of artificial intelligence (AI) technology available to us.Organisations outside the sector have done just that and have improved their businesses, along with the experiences of their customers. Implementing AI could revolutionise our maintenance and repairs activity.”

Take Airbnb as an example – currently disrupting the hospitality world. In the world of hotels, the historical convention is that you own buildings. Another is that you have someone greet guests or have a reception to check them in. There may be others until Airbnb decided to break them. They effectively asked: what if you didn’t have any buildings? What if someone didn’t help you with check-in? They would not have been able to compete with brands like Marriott and Hilton without turning the thinking upside down.

My point is: whilst we often focus on new and disruptive technologies, sometimes rethinking a business model is the best way of delivering value and excellent service to customers.

What would Google do?

Qlinker (dutch for brick), a new social housing association in the city of Utrecht. Qlinker is completely digital and approached the change by thinking like Google. With a small budget, they started looking at “making everything about renting a house as easy, fast, user-friendly and efficient as possible”.

The Qlinker ambition is to achieve higher customer satisfaction with lower operating costs. They work directly with a small group of tenants and the result is a fully digital onboarding process which cuts down the application time from 6 days to 6 hours; in fact, to-date, the fastest approval and sign-up is only 10 minutes. Customers use an app to do everything from finding their new home, signing their tenancy agreement and paying their first month’s rent to logging a maintenance call. A chatbot named Q is currently resolving 40% of contacts directly, with 60% being passed to a ‘real person’ to be progressed further. The relationship between Qlinker and their tenants is based on trust, and as it stands, satisfaction levels are currently high.

But is it just about technology? The Disruption50 Index facilitated by The Disruption Hub highlights those British companies who are championing innovation. Of the top 50, ten companies have a radically different business model to the existing or traditional models in their sector. Whilst we often focus on new technologies, sometimes rethinking a business model is the best way of delivering value and excellent service to customers.

Uber Social Housing

So why is James Tickell so sure that progress will not be quick in the sector. It is a very different environment for many of the organisations we have highlighted.

We can still be challenging ourselves about everything we assume we know and asking what would happen if we changed the convention. If we want more value for money at the same or lower cost, then doing things differently is the only way to go and technology is just one way.

One of our challenges is that in a people-centric sector, the use of technology is challenging our people-based values. So why not start with buildings and see if we can make them more agile. Breaking with convention,  take Halton Housing who I visited recently. The long-standing convention is that you have a head office building with allocated desks for all your staff, offices for managers, fully equipped meeting rooms, front-desk receptionist and full car park. In 2010, 80% of the corporate workforce was based in an office. By 2016 this once down to 60%

Halton Housing has designed a Head Office that has a desk for only a small proportion of its staff and that simple equation is saving money, changing culture, embedding mobile working and increasing agility.

Best of all this sets the tone for new ideas and innovation. Once flexible working is embraced the demand for collaboration tools, better document management and conference sharing facilities quickly follows adding to the virtuous circle of technology adoption.

For ideas about progressive workplaces, we are also big fans of the people at Corporate Rebels who have highlighted eight organisational disruptive trends.

So, as a starter for 10 here are some conventions that you might wish to consider

  • customer relationships: consider moving from .. loyalty to empowerment
  • activities: from efficient to intelligent
  • assets: from ownership to access
  • costs: from low cost to no cost

Have you challenged your conventions? We’d love to hear from you. Take our innovation survey

If you’d like to challenge your conventions our Battenburg model could be for you. Drop me a line at to book a chat.


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