For such a large industry, social housing is often accused of being slow on the uptake of new technology. This can be true, but with IoT that hasn’t entirely been the case. Technically, the first IoT device ever created was a smart toaster created by John Romkey, but it wouldn’t be until the early 2010’s that the ‘rise of IoT’ would truly occur. In 2013/2014, the first IoT devices began shipping with sensors built-in. Thermostats, lights and a host of other technologies began using these sensors to understand their environment and begin to deliver the experience we all now associate with IoT.
It wouldn’t be long before the sector would begin to take notice – with the first article in Inside Housing talking about the Internet of Things being published at the end of 2014. Right from the beginning, the sector has understood the potential value that IoT technology can bring to our businesses and processes. That article even mentions the concept of smart boilers “which could alert a provider if it has an unexpected rise in carbon monoxide emissions”. As with many new technologies in social housing though, it took some time to start getting significant traction. Matt Leach, Chief Executive of HACT, said in 2015 that “the ‘internet of things’ has been notable by its absence in social housing over the past few years”.
In late 2015 and early 2016, however, the earliest trials of IoT technology were beginning to appear in social housing homes across the country. Switchee’s first trial was taking place around this time – installing very early versions of our current thermostat in properties with concerns about condensation, damp and mould. These trials often focused particularly on proving that the technology was reliable enough to be installed in social housing stock. One of the primary concerns with installing new technology is the longevity of the devices and their stability over the long-expected periods of ownership. With boiler lifecycles sitting primarily at 10 years, for example, thermostats needed to be functional for that entire period to make the investment worthwhile.
As with every early adoption of technology – there were plenty of learnings. Early pilots often started with numerous pieces of technology only to conclude that 1 or 2 of the pieces warranted further rollouts. As 2017 came to a close, the concerns over the stability of IoT devices began to abate and interest in the technologies widened. However, despite there being significant interest in the technology, there was still a lack of concrete strategies pertaining to their rollout. A survey conducted at the beginning of 2018 found that 6% of housing providers had an IoT strategy in place, with a further 25% considering it. This still meant that 69% had no strategy at all that revolved around the deployment of IoT.
By 2019, however, IoT was becoming a mainstream part of the technology landscape in the social housing sector. Housing providers across the country began to look seriously at the potential upsides of this technology – with larger and larger deployments beginning to take place. Raven Housing Trust, for example, began looking at smart technologies as a solution to a host of issues – addressing everything from smart heating to fire safety. With Nigel Newman, the director of strategy and growth at Raven, stating that “smart technology is proven – after all, we’ve been talking about the IoT for more than 10 years now.”
In 2020, the rise of Covid-19 made clear the benefits of virtual technologies.The inability for housing providers to access their properties physically generated a new and sudden urgency for technological alternatives to physical access. Concerns over increased rates of disrepair, issues with LGSR compliance, and a host of other issues brought on by increased home occupancy and poor economic conditions had many housing providers panicked. As a result, most looked to a combination of increased digital inclusion and improved technological solutions to help address the imbalance. Trials of even more smart technologies were carried out and portfolio-wide deployments began occurring on a large scale.
Now, looking back, it’s easy to see the inevitability of IoT in social housing. The technology presents an unrivalled opportunity to improve the quality of service delivered to residents whilst reducing the cost of doing so. With housing associations across the country starting to roll out smart technologies across their entire stock, it seems that Matt Leach’s concern over the lack of IoT products in the sector might have been unfounded.