Taking a Smart approach to Social Housing
Alan Mo explains how Flagship’s Ipswich IoT pilot brought benefits to tenants and enabled it to explore new opportunities
The Internet of Things (IoT) is still in its infancy when it comes to deployment and monetisation. But in the social housing sector, providers are starting to experiment with some commonly discussed use cases to test potential benefits and return on investment.
One of these early pioneers is The Flagship Group which provides homes for affordable and market rent, and for sale across the east of England. It maintains its own housing stock via two key divisions – Flagship Homes and RFT Services.
In 2016, it chose a block of flats in Ipswich to run a pilot to trial the use of a range of smart technologies, including thermostats, locks, CCTV and building wide WiFi, which has since delivered significant benefits for both tenants and the provider.
These include offering an improved tenant experience by delivering cost savings and enhanced security; a reduction in arrears and late payments and decline in the number of failed visits, which cuts costs and improves tenant relationships; and, notably, a shift to 70% of tenants communicating via more cost effective digital channels, compared to just 15% a year prior to the pilot. It has also generated richer datasets to ensure tenants are placed in the most appropriate properties to suit their needs.
Tackling the challenge
Like many housing providers, Flagship is always looking to improve the services it provides to its tenants, while, in an era of austerity, finding cost savings. So it began searching for solutions to enable it to become more proactive, addressing issues before they become costly and inconvenient problems.
Two areas were obvious targets – improving communication with tenants and shifting them to more cost effective digital channels; and reducing the number of failed visits, which are inconvenient for the tenant and also costly for the provider. At the same time, Flagship felt it had a moral obligation to help tackle issues like digital exclusion and fuel poverty which can disadvantage tenants.
At the pilot stage, Flagship was keen to get buy in from all parties including both the senior management team within the business, and the tenants themselves.
The tenants soon accepted the benefits of the proposed solutions and believed they trumped any concerns over any intrusion on privacy.
Flagship’s senior management team also quickly worked out that it was extremely difficult to sell IoT in isolation of other transformation initiatives. So it expanded its case to address other important priority areas, including channel shift, which resonated with senior managers.
This culture and acceptance of change meant project leaders gained senior management support and were given the go ahead to install a series of solutions across the Ipswich block of flats. They included:
- smart thermostats –collecting environmental information to understand occupancy and automatically regulate tenants’ heating settings to reduce energy bills and combat fuel poverty;
- smart-locks on communal and hallway doors – allowing tenants and staff to use their mobile phones to access and exit the building;
- CCTV cameras in communal areas – improving security by allowing tenants to see who is entering and exiting the building; and,
- Wi-Fi access for all flats – which are freely available to all tenants and staff.
Flagship wanted to partner with smaller start-up organisations, and came across Switchee, a clean-tech start-up which had developed a smart connected thermostat that fitted the solution mix that Flagship was searching for. An innovation accelerator programme also led to a smart locks and CCTV solution, which was eventually provided by a supplier Flagship had previously worked with, DoorsPlus.
All these smart devices require internet access, but with many tenants digitally excluded, Flagship decided to invest in enabling WiFi access across the building, picking WiSpire because of its ability to provide WiFi over a large geographical scale.
A better tenant experience
The introduction of new IOT solutions enabled Flagship to build stronger relationships with the tenants, and gain a better understanding of the properties themselves.
For tenants, free WiFi brought immediate cost savings, while the introduction of smart-locks and CCTV added a sense of increased security.
For Flagship, despite having to spend up to £1,000 per property to get the scheme up and running, the scheme identified a number of benefits that prove there are significant returns on investment from introducing such smart technologies.
Tenants are now using their devices to communicate with the housing provider, such as paying rent, logging repair requirements, reducing the number of calls made to its call centre. The results have actually exceeded expectations, with Flagship seeing a shift to 70% of tenants communicating via more cost effective digital channels, compared to just 15% a year prior the pilot.
Flagship also noticed an improvement in arrears, with debts settled quicker than before. By providing free internet access, Flagship has seen a decrease in the time it takes to receive housing benefit money, and when there are instances of missed payments, it has so far achieved a good success rate in getting those payments made promptly after reminders have been sent out.
Another key objective, to reduce the number of failed visits, has also succeeded, opening up opportunities to secure some significant savings in the long term.
By capturing richer datasets and real time information, Flagship has been able to be more proactive, triaging problems remotely to identify problems before they occur. For example, data captured from humidity sensors identified a number of flats with abnormal moisture levels. As a result, Flagship will be sending surveyors to further assess the situation. This will allow a repair and maintenance team to prevent a mould and damp problem from developing, which can be costly to rectify and also unhealthy for tenants.
Learning the lessons
The pilot is still live and Flagship will continue to analyse the data and derive insights on how it can improve this particular block of flats – improving both tenant experience and property management.
It is now considering rolling out similar schemes to two or three of its other sites to ensure the results from the first pilot are not out of the ordinary.
Going forward, Flagship will also begin to seriously contemplate the benefits of a wider, large-scale deployment. These additional tests will help ensure it garners further insights to allow it to develop a robust set of requirements to take to market.