Coworking. Not just for trendy freelancers and startups.

Earlier this week I was reading an article about the rise of coworking spaces in recent years. In case you’ve never heard of it, coworking is the practice of individuals or small teams working from shared office space. Aside from enabling these groups to have a flexible base of operations without committing to fixed leases, these spaces have created flourishing communities and helped connect and inspire people from differing professions around common goals.

This had me pondering – couldn’t the benefits of coworking office space be applied to absolutely anyone, not just freelancers and startups?

For a while now the technology has been in place where people can work from literally anywhere (see the definition of digital nomad if you want to be green with envy). I’m at a point where I could do a large chunk of my job armed with just an iPad and an Internet connection. So why aren’t we encouraging more staff to spend office days in places other than their desk? Especially faced with mounting evidence that the traditional office environment is bad for productivity.

Yes, it’s good (essential even?) for staff to spend time with their colleagues to foster those working relationships that are so crucial to getting things done and making the job enjoyable. However, I think it’s equally important to work in different spaces to shake off the ‘default’ mindset of plodding through routine, doing what you’ve always done before.

So, speaking from experience of my own sector – what if we had shared working space for all the Housing Associations in Cardiff? How many serendipitous conversations and relationships would be forged simply by sharing the same working area whilst doing the daily email trawl?

Let’s throw the net wider. Why not open that shared office space to Housing Associations in Wales? What sort of ideas might get swapped over a cup of coffee in the kitchen?

Let’s go broader again – why not open that office space to Local Councils and Health Boards? What common struggles could we talk about over lunch? What sort of connected approaches might we start defining?

Whilst we’re at it, why don’t we host regular unconferences in this space to help flesh all these new ideas out to find wider support?

Obviously, there’s a whole raft of logistical challenges to solve. But I think it illustrates that working in this sort of environment could result in huge opportunities for collaboration and connecting the dots across multiple sectors. In a broad sense it’s all about removing barriers (physical, hierarchical, political, organisational) to prevent people toiling in isolation, duplicating or expending effort in the wrong areas.

In this way we might be able to get on with the business of tackling the wicked problems that matter most, together

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#UKHousing As A Platform

A few weeks ago I wrote a bit about the need for Housing Associations to take destiny into their own hands and develop a digital platform for themselves. Something that wasn’t driven by profit, but was driven by purpose.

There are only a few commercial players offering housing systems and the closed, proprietary nature of their products ham-strings us from being truly responsive to our increasingly changing environment. Even where there is a strong appetite to innovate, because we don’t have direct control to modify our systems, we are often at the mercy of paid consultancy to get things done. And it’s really hard to experiment when you have to attach a price tag up front!

The more I thought about WordPress in the context of Housing Association software, the more I realised I was actually thinking about a framework or platform. So, what’s the big deal with ‘open’ platforms?

“If you look at the history of the computer industry, the innovations that define each era are frameworks that enabled a whole ecosystem of participation from companies large and small…”
– Tim O’Reilly

This approach is being used by the Government Digital Service to transform systems from the inside. Historically, government departments spent a great deal of time and money building bespoke closed systems which couldn’t talk to other parts of government. In many instances they were duplicating effort re-designing the same services over and over, but completely unaware as everyone worked in their own silos. Worst still, digital services were often designed with government processes in mind, not the people who use them. This often resulted in poorly designed user experience and outright incomprehensible content.

In this blog post in 2012, Mike Bracken set out his vision of GOV.UK – A Platform for Digital Government. This passage resonated with me in particular…

GOV.UK has been designed with transparency, participation and simplicity at its core. It will always be based on open standards, and is unapologetically open source. This architecture ensures its integration into the growing ecosystem of the Internet. Inevitably, innovation will follow, driven from within and without. GOV.UK is not Government on the Internet, but of the Internet.
– Mike Bracken

By working in small agile teams, the Government Digital Service have been able to build initially small but functional prototypes for services and then iterate quickly. Every iteration is an opportunity to ask “How can we make this better for users?”. Users are the essential component for everything they do. They are number 1 on the GDS design principles document. User needs – not government needs.

Let’s ponder on that for a moment. Are our systems designed for Housing Association needs or for User needs?

We are organisations that are all about doing social good, therefore we have a duty to make sure our systems are open and accessible for anyone who needs to work with us to improve the lives of our customers. For example, we could potentially form much stronger links with local health authorities and councils if they were able to interface with our systems seamlessly, and vice versa.

An open platform would allow us to develop services WITH our customers rather than FOR them. To design digital services which empower people rather than chuck arbitrary roadblocks in the way because system A doesn’t communicate well with system B.

An open platform would allow us to develop together rather than in isolation. It would stop us re-inventing the wheel over and over again. It would enable us to transparently share success and failure, thus rapidly improving the product for everyone.

I was about to launch into a lengthy diatribe of how this might work in practice, but it turns out a rather clever bloke by the name of Richard Sage (@BakedIdea) had done some sterling work around this very topic last year. You can read his excellent blog posts on the subject here, here and here.

The question of how we get to this brave new world is a difficult one. The Government did it by creating a department with a positive culture for change and a remit for putting users first, eliminating duplication and injecting transparency into everything they do. On the face of it, the task seems monumental and unlikely to work but their track record has been admirable so far.

I would dearly love to see something similar in our sector. We’ve all been toiling in isolation for a while now and many are still bumping up against the same old roadblocks of mobilising the workforce, creating digital services for customers, leveraging data for business intelligence etc. etc. Is it time for a different approach?

It would be great to see a grander strategic vision on how we can improve not just individual organisations, but how we could potentially improve the sector as a whole by pooling our resources and building something of our own. An open platform that serves our communities first and foremost, because if we’re not here for that.. what are we here for?

Why Don’t We Build A ‘WordPress’ For Social Housing Systems?

A random twitter conversation with @PaulBromford prompted a discussion about how small the market is for housing systems in the social housing sector. There are a handful of key players which have comprehensive unified solutions that are designed to be ‘one size fits all’.

There are a few problems with this approach.

  • They’re potentially expensive & bloated for smaller organisations.
  • They tend to be closed systems with limited interoperability with anything else.
  • The development cycle tends to be long.
  • Often built on a foundation of old technology.
  • Documentation is generally hard to find or non-existent.

This had me thinking about alternatives.

What if we had a ‘WordPress’ for housing systems? WordPress is an open source blogging framework (you’re looking at it right now). Anyone can download WordPress and use it completely free of charge. You can even openly modify it to suit your individual needs.

In fact, WordPress is so flexible that it’s now being used not just for blogging but for shop fronts, forums, jobs boards, support desks.. the list goes on. WordPress has become so prevalent as a platform that being a WordPress developer is now a career path in its own right.

What if we applied this approach to a platform for the social housing sector? Imagine a framework that gave organisations the freedom to use as much or as little of a system for FREE.

There are 1700 registered Housing Associations in the UK.  Rather than toiling away in isolation trying to make our ‘off the peg’ housing systems work for us, why don’t we work together on creating something that can be as diverse and powerful as the organisations we work in?

Unlike the private sector, it’s hugely beneficial for us to work more closely together – and I don’t mean so that we can all be the same, but by remixing others ideas to suit our own organisational needs. By collaborating openly with each other on a housing system framework we could..

  • Accelerate learning and ideas.
  • Drive down development costs.
  • Tackle the biggest headaches together (self service, mobile working etc.)
  • Iterate (and innovate) faster.

This feels distinctly like a market that is ripe for a good dose of disruption. Food for thought!