There are a range of exciting new technologies which could be of real benefit to the sector, says Mark Henderson
I like innovative ideas, new techy things and solutions to the seemingly impossible. Prompted by that scary story in the papers of a few weeks ago where two computers suddenly started speaking to each other in their own language (the boffins hastily pulled the plug out before Arnie appeared in a crackle of lightning) I thought I’d write a bit about innovation in the housing sector.
And I got stuck. Stuck because although there are some great ideas and wonderful practices across the sector, I wondered how truly innovative they were, in a ‘bleeding edge’ innovation sense. And stuck because I kind of came to the conclusion that we probably shouldn’t really be truly innovative in that most extreme sense.
Bleeding edge refers to the very forefront of technological development. So, why shouldn’t we be bleeding edge pioneers? Well, for one, it’s a risky business.
You need to be prepared to invest heavily in a concept and be brave enough to ditch it if it doesn’t really work. And of course extreme innovation can be incredibly expensive with a high cost of failure. Finally, the returns are different for us, we cannot develop a product to the point of being first to start selling it in the market, building a business and selling it for a fortune or floating on the stock exchange. So the cost-benefit ratios don’t really work.
“We have to embrace innovation in a way that doesn’t expose our businesses and customers to undue risk.”
However, we will never tackle the housing crisis if we continue to work in the way we always have done, and the external pressures we face mean that we cannot stand still. This means we have to embrace innovation in a way that doesn’t expose our businesses and customers to undue risk.
While this sounds like a bit of a catch-22, I think there is a role for us to adapt innovation and new technologies that are already out there, to improve our sector. This means we need to see what’s on the horizon.
Here are a couple that I thought we could do some great things with as a sector.
First is nano-lighting technology. Imagine being able to paint a surface with miniature lightbulbs that are totally unbreakable, but that you can programme remotely to change colour and pattern, or to emit a certain level of luminance. The one I read about was originally designed as a commercial application for the airline industry: “You want an Easyjet coloured plane at stand six? It’s a BA one at the moment.” With the touch of a single button, this changes.
Could we adapt this as an indoor application for homes? This could mean ‘paint’ that is easily repairable, that you can decorate at the touch of a button and have daylight in the house for as long as you need without lightbulbs.
“Our true innovation is being in a position where we are able to spot these technologies and adapt them for our own use.”
Also, and I was really taken by this, I read about the new technology developed to tackle forest fires. It means that one day fires could be dealt with by drones that would direct loud noises at the trees below. Since sound is made up of pressure waves, it’s used to disrupt the air surrounding a fire, essentially cutting off the supply of oxygen to the fuel.
At the right frequency, the fire simply dies out, as researchers at George Mason University in Virginia recently demonstrated with their sonic extinguisher. Bass frequencies work best, but could this be adapted for buildings and in confined spaces, I wonder?
Both of these technologies exist right now, but it will likely take years before they make it (or not) to the markets we see.
I think our true innovation is being in a position where we are able to spot these technologies and adapt them for our own use. This would improve our organisation without exposing us to significant amounts of risk, and most crucially help to improve our customers’ lives. That seems like worthwhile innovation to me.
Mark Henderson, chief executive, Home Group