What Uber, Comms Hero and HouseParty tell us about the future of the conference…

(A version of this post originally appeared on 24Dash – go visit them as they’re great!)

Marco Rubio Speech On Innovation At Uber's DC Offices

2pm 11th June: London grinds to a halt.

Cab drivers have downed tools for an hour.

Uber, a smartphone app that offers an easy and cheap taxi booking service, has rolled into the UK. Our taxi drivers, required to do training of between 4-7 years, are understandably outraged at this tech startup rocking up and suggesting services can be delivered in affordable ways that are more tailored to the customer.

The howls of anguish from the striking drivers were heard all across Europe. But far from highlighting the cause of taxi drivers it served only to promote Uber itself- which saw an 850% increase in subscriptions.

The hackney carriage – a tradition dating back to 1654 – faces potential disruption.

Plenty of howls of anguish in Manchester too this week as the annual housing conference rolled into town. This year though the conference had an Uber-like startup to contend with.

HouseParty – an unofficial fringe – had parked its (mini)bus just over the road.

Much like Comms Hero, it would be easy to dismiss HouseParty as a bit of inconsequential fluff. A bunch of malcontents fiddling around with social media and shiny tech whilst Rome burns.

But both formats deserve closer scrutiny. Both have super smart business brains behind them in Asif Choudry and Matt Leach. Both have got the sheer balls to deliver something different in a market starved of original thought. And both show an implicit understanding of their customers.

Comms Hero was developed after speaking to Comms people and asking them what they would design if they could create their ideal event.

HouseParty has evolved through social media connections and captured the imagination of people who would never have thought of attending a housing conference. Additionally it’s been co-designed by Esther Foreman a social entrepreneur who also happens to be – guess what? – a real life housing association tenant.

And they are new and achingly cool. Whereas the annual CIH conference has roots in a tradition starting back in 1931. On that basis it’s unfair to compare and contrast the three. But anyone who has attended them, or followed their social media feeds, will do so.

Let me be clear. This isn’t an attack on the CIH, an organisation I have huge respect for and who employ some inspirational people. Neither is it a ringing endorsement of Comms Hero or HouseParty – concepts that are taking their first awkward baby steps into the world.

But the fact is the annual conference , and public sector conferences like it , have to change.

You can’t blame the CIH. The public gets what the public wants. And, if we’re honest, the UK housing public wants an annual sideshow to the real business of getting together and having a chinwag and a few beers.

The conference this year certainly had a unified message: We need more social housing and we need more money. We need more of the same. Impassioned stuff and I, optimistically, hope it’s heard.

But at £525 for a one day non-member ticket you’d expect passion at the very least.

How attractive would this be to people in the top 5 of the digital Power Players list. People like Anne McCrossan, John Popham or Helen Reynolds? Sole traders who could help the sector be much better than it currently is.

How attractive would this be to a tenant?

Comms Hero has undercut its rivals by a good £100. HouseParty offered an innovative ‘pay what you can afford’ option.

Much like ‘affordable’ rents, our conferences need to consider their purpose, pricing and accessibility.

Thom Bartley has made the brilliant point that it’s now cheaper to fly to Amsterdam to see a 3D printed house than to pay to go to a housing conference and hear someone talk about it. We all know that housing has to revisit its purpose but that also involves a restatement of its values.

This is less an issue for the CIH than it is for the sector itself.

In reality neither Comms Hero nor House Party are competitors to traditional conferences – they offer something different. But just like Uber,  Spotify and Netflix they are bringing the question of customer value into the spotlight.

The annual conference, just like black cabs, will be around for a good while yet. But if nothing else the new kids on the block have made us consider “would we do it this way if we started again?”

And that’s always a pretty good question to ask.

3 Things We Should Learn From Benefits Street

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Apart from the unfortunate title, Benefits Street is pretty good.

Having seen the first two episodes I genuinely can’t understand what the fuss is about.

It’s a great piece of commercial television (think – My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding) that’s designed to shock.

And , boy , have we fallen for it.

Primetime TV + Benefits  =  Bang: The Twitter Liberal Left erupt in a perfectly predictable frenzy.

But by dismissing the show out of hand  (I reckon less than 10% of people tweeting about it have actually watched it) we miss vital opportunities.

  • We don’t learn from people who are superb storytellers and know how to construct a genuinely populist narrative. (Something the social housing sector has failed to do time after time)
  • We don’t learn lessons about the way our organisations have failed to connect with some communities, and have contributed to their social exclusion.
  • We get distracted and start indulging in petty campaigns (petitions to get it taken off air – for heaven’s sake!) rather than thinking big and innovating.

If we did more listening and a little less talking we would pick up three important lessons:

1 – You change hearts and minds with stories not statistics

The past couple of weeks have seen a number of infographics and articles that aim to challenge the actual size of the welfare problem or show that tax avoiders are the bigger issue.

All of which are very interesting and probably correct but serve no purpose whatsoever in moving the debate forward.

Does anybody think that someone with an entrenched belief that welfare is a lifestyle choice gets one of these things in their inbox and says  “Oh. I see. I was wrong all along. Apologies”.

Of course not. The producers of Benefits Street know that storytelling trumps statistics every time. As Thom Bartley points out in his latest post:

“The public doesn’t respond to blah blah million lost off a balance sheet, they respond to the story about a mother losing benefit because her disabled kid uses an extra room”

2 – Real people tell a better story than professionals

This is the master stroke of Benefits Street. They’ve allowed people to speak for themselves. The professionals who help and , sometimes,  hinder their lives are mercifully absent.

Here’s how we are referred to:

Letter from Work Programme provider: “What f*****g work programme? I’ve never worked in my life”

DWP changing payments: “There’s going to be riots soon unless people start getting paid”

Housing:  “These landlords think they are clever (chasing rent). They’ll have to pay to go court and it’ll take you about a year and a half”

So – not a great level of advocacy for the agencies who are paid millions to support them.

The residents come across as likeable , aware of their own shortcomings and display a deep sense of community.

It’s refreshing to hear the impact of reforms – positive and negative-  untainted by professional bias. We need more of this.

3 – The best ideas come from communities

The greatest thing about the programme are the many innovations that residents employ to get through their day to day lives.

These are not people without talent.

They are people who have existed in a system that has concentrated on what they can’t do rather than what they can.

I see more innovation on display on James Turner Street than I see across many organisations. Some examples:

  • Neighbourhood mouthpiece “White Dee” using a community favours scheme to get a guy to save money for clothes and not blow it on drink and drugs.
  • The “50p Man” who sells household essentials like washing powder in smaller affordable portions. He came up with the idea in prison and dreams of turning it into a national franchise.
  • The Romanians turning trash into cash – literally going through bins.

One of the problems across the social sector is there’s too much top down innovation and an over reliance on tech based solutions.

We need to listen to communities , seed fund some grass roots projects and get out of the way. 

The only real problem with Benefits Street , as Charlie Brooker has pointed out , is that title.

It’s designed to get your back up.

So let’s stop falling for it.

Now is the time for big transformational innovation.

Now is the time for our very best social innovators to work with the residents of James Turner Street and others like them.

  • We could fund the likes of White Dee to become a Community Connector.
  • We could try a localised approach to job creation and a resident led Work Programme.
  • We could create a new deal for tenants rather than just moving them in and leaving them to it.
  • We could have a social accelerator programme to scale up business ideas – like the 50p man.
  • We could attempt to pilot a whole new system of benefits and help the Government out rather than sitting around willing Universal Credit to fail (Matt Leach outlines just such an approach in his excellent post here)

Or we could just get angry on Twitter, do battle with Daily Mail readers and become ever more polarised in our views.

I know how I want to spend my time.

How about you?