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The distributed home

The distributed home

The BBC has analysed the rapid growth of city centre living, putting numbers to the anecdotal evidence of growth provided by the forest of cranes across British cities, and the towers that spring up beneath them. City centre living in Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester is growing near or above 150% a year.

This is a trend we should encourage and expand in the future, but to do so, I think we have to reassess what we expect a home to be.

Shrinking accommodation

Houses are shrinking. They have been since the 1970s. I don’t mean that the bricks dried out and shrivelled like a sponge. The houses we build now are significantly smaller than they were. Living rooms down 32%, kitchens 13%. bedrooms 10%. There are fewer bedrooms as well: down from an average of 3.53 to 2.95. We now have the smallest footprint for homes in the EU at under 100sqm.

Despite this, we still cling to the idea of a home being something with all of these components. And of a certain size.

The micro home/tiny house movement has boomed on both sides of the Atlantic, albeit actual sales probably don’t warrant the noise about them on YouTube and Instagram, where their clever, compact features and cute aesthetics have become a hit. Despite this the number of truly micro homes that we have built remains relatively low, with a huge amount of opposition from planners and campaigners.

In 2015, the government introduced a minimum space standard of 37sqm for single occupancy and 50sqm for two bed homes, though this standard isn’t truly enforcedand has been relaxed for repurposed properties — typically converted offices.

The space standard is not totally arbitrary. There is evidence that people need space and light for their mental health. We need to escape others sometimes, and we don’t want to be in claustrophobic spaces, squeezed between walls and furniture.

But I think we need to keep those standards under review.

Shared services

Micro homes make most sense in a context where people are well served with other amenities, and despite the woes of some major restaurant chains, city centres are increasingly densely packed with quality ‘third space’. There are the ubiquitous coffee shops, from the boutique to the chain. There are the gyms, the private members clubs (much more affordable when your home doesn’t consume half your income), and actually the workspaces. The blending of home and work life in a positive way, as the formal office environment starts to break down, actually might make us feel less inclined to escape to our homes.

We can think of all of these third spaces as extensions of our ‘distributed home’, with the space in which we sleep, wash, and dress just being a single component.

Reshaping the environment

These arguments don’t work for everyone living in a city. When you’re young, single and at the start of your career, perhaps you need fewer opportunities for true isolation. As we age we naturally want more space, not just for kids, and we are inherently less flexible. But technology may start to offset some of the other space challenges.

Firstly, materials may change. I am a little obsessed at the moment with the possibility of changing the materials from which we construct our world. Imagine if we could get the strength and other properties we need in furniture and appliances with drastically-reduced dimensions. Imagine how much space could be freed up, especially if these items could be collapsible. Truly micro homes (under 15sqm) rely on clever folding items but this requires the occupant to constantly reconfigure their homes for different times of day. This becomes much easier if the furniture reconfigures itself around you. Smart materials could fold and unfold themselves into a variety of shapes – sofa, bed, table — perhaps even cleaning themselves and changing their hardness for different circumstances, a stiff table becoming a soft bed.

Secondly, a growing proportion of our physical environment will be virtual, with the advent of mixed reality and — perhaps — holographics, for those times when we’re not sporting a headset. Our physical environment becomes deeply mutable at this point. We can flatten the four walls to reveal any environment we wish. Ensconce ourselves in a game or just live in a virtual forest, beach or mountaintop. Now the distributed home isn’t just split across a city, it’s networked across the world.

Those already worried about time spent gaming may be sceptical, despite the absence of any real evidence this causes harm. And it’s true, there is no substitute for physical space: as we pack our cities more densely, the demands on public planners to integrate and improve shared outdoor spaces get ever greater.

But in the coming years we have to find places for people to live that they can afford and that suit their lifestyle: an experience culture inherently supports a smaller home with fewer goods in it, at lower cost to release cash for personal pursuits beyond the material. Perhaps truly micro homes are the right thing for people at certain points in their lives. Perhaps we can engineer micro homes to be truly luxurious, even with a tiny footprint.

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The value of imperfection

The value of imperfection

A recent episode of the ever-inspiring 99 Percent Invisible addressed the construction, and failure, of the ambitious Bijlmermeer construction project outside Amsterdam. This was a Modernist architectural dream for future living, realised in huge quantities of concrete, and following the principals of Le Corbusier’s Athen’s Charter. It’s well worth reading the posts on the 99pi website or listening to the two-part podcast.

Bijlmermeer failed for a number of reasons, but part of the problem was over-engineering. Not of the structures themselves, but of the lives of the people who would inhabit them. The architects had very clear intentions for how people would live in their new machine. Architecture can be a tool to shape behaviours. But it can only nudge. Push too far and people push back.

People in boxes

Human beings excel at sorting, not that you’d know it to look at my home. We LOVE to put things in boxes. To create order from chaos. We like simple systems that we can understand.

This desire for neat, tidy and comprehensible often drives us to make things too neat. Like the Bijlmermeer. And this jars with us. It doesn’t feel right.

I think of it in physics terms. Order is the Newtonian model that we apply to a complex quantum universe. We can get our head around Newtonian physics, so we tend to design structures and systems in its (relatively) simple terms. But people are complex — quantum (and not in a ‘woo’ way).

You can approximate for the shape of people’s lives with broad brush strokes. But try to paint them into a corner and they will quickly run outside the lines.

(Is that enough analogies for you?)

Design for life

I can see this need for complexity and imperfection becoming increasingly important in the future. Some of the conversations I have been having about future materials recently, conjure possibilities of ultra-minimalist designs. Of perfect, forever-clean machines, clothes and buildings. These might be stunning and super-efficient. But this would be a cold world devoid of challenge and intrigue.

These objects will need a human touch to bring them to life. To add the imperfection that makes them appeal.


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Conversations with my house

Conversations with my house
This is not my house

“Welcome home Tom. It’s a little cold. Would you like me to put the heating on?

/Yes /No”

My house can talk. And text.

OK, it’s not my actual house. That would be weird. It’s an instance of Home Assistant, the rapidly-evolving open-source home automation software. Following a little configuration work over the Christmas break, I can now converse with my ‘house’ using Telegram, the WhatsApp-like messaging service. My house tells me things, like when people are arriving or leaving, and it can take instructions, like turning on lights, music or the heating.

Over time I can add more services. I’m thinking of a concierge service for visitors might be quite cool: something that sets up their Wi-Fi and gives them access to the house’s services.

What’s the point of this?

For me this is a rudimentary and very small scale example of what I mean when I talk about ‘living cities’. Living cities are what happens when you bring together sensors, actuators and intelligence to start to respond to the needs of citizens. When you go beyond just ‘smart’ to bring some warmth and engagement.

There’s no real intelligence in my system — it’s entirely driven by events triggering certain messages. But even with this very simple technology, the house can start to engage with my needs and respond to them in a much more human way than it otherwise might. It can know that I usually like a certain temperature. That I like a certain playlist when I’m cooking, or the lights a certain way when watching a film. And it can tell me that it knows, in quite a natural fashion, and offer solutions to me at appropriate moments.

To truly fit my definition of a ‘living’ system, my house would need ‘real’ intelligence: perhaps predicting needs I hadn’t explicitly expressed. And it would need to be able to evolve its behaviours — and even its physical space — to better meet those needs. Sadly, I can’t 3D-print walls yet. But it’s easy to see that technology coming.

In the meantime, it’s nice having a house that can look after itself. And me.

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Building the Future Council

Building the Future Council

My recent post about the future council gained a lot of attention, so I thought I’d share more of the thinking that I’ve done so far. What might it look like when you re-orient a council around people and places, rather than services?

This thinking started with a question from a council chief executive a few years ago, but was actually refined through work with a medium-large (£250m turnover) corporate. Despite being very different organisations on the outside, once you got under the skin their problems were very similar. All of this work combined now forms the Stratification framework that is part of the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit.

Fundamental units

The first thing to identify in the council’s case was that the fundamental unit of organisation was services. The whole organisation had been assembled by bolting services onto the side of the existing organisation, and even the radical transformations driven by austerity had not really changed that architecture. As long as it persisted, there would be massive ‘parallelism’ in the way the organisation operated, preventing efficiencies but more importantly, fragmenting data and adding friction to service, analysis and communication.

As I wrote about in the last post, the first and most important step was to re-orient the organisation around the citizen rather than the service. But we also had to recognise that this didn’t cover everything: a significant proportion of the council’s work is also place-centric, with granularity ranging from a single bin, to a building, to a whole street or park.

Hence we were left with two fundamental units that could be cross-indexed: people, and places.

Unifying the citizen interface

Unifying the customer interface

With the citizen at the centre of the organisation, it was clear that we needed to unify the customer interface. The multiple touchpoints of the old architecture were highly inefficient, creating confusion, cost, disparate data and a governance nightmare, with little oversight.

A unified customer interface means a common written language style, with content written to the appropriate standard for the majority of the audience. It means ensuring that there is a single answer to each question, not multiple, conflicting answers. It means using a common design language to help those with limited English or poorer vision to understand information, whether presented in a face to face, written, digital or video context.

A unified customer interface means a coherent view of that experience across communications channels, using insight from contact centres to drive digital development, and vice versa.

Ultimately it led to the proposal of new internal agency, equipped with the skills and resource to handle these tasks, where previously responsibility had been distributed across multiple teams.

Making services more transparent

Creating coherent service units

Behind the unified communications layer sit the services, the core propositions of the council: education, public health, adult social care, environmental services, highways, revenue and benefits — obviously these will vary depending on the type of council.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in the delivery of any of these services. But one thing was clear when looking at them and their interactions inside the organisation: it was hard for them to understand each other’s work and for leaders to really understand their performance.

As organisations grow and develop over time their activities often become more complex on the inside and opaque from the outside. Complex isn’t inherently bad: these teams are dealing with challenging issues. But the lack of transparency makes many things harder: partnering with other teams, reporting success, analysing failure, inducting new staff.

We created a template to help these teams revisit their understanding of their core processes, their inputs, outputs and key metrics so that the could be more easily communicated to others. Sort of a paper ‘API’, that described how you might interact with them. Ultimately, it would be good to turn paper into code.

Creating a common data layer

A common data layer

Underpinning the unified customer interface and more transparent interaction between services is a shared data layer. Once you acknowledge that there are only two fundamental units that the organisation deals with — three if you count numbers (finance) — it’s clear that the council needs many fewer software systems and databases than it has acquired under a service-oriented architecture (not this SOA).

The realities of the current estate, data protection legislation, and security choices may mean that you don’t actually condense everything down to a handful of systems. But as a notional vision, a unified data store of people and places is valuable because of the business value it can drive. Most people have few interactions with their council, and those they do have are relatively mundane — even automatic. But for those people who need more intensive support, more coherent information can drive much more effective intervention: earlier and more targeted, meaning better for the citizen and cheaper for the council.

External API

External interface wrapper

The nature of the post-austerity council is that much of its work is commissioning, either to third parties or to its own services companies. Streamlining these interactions is less important than streamlining the customer interactions, but nonetheless valuable. Building a largely-digital wrapper that allows the two way flow of information for commissioning, payments, the sharing of data, and the monitoring of SLAs, would speed the flow of information right through the organisation, and ideally improve the delivery of services.

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The Council of the Future

The Council of the Future

What would a future-ready local authority look like if you designed it from the ground up?

This is the question a client asked me a few years ago. The answer looked quite different to any of the organisations I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a few from the inside now.

Fundamental units

Each of the organisations I have looked at has suffered from the same problem: the fundamental organisational unit is a service. Each of those services has people attached to it. Those people have their own processes. Those processes are often captured in the service’s own technology. The service has its own interface to customers (citizens). And its own internal interfaces to the rest of the organisation.

This structure has resulted from the way that local government has grown: organically. Every time there has been a new demand, a new initiative, or a new legislative decree from the centre, a new function has been built to deliver or support it.

These services might sit under a management hierarchy, but that still leaves a huge number of internal interfaces to manage, with friction at every one. And more importantly — and expensively — a huge number of external interfaces to the customer.

Thin veneers

Attempts to rationalise these interfaces have been challenging. Common web or call centre interfaces have often been little more than a veneer over the existing structure. Any interaction beyond the most rudimentary, exposes this internal complexity.

For example, I once called my local council to report that my regular cycle path was overgrown, layered with leaves, and affected by fly-tipping. The web form couldn’t handle this complexity. Instead I spent 40 minutes on the phone as a call centre operative worked her way through three different systems, manually inputting my requests into three different systems with three different interfaces, to be addressed by three different teams.

Citizen-centric design

Imagine if you changed the fundamental organisational unit of the council. Instead of an organisation built around the services it provides, you build an organisation around the citizens and places it supports.

This might sound counter-intuitive if you’re trying to rationalise: there are infinitely more places and people than services. But right now, every place and person has multiple touch-points with the council. Each external interaction sets off a cascade of inefficient internal interactions.

This is problematic for the 80% of citizens with whom the council has relatively few interactions beyond the automatic. Regular tax payments, mass mails, use of the library or leisure centre, and the occasional issue with a lost bin. For the 20% or so of citizens with much more intensive needs, it is catastrophic.

Without this re-orientation around the citizen, it is incredibly difficult to build consistent, coherent support, and to do so at what might be a sustainable level of cost. It is even more difficult to begin to intervene proactively, preventing issues from arising rather than addressing them when they are acute. You just don’t have the connected data about people and places to be able to consistently identify — early — where interventions might be needed.

Construction not criticism

I have nothing but admiration for the leaders and workers in the councils I’ve encountered. They have shown incredible resilience and ingenuity to address staggering difficulties. Losing huge fractions of their budgets and many of their colleagues in recent years, they have coped by redoubling efforts, changing their operating models, and investing in new systems and technology, in order to maintain service — particularly for the most vulnerable. Nonetheless, most senior leaders that I speak to admit that the current situation is unsustainable.

People and places are the wholehearted focus of the councils I’ve worked with. But their operating models aren’t aligned to supporting those people and places efficiently.

Tom Cheesewright