It’s become a modern management mantra that we should embrace chaos. But what about it’s more polite, genteel cousin – randomness? The future that we will all inhabit is more often the result of random connections than it is the linear chronology. and certainly the much-trumped chaos.
I was reminded of this as I sat down the other night and reacquainted myself with the seminal 1978 television series ‘Connections’ written and presented by James Burke, which set out to give an ‘alternative view of change’.
But what you ask, has this got to with housing? To paraphrase James Burke - bear with me, we will come to this shortly. In the meantime, we need to do a little more scene setting.
In the series James Burke hops, skips and jumps through our past to make seemingly random connections that have led to our modern world. In one episode (‘Faith in Numbers’), he connects the renaissance with climate change, the black death and watermills and to show how they led to computers. In another episode (‘Countdown’), castle fortifications, billiard balls and maps are connections that lead to modern cinema.
His delivery is a delightful, playful, but at the same time worldly, insightful and engaging, with a glint in his eye that can only truly come from knowing your subject.
It’s not often that a TV series stays with you for a lifetime, but this one has and the moment I saw the opening credits I was transported back to the 12-year-old me who was both transfixed and blown away by what the series was proposing (please note I was also keen on Dallas and Porridge, so let’s not think I was getting above myself!) It stayed with me though because it simply said that there was a different way of thinking and that random was not the accidental result of something, but in itself could shape things, however uncomfortable that seemed.
And while there are elements of the series that have dated, not least Mr Burkes demi-safari suit, much of it is surprisingly timeless. It is a simple format, consisting of James Burkes speaking to camera in various globe-trotting locations supported by the occasional BBC workshop model and limited use of the dreaded dramatic reconstruction (and even these do not take themselves too seriously and have been sprinkled with a little of James Burkes pixie mischief).
It is also timeless because it’s basic thesis remains true – that it is people, inventions, social movements, communications and ideas bumping into each other by sheer chance, serendipity and opportunism, that are the things that result in progress. And often far more than the self-conscious decision to generate new inventions and progress, ‘history is driven by individuals who act only on what they know at the time, and not because of any idea as to where their actions will eventually lead.’[i]
So what HAS this got to do with housing? Well despite the temptation – one I have to resist strongly – the series does not provide us with a way of predicting the future (this would actually be the opposite of what the series was saying). But what has struck me over the last two years is how things in housing have been thrown up in the air and how we have seen the sector trying to manage its way through this change. At the same time, some key things that directly affect housing are changing faster than eve, the most obvious being energy, data and communications. And with more randomness and more change, there are and will be more connections.
I have seen more new models for energy generation, financing, supply, management and distribution in the last year than I have in the previous twenty. And we are not talking about a bit of photovoltaic stuck on roofs here: we are seeing models that will put housing at its heart and will revolutionise the way homes and energy interact. Equally, data and communications are on the cusp of something huge in housing. With the introduction of smart meters, the roll out of near universal broadband (even though this is still something the sector needs to grasp – and tightly), the internet of things and smart homes, our homes will become alive with data that can improve homes and lives.
And the exciting bit is that social housing is in a unique position. No one else owns and manages so completely large-scale portfolios of homes across the country. The ability to network those homes is important, whether that is data generation, energy generation or the communications between them. The social sector could become one of biggest generators, distributers and managers of energy and data in the UK.
But you know in the day to day of managing housing, we often forget how unique this position is. It is the wood for trees, but we need to see it – because others are and the only thing holding them back is not understanding the sector. Many don’t understand it right now, but they might do and soon.
So how does this relate to James Burke and his random bumping in to things theory of history, and the future? I don’t pretend to know what the future holds. But I know that right now we have the elements for more randomness than ever before and that WILL lead to change.
The question for me and for the sector is do we embrace - no, encourage - that randomness to see what turns up? Are we the ones who will get out there and try all manner of things, talk to all manner of people and see all manner of connections and help shape that exciting future for housing? Or will we let others do it, and much like medieval monasteries whose role led to the invention of cinema, simply become a step – a footnote - on the way to producing something far more brilliant? I hope not.
Postscript – by rather delightful coincidence the watching of ‘Connections’ coincided with James Burke reappearing in the media this autumn giving his insights in to the role of robots on Radio 4’s Today programme this November. [ii] The original series of Connections ran on the BBC in 1978 and was followed up by Connections2 in 1994 and Connections3 in 1997, but these later series took a more traditional linear approach than the first series and for me lost some of the magic as a result.