Spin out to help out

Our Director of Research and Innovation, Jamie Smith has contributed to the latest issue of Welsh Housing Quarterly (WHQ). He talks about our how Side-by-Side Innovation started out, and the three main challenges it will initially be tackling.

In an earlier article (WHQ 120) I talked about what innovation should or shouldn’t be. The main premise was that innovation is not an exercise in trying new things, but a rigorous problem-solving process, underpinned by design principles and a scientific method.

The Welsh housing sector has a heritage of embracing new ideas and implementing new solutions, but not in a way that constitutes innovation in its pure sense. Community Housing Cymru, through its Alcemi programme and Innovation Working Group, is making positive strides in addressing this, recognising the distinction between true innovation and everything else. This is a welcome development.

Hafod embraced innovation-proper in 2018 when its Research and Innovation function was formed to guide an ambitious transformation programme. This was a courageous investment for the organisation. We knew it would be an experiment we would learn from, but we were uncertain of the outcomes or the return on investment to expect. There was no textbook and very few parallel experiences to learn from in Wales, the UK or beyond. We spent the following year building the skills and experience necessary to succeed, drawing in people from the academic, consumer goods and public service spheres and developing ways of working and collaborating.

There was some early successes and the function would undoubtedly have gone on to deliver more. But that rather depends on how you define and measure success. We observed from the outset a path dependency. The function was increasingly subsumed into business change and organisational problems, at the expense of problems defined by our customers and communities.

This is neither right nor wrong, but we wanted the value of our work to be judged by its impact on quality of life and well-being. To make this shift, we would need to disrupt and challenge the way the organisation works on a number of fronts. Being embedded and invested in that organisation and an integral part of the machinery, makes this is a difficult position to maintain. There are many moving parts to synchronise, cultural norms to negotiate and a good dose of inertia, conscious or otherwise.

So, to try harder or try different? The conversation on trying different was already developing when the pandemic struck and gave us a moment to pause and reflect. The world was changing at an unprecedented pace and the challenges facing communities came into sharper focus. The problems of loneliness, financial insecurity, the digital divide and mental health, to name a few, were crying out for innovation and new solutions. To maximise the value of our resources, we realised their time would need to be protected and their path cleared to focus on big challenges with long-term returns to society. This could best be achieved by spinning the core expertise out of the main organisation and creating an arms’ length function, with the autonomy to form new alliances and work in a more instinctive way.

A year after this decision was made, Side-by-Side Innovation entered the fray. The Side-by-Side approach is to keep customers and communities at the very centre of innovation, from identifying the right problem to solve through developing the solutions and making them work in practice.  Its uniqueness is the fact it is powered by Hafod, or in other words emerged from a practice-based organisation, which will act as a living laboratory for testing ideas and a conduit for scaling those that work, before sharing with the wider world.

Side-by-Side will focus its attention on, initially, three starter spaces, formed around the challenges of financial well-being, sustainable communities and reimagining old age.  Within these broad opportunity areas, we will define the specific problems to be solved and use a range of frameworks and methods to create an evidence base and run small experiments to test emerging solutions.

Side-by-Side didn’t begin from a blank page. There were already experiments in the pipeline around loneliness and isolation, period poverty, digital inclusion, community entrepreneurship and climate change and each promises to bring fresh insight and solutions that make lives better. These are the metrics we want to judge ourselves against because they are what true innovation ought to be about.