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Advancing UK housing through Equitable Innovation

In continuation with the Connected Places Catapult 2020 housing program priorities, the following blog explores resilient strategies to direct equitable investment to shift the UK’s future homes evolution. Annalise Johns, Housing Lead for the Connected Places Catapult begins the discussion through this thoughtful piece on building healthy homes for the future.

Harvard Professor Dani Rodrik’s latest blog Democratizing Innovation, speaks to government’s reticence to provide a strategic direction for technological change. He states “as a society, we should care not just about how much innovation takes place, but also about the types of new technologies that are developed. We ought to ensure we are investing in technologies that are safe, environmentally sound, empower rather than simply replace human labour, and are consistent with democratic values and human rights.

The Financial Times Weekend Magazine issue June 13 2020 noted the 2010-19 decade to be the lowest in the UK’s history of productivity growth, this obviously predates the current pandemic and Brexit. Sir Michael Marmot’s Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On, demonstrates this same decade has seen a reversal of health improvement. Sir Marmot explains “if health has stopped improving it is a sign that society has stopped improving.” The Marmot report describes how inequitable spending practices reverse progress – much like the UK’s approach to spending on innovation.

To reverse this there needs to be a conscious decision to embed resilience across the UK, starting in the community where equitable access to healthy homes is the first priority and the norm.

In light of the shake up in the housing sector due to the release of the Hackitt report post Grenfell, there is a great opportunity to build in preventable health impacts through the mandatory Building Registration Certificate. “In the case of housing refurbishments, the Building Safety Manager will need to engage with residents on the proposals and updates of any changes that might affect the safety of the building. These new processes ensure the Building Safety Regulator is aware of risks being prevented and managed. Though these steps are welcome, including the new national construction products regulator and the array of regulating bodies and processes being established, is this not the moment to address the toxicity of building materials and its embedded carbon, to truly conceive a universal healthy home standard in the UK? Mainstream an informed choice of materials and methods that reduce the introduction of toxins into the resident’s home surely must be included among the priorities of a Building Safety Regulator? How can this be linked to the Foundation industries supply of materials to the UK’s manufacturing and construction sectors?

The foundation and construction sectors are crying out for better health protection strategies, none of which have linked toxicity levels of building materials and its impact on the work force. Apart from the study of the Irish Construction sector in 1980 which highlighted 1/3 of premature retirement was due to cardiovascular disease (common disease linked to environmental chemical exposure), there is no focus on this industry’s attempt to clean up its act.

UCL’s Macroeconomic Impact of Government Innovative Policies Report (2019) discusses the Government’s Green Book (HMT 2018) “market failure” approach to value creation and its aim to “improve social welfare or wellbeing”. To achieve this, the Green Book guidance describes the use of tactical strategies or policies to ensure “distributional objectives”. However, if the social and educational background of those who make the investment decisions is equally homogeneous then the likelihood of achieving distributional objectives or resilience is mute.

The foundation and construction sectors are crying out for better health protection strategies.

An equitable strategy for investment in innovation is needed for a society to be productive. Though the Industrial Strategy aims to improve people’s lives and the country’s productivity, the industrial strategy does little to target the inequalities that are at the source of poor productivity. In fact I would go as far to suggest they continue them.

Currently 32.3% of UK SMEs are women, an increase from 19% in 2017. The sectors with the smallest proportion of female-run businesses are construction (4.9%), repair (23%) and automotive (17%). Interestingly 13% of the construction sector are women. The majority of investment in innovation is related to AI, aviation and automotive car industries which are male dominated and speculative to say the least on their value creation to improve social welfare, wellbeing or environmental value.

Many look to the car industry as a model approach for the construction sector to follow. However, those familiar with the intricacies of retrofitting or constructing a new home may agree, the tailored approach to patient care and its reliance on patient specific solutions is more appropriate. The NHS staff accounts for 70% women – a sector with clear distributional objectives and is one of the world’s largest employers of qualified professionals. All of whom are relying on the latest research and innovation to prevent further complications. The NHS approach to regionalise its business model creating community specific care provision is one the built environment sector could learn from.

There is a myriad of innovations taking place across the UK and a commendable enthusiasm from the government to support budding innovators to support economic recovery and level the playing field. However, this cannot be achieved until UK homes are truly healthy, to ensure productivity – a key social determinant of health. Diversity needs to be valued and enforced to ensure investment in the kind of innovations that deliver equitable distribution.

Professor Mariana Mazzucato, director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL, explains “to make growth ‘fairer’ and more inclusive – and for the gains to be more equitably shared – economists, policy makers and the general public must have a better understanding of which stakeholders truly take part in the fundamental risk sharing necessary to catalyse innovation-led growth.” (Mazzucato, M. (2013) The Entrepreneurial State, Anthem Press, London.)

Our current pandemic, if nothing else, is the mirror to reflect back the ramifications of a decade of investment in a direction so far removed from the values and priorities of ordinary people.


This blog is one in a series and is part of our Future of Housing programme. Find out more about our work in this area by visiting our new Future of Housing knowledge hub.

Our Future of Housing blog series is intended as a platform for open debate. Views expressed are not necessarily those of Connected Places Catapult.

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