Innovative Tools for a 21st Century Market

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What lessons can the U.S. learn from housing programs, policies, or regulatory frameworks in other countries? Are there specific tools in use (e.g., covered bonds, full recourse loans, prepayment penalties, etc.) that we should consider adopting or using on a larger scale?

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To be sure, there are many robust technologies, tools, and regulatory frameworks to replicate from our own petri dishes of state, regional, and local governments. But, there is also a rich historical context of what we have ‘borrowed’ from or interacted with other countries, and the lessons learned from those experiences. We need to look at what is going on presently; and what can be re-constituted and illuminated anew for innovative tools in the housing sub-sector of the urban sector.

Some considerations:

  1. Direction of innovation or technology transfer – Whenever we stop thinking the ‘only invented here’ syndrome and observe what other countries and their housing sub-sectors are doing, we frequently find something of value to import and grow in our own variant soils. Of course, innovation transfer can also be two-way, as in information or technical exchanges through bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements. HUD’s Office for International and Philanthropic Innovation (IPI), has continued to grow their efforts in performing comparative research, developing networks, and facilitating collaboration of key partners and resources, with special focus this year on the UN Habitat World Urban Forum in Naples, Italy. The National Academy of Housing and Sustainable Communities is planning to present a networking group around TOD (Transit Oriented Development) at its precursor, this summer’s meetings at the National Building Museum, as well as help sponsor a 5-year Research Plan listening session in May.
  2. Category – product (functional or research), process or method (intellectual property also capable of trademarking, patenting or copyrighting), exchange of ideas…Previously, I participated in a fairly long-term demonstration program involving local governance associations in the U.S. (e.g., National Association of Counties, National League of Cities) that inter-acted with their counter-parts in Germany, France, and the UK to establish a technology arm for a common board of those agencies. We ‘imported’ various tools and products to test out in cities in the U.S.
  3. Level of governance required - private sector house or apartment building, neighborhood, corridor, city, SMSA, region, country, comparative of all the above. Under Secretary George Romney, the notion of industrialized housing components was transformed into Operation Breakthrough. And the housing allowance program was borrowed from the UK and replicated through a like demo. Of all the present mayors, NYC’s Bloomberg has ‘imported’ many such ideas from France and England, some with more success than others (the bike share program, e.g., vs. the transportation pricing scheme).
  4. Mix of housing and other functional expenditures (livability) – the need to get out of federal silos and think neighborhoods that successfully integrate shelter with the other sub-sectors of transportation; environment; energy; education; jobs and economic development; infrastructure; culture and leisure; health and human services. In Paris, transportation, housing, and urban planners and doers are involved in the Gran Paris project, a definer of development for the next 40 years – first a 10-year plan, one development authority, 100 miles of new trains linking suburb to suburb with 57 new stations and 70,000 new housing units a year around those stations; 140 mayors involved with their fiefdoms, and representing every political party from their tea-partiers to the communists. All of it rivals some of our major housing-transportation improvements in both large and small metropolitan areas.
  5. Actors, stakeholders, change agents - governments, contractors and consultants; private sector producers and financiers; quangos, NGOs; non-profits, foundations, academia, public interest groups. With the help of several of these, I was able to successfully replicate information technology and housing management/maintenance bonus programs from the U.K. Most recently, I am looking at various housing policies and programs in Germany, England, Canada, Brazil, China, France, Italy, Israel, and Turkey. Wherever one travels, it is important to leave the regular tourist sites and find what our housing counter-parts are doing in the areas of land-use and housing finance, construction, and management. Members of the Housing Commission could compile an impressive list themselves.
  6. Research, demonstrations, data storage, dissemination, and legacy of information - above groups (aka 'Johnny Appleseeds'), internet, data warehouses, search and retrieval technology, physical records, webinars, websites, list serves, conferences, “person-on-the-ground." The public interest groups have intermittently set up international liaison to encourage more interchange with their counterparts. There has been mixed success. The academic and non-profit communities are also a major source of identifying possible international innovations and technology transfer. And finally, the media and the internet provide old and new means for illuminating possible targets of opportunity. The recent New York Times article on revitalizing a high-rise in the down-trodden suburbs of Paris with the use of one-day technology retrofits is an example worthy of noting and discussing. An example of Big, paradigm-breaking innovation - the recent educational MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses), whereby Stanford alone enrolled 160,000 students in 190 countries in ONE Artificial Intelligence semester course! Why not think the same way with housing and urban technologies and tools?

In conclusion: a) there have been many precedents, some of which could be revived or re-visited within the context of the internet; b) there is a need to inventory what is going on in the housing and urban technology field today, with the many agents involved; and finally, c) once done, there is a need for the Housing Commission to provide a series of recommendations on how to foster a more robust process for sustainable housing and urban ideas from around the world through its unique ‘leverage’ with congressional committees and partners.

Kent Watkins is Chairman of the National Academy of Housing and Sustainable Development.


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