Come Dine With Me – And Other Ways to Create Great Partnerships

By Caroline Duvier @Caroline_Duvier

I would argue that the social housing sector is one of the most important public service sectors in the UK, if not in the world. When done right, this sector provides safe and secure housing to people who might otherwise fall through the rather large holes austerity and privatisation have created. Social housing needs to be protected. We need to be here for people who need us. Social housing needs to be brilliant at what it does. In this article I argue that brilliance is rarely achieved by going at it
alone. Partnerships are where it’s all at.

Great partnerships are created when you engage with people who think differently to you and take a different approach. It broadens everybody’s horizon when we think about things in ways we haven’t before. Sometimes, we just need someone to look at something we have been brooding over for days or weeks on end who is new to the sector. It’s like introducing cookie dough to vanilla ice cream. Who would have thought that this will be the greatest thing ever! (Don’t deny it, you know it’s true).

Just like in our personal lives, partnerships in this context come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The one I want to focus on here is partnerships with universities. I think the social housing sector is not utilising the resources offered at universities enough. I am noticing this very much while looking for papers for my PhD. All the frameworks and decision support tools for sustainable social housing I am reading about – hardly any seem to be used at social housing providers and I am not sure why this is the case. Maybe researchers are too shy to approach social housing providers, or maybe social housing providers are too shy to approach universities? Either way, both need to do a lot more Robin Williams-style arm waving and shouting to each other. That should do the trick.

My own experience

Back in the good old days (OK, four years, but still….) when I started to work on sustainability in social housing, my first foray was through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP). These are partnerships between universities and companies and cover any sort of area of research you’d like to focus on. Find out more through Innovate UK. I was desperately looking for work that combined the built environment with sustainability and came across this fantastic opportunity between the University of Bradford and a social housing provider. I wowed everyone at the interview because I was so enthusiastic (I am also very humble) and they had no choice but to hire me.

The experience was great. I brought a lot of academic research to the table, the housing provider brought real life stories and practicality issues to the
table. Together, we worked out the best way to approach our project. Even the CEO mentioned the project IN A COMPANY WIDE SPEECH, so I had my moment of fame. She did not mention my name, but hey, no hard feelings, right?

The KTP project I was tasked with was structured to minute detail. Not every project needs to be this detailed, and not every partnership needs to be a KTP project. Having worked in both worlds, academia and social housing, I have seen how valuable it would be to bring the two closer together. Many universities are looking to companies willing to work
with them. This could be on building science, social science, management and business, or health studies. Would it not be great to have social housing as a test bed for all sorts of amazing research?

Building bridges with and between academia and social housing

In reverse, social housing providers can ask universities for help with projects they are interested in. Our team wanted to get a better understanding of the thermal performance of our properties. We
wanted to know which properties to tackle first in terms of energy efficiency. Our thought was to install sensors in resident’s homes and measure things such as indoor temperature, humidity, air quality, and heat loss. Universities invent new things all the time, including such sensors. They would be thrilled to have the opportunity to test them out in real homes, and we would have had someone who knows what they are doing – hopefully. We did not have anyone in-house who could build sensors, let alone know how to interpret and analyse the results from them. We also did not have the necessary cash to afford a few hundred sensors, and the manpower to install them all.

Universities are filled with summer-placement-searching undergraduates, thesis-searching graduates, and PhD students desperately (yes, desperately) looking for anyone, I mean anyone, interested in working with them. Young academics will throw themselves at your feet if only you say the magic words: “Would you like to carry out your research with us?” You won’t be able to finish the sentence before they’ve written the first draft. It’s a gold mine of eager minds just waiting for their calling. You should really call them.

But, how to get into that ivory tower called academia?

I hope I sold the idea of partnerships to you. If you are wondering how to go about getting your hands on some academics to work with – or take out to dinner, they are open-minded – doing a bit of a search on things that interest you is a good start. What kinds of research do the universities closest to you carry out? You could simply contact the press team and ask for a university-wide call out to academics interesting in such-and-such areas of research with you. On the other hand, you could reach
out to universities and ask if they would like to carry out research on your
organisation or properties. If you do not have a project in mind and are open to what they would like to investigate, this is a great way to learn. Or you can contact Innovate UK if you have a fully-fledged, two- to three-year project in mind and want it to be structured, entered for prizes and all that shebang.

The opportunities are endless. The greatest thing about these partnerships is the mutual learning and knowledge creating. You will learn so much by opening your organisation to new ideas and different ways of thinking. OK, some projects might inspire you less than others, but overall, this is a fantastic way for social housing providers to be at the cutting edge of research. What if your organisation was part of an amazing new
innovation, how great would that be? It not only lets you increase your
understanding and your horizon, it also lets you boast. And who does not like to boast? I certainly do if you haven’t noticed yet! What greater way to boast than on something that creates a better world? Universities work for the greater good, to discover things that keep us moving forward. Combine this with social housing, whose mission is to offer safe, affordable homes, a right we should all have. We are pretty much the saviours of this world, so we should invest everything we can to make it the best kind of social housing to have ever been created. Go on!

About the Author

Caroline Duvier studied Psychology before moving into a very wild goose-chase after a well-fitting job. Stints in research and development, Legoland (yes), higher education teaching, led to working for a social housing provider in Yorkshire for three years. Starting with a knowledge transfer partnership, which are partnerships between Universities and corporations, she then moved to working in the sustainability team and enjoyed switching the lights off so that everyone worked in darkness to save the planet.

During her time working in social housing she started her PhD. The research focus is on sustainable social housing, in particularly looking at decision making and what is needed to incorporate sustainability in managerial decision making. Caroline now works as a teaching assistant at the University of Leeds for the amazing MSc Sustainable Cities. She still has her feet firmly grounded in working to create better social housing. 

You can email her at


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