Each year, our Graduate Program brings ambitious new ideas into Arup. When we’re lucky, those ideas inspire unexpected research challenges. This project, which we're calling Safe as Houses, fits within that category. This research imagines how we might contribute our technical expertise to make a positive impact on the lives of people experiencing homelessness.
There are already many well-qualified and passionate people doing great work in this space. It's also a deeply complex issue. We believe our role is to support the people and organisations currently working towards addressing social and economic challenges in ways that are practical, meaningful and dignified.
“The challenge is finding the little opportunities within a big space where a built environment firm is equipped to do things” says Jack Clarke, an engineer with a background in environmental resources.
“What skills do we already have internally that can be turned to this problem?” adds Rebecca Chau, a planner working at the intersection of cities and digital.
To kick things off, the team interviewed people working in the sector to find out where we might fit. Jack and Rebecca spoke to housing providers as well as social workers who have worked with everyone from recently homeless youth to older people who had been homeless for years.
Not only did this help the team develop a far more comprehensive picture of the challenges people experiencing homelessness face, it also allowed them to identify a number of thematic areas where our firm can help.
The first involves looking at how we can develop new business models for low-income housing. One key issues here is scale. There are currently over 100,000 people in Australia experiencing homelessness, of various ages, family sizes and cultural backgrounds.
“You need sustainable, flexible, long term and affordable housing solutions that are capable to meeting the needs of all sorts of people,” says Rebecca. “We see the possibility for us to work with developers who have a social lens and helping them to develop business models which are both viable and scaleable,”
Another opportunity is for Arup to work with governments to identify appropriate land packages for future long term housing developments. This could include less traditional lands parcels, such as areas under viaducts, which are often in central locations and can be transformed with a little acoustic, digital and built-environment knowhow.
In fact, we recently completed another research project that highlighted the positive impacts that activating these neglected spaces can have on neighbouring communities.
Problems with multiple causes often need multiple solutions. The next step for this project is to begin speaking with experts to learn how we might deploy, test, and iterate upon these potential solutions together. It’s through collaboration that we’re best able to create more inclusive societies.
Homelessness is not only a global problem, it’s one as old as housing itself. Today, we have a number of technologies that can be applied to homelessness that haven’t been available before.
Some of these tools can be implemented immediately. We now have access to better data and data processing than ever. Aerial imagery can be used to identify suitable parcels of land for new housing developments and we can feed census data into machine learning algorithms to determine where we can provide services more efficiently. In the longer term, additive manufacturing technologies like 3D printing will allow us to develop new housing solutions more quickly, more sustainable and at a lower cost than ever before.
While low-income individuals have traditionally been some of the least digitally engaged members of society, the decreasing cost of internet enabled technology means this no longer has to be the case.
What if were to use environmental sensors to monitor and learn from the successes and failures of the existing housing models available to those experiencing homelessness? Could we then supplement this with qualitative data, gathered through a tool that allows the individuals using these services to give feedback and document their own stories?
By combining new streams of qualitative and quantitative data, we can exercise our empathy and enhance our understanding of the causes, scale and impacts that homelessness has on our communities.
This story was written by Jeff McAllister, as part of the Research Review. This series is produced by the Arup Australasia Research team; Alex Sinickas, Bree Trevena and Jeff McAllister with contributions from Sheda and Noel Smyth.
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