Innovation is a word that gets abused, certainly overused.

Housing innovation, in many of our minds, is a joke, an oxymoron. Magnate Ara Hovnanian apocryphally [is said to have] said, "home building is a 200 year-old industry unimpeded by progress," and, whatever the actual quote's origins are, it's only a titch amusing. It's mostly true, and mostly scary.

Business and management consultants and people in the media like me use the word innovation like it's a magic elixir, snake oil sold off the back of a truck. It's that ineffable something that you're not doing; something that would, perhaps, explain how it is that you, or your organization, or your industry, or your community, or your nation's economy should be doing more, doing better, doing faster.

Source: A PwC survey of global ceos
Source: A PwC survey of global ceos

Consider a few random data points:

  • Cumulatively, 57% of the United States' 75 million owner-occupied homes are valued at $200,000 or less, according to the Census;
  • Cumulatively, 34% of the nation's 116 million occupied household units (16.5 million housing units are vacant) have been occupied by people who moved into their current homes before the year 2000;
  • Cumulatively, 40% of the nation's 132 million household structures is 45 years old or more, and 13% is 75 years old or more.

Now, put those data points together in your mind with this one:

Right now 7 out of 10 people in your organization are not actively engaged at work. Disengaged workforces are a global problem; and the costs are high. In the U.S. alone, companies are hemorrhaging $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity each year.

Now, if more than 30% of our collective human resources in housing were engaged--passionate, productive, purposeful--would we be looking differently at the challenges in the fact that six in 10 homeowners need to pay less than $200,000 for a home, used or new; that 40 million people haven't moved in more than 16 years; that an increasingly daunting portion of the nation's housing stock is too old?

So, what should innovation mean to those of us in housing? It should mean what Scott Berkun speaks to here:

Innovation is significant positive change. It’s a result. It’s an outcome. It’s something you work towards achieving on a project. If you are successful at solving important problems, peers you respect will call your work innovative and you an innovator. Let them choose the word.

As part of a commitment to building a HIVE community--Housing Innovation Vision and Economics--we are teaming with Ply Gem to research the housing ecosystem's own sense of meaning, matter, and values around innovation. Where are the opportunity areas for innovation to play a powerful, practical role? What are the behaviors--not the words--we need to associate with innovation?

Is it a need or a nice-to-have? Is it a painkiller or a vitamin? Is it survival or is it thriving? Is it a word or is it an everyday set of actions? Who inspires it? Who does it? Why is it necessary? Or is it? We will explore this in original research, sponsored by Ply Gem, whose results we'll unveil at HIVE, September 28 and 29, at LA Live.

HIVE, as a community that lives on and becomes yours, and as an event that will occur in a moment and become yours, will focus on five of housing's fundamental challenges, each of which we believe to be solvable, but only if innovation is a big part of the solution:

  • Attainability
  • Profitability
  • Labor Capacity
  • Aging America
  • Sustainability

This past week, we get a powerful reminder of the fact that innovation--significant positive change--is a need not a mere desire. New York Times writer Farhad Manjoo notes in his call to action, "Why We Need to Pick Up Alvin Toffler’s Torch:"

The future doesn’t stop coming just because you stop planning for it. Technological change has only sped up since the 1990s. Notwithstanding questions about its impact on the economy, there seems no debate that advances in hardware, software and biomedicine have led to seismic changes in how most of the world lives and works — and will continue to do so.

Yet without soliciting advice from a class of professionals charged with thinking systematically about the future, we risk rushing into tomorrow headlong, without a plan.

Here's an extract from a PwC study of ceos on barriers to innovation in their organizations. How would these barriers compare with the impediments leaders in housing would identify as drags against "significant positive change" in their own organizations and business community?

innovation barriers
Source: A PwC Global ceo panel

Toffler died June 27, but so many of his words, and all of his prescience live. Here's one thing he said that lies at the heart of why Hanley Wood, and Ply Gem, and all of us need to put "significant positive change" at the very core of our priorities:

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

HIVE: Housing Innovation Vision and Economics

Clearly, this morning's jobs report signals nothing if not a wild roller-coaster ride of sentiment and strategy whose upward or downward trajectory opens mostly to educated guesswork. Industries go as business cycles go. Communities learn, unlearn, and relearn how to morph adversity and constraint into resilience. This is the HIVE opportunity. Join the conversation now. You can register here.

Enough said.