Online data can be used to create better housing for all, says Resi’s Depledge
Alex Depledge, CEO of Resi, will speak at Datafest on how online data can open up architecture to more people – but she warns against over-hyping data science
If you want to build an extension to your house, how do you do the architecture? It’s the answer to this question that lies at the heart of Alex Depledge’s company, Resi, which offers help with drawings and the early stages of a building project.
Depledge was co-founder of Hassle.com – an online marketplace for domestic cleaners that was sold to German company Helpling in 2015. She and her business partner Jules Coleman have taken a problem they’ve faced in their own lives and generalised it out to form a business.
Depledge is firmly of the view that Britain is stuffed with “poorly designed, shoddy housing”, and that people deserve better. “We are trying to bring the mission of the science of a happy home here,” she says. “I mean a home, not a house. It is a travesty that, in this country, there is so much poor housing that working-class people are forced to live in, and there is no need for it.
“We sit on the side of councils to design good social housing, and to help people who have houses that are not so desirable make those work better for their needs.”
On a broader economic front, she says that, in the UK, “we are not good at training managerial leadership, in nurturing leadership”, although there is plenty of entrepreneurial talent in the country.
Depledge will be covering some of these themes at the Data Summit part of Datafest in Edinburgh, organised by Scotland’s The Data Lab on 22 and 23 March.
Resi itself is a company that uses government datasets to assess whether a new building design is viable and how much it would cost. It provides that information within 72 hours, alongside designs for development options, courtesy of in-house architects Rich Morgan and Nicholas Stockley.
Depledge says her firm is opening up the services of the “exclusive” profession of architecture to ordinary people, who would otherwise have to fork out £3,000 or so to engage an architect, who may make an unnecessary site visit, and so on. She steers clear of the clichéd term “democratisation” but says that what her firm does is demystify the design and process side of adding an extension to your house.
She also shies away from the title CEO. “I’m the business owner head of a small company, same as my dad was,” she says.
“We are in danger of over-emphasising data science at the expense of the arts”
Alex Depledge, Resi
Depledge was born and raised in Bradford, attended Nottingham University, where she read history, and went on to study international relations at the University of Chicago.
A six-year stint as a management consultant at Accenture was formative, and taught her, she says, to impose structure on business problems. It also taught her to sell business to people, and to understand the value of the relationship side of any business, she adds. But she also endured the frustration many consultants feel of not being there to follow through on recommendations; and of things “just taking too long”.
The US experience has helped Depledge shine a light on how business is typically done badly in the UK. “We are naturally risk averse, and they are not,” she says. “They do see failure as a virtue, as something to learn from.”
The UK does well in artificial intelligence, she says, “but that needs regulation, and I don’t see anyone in government who is capable of making it the right sort of regulation – the development of AI could be catastrophic if it is not managed properly”.
Depledge sees a glut of investment capital the world over: “Chinese, Russian investors as well as us and the US [venture capital and private equity scenes]. They are all searching for investment opportunities and not finding them, or stuffing money into consumer businesses rather than investing for the longer term in hardware and infrastructure or, say, pharma. It’s hard to raise money for that.”
She also thinks there is an over-emphasis on getting investment, rather than building a business that will work. She is on record as having an overwhelmed reaction to raising $6m for her Hassle.com startup from Accel. “It’s like we plan for the wedding, but not for the marriage,” she says.
Depledge has not taken any venture capital funding for Resi, which is already profitable on its own terms, she says.
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She also thinks too much emphasis is put on science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) education in much of the UK’s economic policy conversation.
“In the vast majority of companies, and within government, there are a lot of opportunities for efficiencies, using data well,” she says. “You only have to look at what Theo Blackwell [London’s chief digital officer] is trying to do in getting all the London boroughs sharing data in a uniform fashion, similar to New York and Chicago, to deal with things like potholes and building planning.
“But we are in danger of over-emphasising data science at the expense of the arts. When I am hiring people, I want them to have an appreciation of data and be numerate, but I also need them to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers. And to be articulate, and pull on frames of reference from psychology or sociology, say. Everyone is on this Stem bandwagon, and the key word of the day has to be ‘moderation’.”
Depledge adds: “That’s the problem with data. We’ve been so pushing the value it can bring that we have overlooked other disciplines. You know there are so many technologists who are humanities graduates, while computer science has some of the worse employment records in the UK.
“You don’t go to university to learn how to code – it needs to be about how you apply that in real-world circumstances in order to learn properly. It’s more like becoming a plumber or an electrician.
“I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Bradford. When I talk to people in government, it’s clear they have no grasp of what it is like to live outside of London or to struggle. When Brexit happened, it did not surprise me.”