Blockchain technology continues to spark imaginations in every sector of the economy, including design and construction. About a year ago, I wrote an initial thought experiment into the possibilities. Later, I began to explore more deeply the applications of blockchain technology. And now, while cryptomarkets continue to self-correct the over-speculation of 2017 [Tech talk: crypto is but one blockchain use case in financial markets], there’s ongoing evidence that cryptomarkets will grow. Fidelity is moving towards enabling institutions to trade bitcoin and Goldman is investing in Bitgo. I, therefore, remain convinced more than ever that blockchain fits the direction that our complex and woefully inefficient sector is headed, and will serve the dire need and demand for better collaboration. Blockchain technology, it appears, will eventually change the world, but, more importantly for design professionals, will change the meaning of “collaboration” beyond our wildest imaginations.
If you’ve read my previous writings mentioned above, you know that blockchains are decentralized and distributed databases that are significantly more secure than centralized databases. They also have the added benefit of viewable real-time inputs from multiple parties as well as the capacity for automation (the smart contract application). This framework is the reason I keep referring to blockchain technology as “collaboration on steroids.”
A platform that enables multiple parties to input date-stamped data (including documentation and BIM models) that cannot be modified (because it’s an append-only database), but can be viewed in real-time, makes the platform and its auditable contents a credible and transparent collaborative resource for project management. This means that, for better or worse, once a design and its data is input into the database for all stakeholders to see and work from, that version lives there forever, but so do all subsequent versions, hence the name “blockchain.” [Tech talk: the architecture of blockchain—each block of data appends to previous blocks of data, forever building upon each other.]
This database framework, by itself, has amazing potential because it’s a tool that potentially fixes the “separate models” dilemma for BIM collaboration and the different versioning challenges that varied disciplines working together face when using BIM to design a project. While it’s true that project teams may be using software, such as Navisworks, to combine models for joint working sessions to understand how each model interfaces, the parties are still left with a re-working process that’s inefficient and redundant. Having to rework in the original designer’s own software rather than working together the entire time off of a single, shared model is less than ideal. Blockchain technology could provide the common platform needed for sharing, and it offers the guard rails for keeping everyone honest in a project management process. The very nature of the technology minimizes ambiguity (as described in the previous paragraph), which, in turn, could help mitigate the inevitable finger-pointing and liability risks when something goes wrong.
Overlay these blockchain features with the previously mentioned automation aspects of smart contracts (if/then automated processes), as well as the internet of things (devices/machines connected to the internet) and, voila, we now have the potential for a platform that goes beyond a smart project management platform for planning, designing, and constructing a project to an uber-smart platform for creating an evidence-based feedback loop of data for building optimization and actual behavioral use that could then be used to inform future design and construction. In other words, if the components that make up a building, for example, are connected to the internet and the building itself was created through a blockchain platform using BIM, then the BIM model becomes the virtual “live” model of the building at any given moment in time, even during occupancy for maintenance and operations optimization purposes as well as through the decommissioning phase of the project for repurposing and recycling of component materials.
A great example that demonstrates how this “internet of things with blockchain” might play out can be seen in the energy space. Utility companies in Australia, for example, are using blockchain to track assets, such as the health of their utility poles. This enables authorities to know in advance (and without a costly dispatching of field crews) when there are potential maintenance issues so that they can avoid outages and optimize the performance of their assets. While buildings are more complex than utility poles, the application is relevant and will most certainly be piloted by innovative players in the industry at some point in the future. More insight is available into how blockchain could help facilitate the integration of renewables and conservation of natural resources.
While blockchain technology appears to have the potential to be truly revolutionary, we at Schinnerer don’t know yet the full extent. What we do know so far is that its capabilities could have far-reaching applications in the design and construction of the built environment. We will continue to research and explore applications so stay tuned and please subscribe to our blog for the latest developments.