WAF Newsletter - Talking about 'Flow'

Talking about ‘Flow’

Abel Maciel, 24 April 2019


The conference theme for WAF 2019 is ‘Flow’. Here, architect and academic Abel Maciel discusses the implications for Blockchain on the built environment

To fully grasp the potential impact of Blockchain on the built environment, it is worth taking a holistic view of Industry 4.0. Previous industrial revolutions were erratically distributed across the world, with change often taking significant time before affecting communities generally. Blockchain is a way of organizing transactions or information into ‘blocks’, dated and timed using cryptography, so that they can be viewed independently by relevant parties and cannot be changed, creating an immutable history of transactions. It is expected that the Blockchain revolution, will transform the world in terms of speed, scope and impact than any previous technological revolution.

Today we have almost instantaneous knowledge-driven dissemination. For example, popular YouTube videos can be seen by billions of people seconds after their uploads. Physical objects like E-Scouters started to appear simultaneously in many cities around the world. This is a new socio-technological phenomenon with effects yet to be understood and, needless to say, controlled.

The scope of Industry 4.0 is indeed deep and wide. As a revolution in systemic processes, we now have software distributed and updated online, with smart portable devices measuring everything from physiological signals to collective performance and behaviours. This has a global effect and a multi-dimensional impact on every one of us. Never have we had to contemplate this scale of change.

However, in this new context of ubiquitous and embedded computing, we can still duplicate and tamper with data. We can fake news, manipulate imagery in real time and double-spend money. How can someone prove their identity, choices, actions? How can different communities have a voice and how can they collaborate in an honest and secure way?

Blockchain offers much more than a secure, immutable and resilient Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT). It offers the means and opportunity to rethink financial, social and political relationships by providing digital assets with some of the properties and behaviours of physical objects. It is the key technology enabling the cyber-physical convergence of Industry 4.0.

DLT and Blockchain has the potential to transform the built environment by providing a new foundation for machines and humans to interact and exchange information. As a consequence, we may see some important areas of to be the subject of disruption, ranging from city management, infrastructure, energy and real estate to autonomous transport and water management.

The built environment is particularly problematic because of its size and complexity. Construction operations are difficult, costly and inefficient processes that are often over-budget and over-schedule. The construction process is fragmented and co-ordination between the various stakeholders often results in loss of productivity, re-work, delayed progress and increased cost.

Data and information asymmetry in construction represents a major challenge for professionals. Supervising every aspect of a project becomes a taxing or impossible activity. How can we create a trustworthy strategy for a given project. What can inform the basis for informed management choices?

Blockchain and DLT can be designed to be applied throughout the lifecycle of an asset, from design to delivery to operation. When formulated as a value token, such as a cryptocurrency, it can manage the construction monitoring stage, as well as solving the cash flow problems often experienced by contractors. The technology is a transparent source of truth between all stakeholders, allowing each party to track progress. In the Blockchain, ‘What You See is What you See’.

Procurement processes can be improved by facilitating the ‘automation of trust’. Parties can have certainty regarding identity, reputability and a price guarantee, as well as a record that cannot be changed. Smart Legal Contracts are designed to compute contract administration and to replace invoicing.

In the very near future, once the Internet of Things (IoT) has gathered and compiled enough data, Blockchain will provide the mechanism to govern smart environments. This represents an immense opportunity for Building Information Modelling (BIM): as BIM brings together architecture, engineering and construction professionals to enable a more coherent, co-operative design approach, it offers the ideal framework for new block-chained applications such as Design IP protection, Reliable Building Management Systems and effective Operations & Management, assisted by always up-to-date Augmented Reality models – to name only a few.

Abel Maciel is a Senior Research Fellow at the Bartlett School of Architecture (UCL), and Principal at Design Computation Ltd

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