BIM and Blockchain
One person's musings on a disruptive technology

AECbytes Viewpoint #84 (January 11, 2018)

Jim Forester, P.E.
AEC Technologist

Introduction

In 2008, a seemingly modest proposal was made to make secure electronic cash transactions directly between interested parties. This proposal was titled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. (Seehttps://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf.)

By now everyone’s familiar with Bitcoin; but that’s not what this article is about. Instead, it’s about the underlying concepts of this technology, Blockchain, and how it is immediately applicable to many aspects of built environment projects and building information modeling: decentralization, identity, immutability and adjudication. I’ll try to cover each of these in some detail.

Since its inception, Blockchain has created a tremendous amount of interest in the computer science, technology and venture capital communities. This is fueling an explosion of industry-specific startups looking to apply Blockchain technology to everyday problems. Needless to say, this brings both opportunity and hype and I’ll try to explore both later as well.

Background

The underlying technical details for how Blockchains work isn’t for the squeamish, so I’ll try to avoid much technical depth. But it is important to know a bit of detail to better understand the opportunities for our industry.

The notion of electronic cash wasn’t a new idea at the time that Bitcoin was proposed. The problem Bitcoin was looking to solve was to eliminate the third party (e.g., bank, agency, vendor, etc.) required to validate the transaction (who typically required specific and sometimes personal information about you, charged transaction fees, kept information about the transaction in their records, etc.). To eliminate this middle-man, the Bitcoin proposal suggested parties could broadcast their transactional intentions publicly and allow nodes of compute cycles to apply techniques used in cryptography to securely bundle these transactions into a block of encrypted data. Blocks are then successively chained together in a manner that makes each block dependent on its predecessor and therefore nearly impossible to deconstruct, modify, and reconstitute. The resulting chain of blocks is held by the stakeholders and is therefore decentralized and robust.

The next Blockchain evolution was Ethereum (https://www.ethereum.org/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethereum), an open-source platform that makes it possible for any type of public or private entity to enter into a contractual agreement. Ethereum allows logic to be embedded into each transaction so rather than a chain of just financial transactions, it can allow decentralized applications to address industry-specific transactions (thus the notion of a smart contract). Ethereum also allows you to create any value token of choice, enabling tokens to be created for physical and non-physical concepts like Watts or Sustainability.

Another important Blockchain concept is the notion of a sidechain. A sidechain is a Blockchain itself that is connected to the main chain and allows value-compatible assets to migrate bi-directionally between the chains. Sidechains essentially allow new or alternative ideas to be rapidly explored and either folded back into the main chain or discarded altogether. This allows a long-running Blockchain to evolve as necessary to meet stakeholder demands.

Decentralization

Most software products used in our industry, including many of the BIM authoring tools, rely on physical files.  This creates a huge challenge around physical storage and versioning, sharing with stakeholders, merging models from disparate BIM tools, etc. There are lots of ways to minimize each of these challenges (e.g., centralized storage providers, BIM servers, Common Data Environments, IFCs, etc.), but few address the underlying file-based nature of the BIM artifact.

Wikipedia’s definition of BIM is a process involving the generation and management of digital representations of physical and functional characteristics of places (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_information_modeling). In a world of generative design and AI, sets of design goals and constraints are all that’s necessary to derive a series of potential solutions. These results must be vetted and agreed upon by the relevant stakeholders before proceeding to manufacture and assembly in a construction project. Thus, the constraints and agreements between the stakeholders – which may be represented as a Blockchain smart contract – become what’s necessary for permanent retention since the solution can always be re-derived.

Blockchains could allow us to reconstitute the notion of BIM around smart contracts for every aspect of the design, construction and maintenance processes. These smart contracts provide the level of detail required at each stakeholder decision point and therefore become self-enforcing rather than externally mandated. Furthermore, since every stakeholder retains a copy of the Blockchain, the full context of the model evolution is available throughout the project lifecycle.

Identity

Like the file-based state of our industry described above, the proliferation of personal identity is a problem not unique to BIM.

Most current BIM authoring tools require some knowledge about me as a user: I typically need to identify who I am to assert that I have a valid license to use a software product or platform. This information is managed by systems administrators within my domain, across my enterprise or within a cloud based ecosystem.

Transactions between different systems (e.g., sharing my model with others, logging into a different hosted solution utilized by different stakeholders, etc.) also requires similar levels of identification and further perpetuates information about my identity and role. The net result is that there are multiple unsynchronized records about my identity across various products and platforms – and I have little, if any, control over its usage or accuracy.

Imagine instead, if I could keep full control of my personal and business identities (such as contact information, email addresses, professional roles, preferences for interactions with social and business sites, financial information, etc.). Whenever any of this information is required, it is managed by my personal identity app which tracks how and where it is used. This inverts the current situation so rather than control ceded to others with my tacit approval, it is controlled by me under a smart contract appropriate to the situation. Thus, when I move or change jobs or projects, I can ensure I’ve updated and/or extricated myself from any smart contracts for which I no longer have control.

Knowing my smart contract obligations, my identity app would also help me prioritize and manage my work and personal obligations. Its AI would understand the time commitments necessary for me to meet my smart contract commitments and help me plan and budget accordingly with the net impact of improved personal productivity.

How might this directly impact BIM? Allowing me to focus on what’s critical to meet project objectives eliminates rework due to misunderstood mutual objectives.

Clearly, this is a cultural shift. Most of the current software platforms aspire to be a full-service ecosystem and embrace application programming interfaces for interactions with the platform. However, in a Blockchain world, there becomes an opportunity for individuals to assert responsibility for their personal identity and still embrace platform technologies offering beneficial opportunities.

Immutability

A Blockchain, like a ledger, grows continuously as transactions are added. As noted above, each successive block’s successful encryption relies on its static predecessors. This is a fundamental concept in a Blockchain because it deters bad actors from trying to undo or change previous transactions (due to the mathematical challenges trying to re-encrypt blocks fast enough to catch up to the current transaction).

As the Blockchain grows, new smart contracts can potentially supersede or nullify previous contracts, yet the full history of transactions and decisions about our model remain intact leaving us with an immutable project record. This level of transparency should incentivize all stakeholders to aspire to the highest standard of care across the project lifecycle. It should also reduce litigation risk due to the immediate discoverability of previous transactions should malicious intentions be suspected.

Adjudication

Value tokens get awarded when someone validates a block in the chain, a process called mining. This process of validation is compute-intensive, particularly in the case of Bitcoin where a proof of work model encourages competition between miners. But efforts are underway to shift to less compute-expensive models, such as the proof of stake approach where those with the most at risk must collectively agree to validate a block.

Since the incentive and reward for mining is a predefined allocation of value, markets for different concepts of value could emerge and significantly disrupt how our practices collaborate. For example, something like LEED could be re-imagined around a Blockchain architecture with sidechains exploring multiple alternatives related to relevant smart contracts in our Blockchain BIM. Similarly, a LEED specialist would accrue LEED-specific value from their body of work, entitling them to be a responsible adjudicator for future mining contracts related to their subject matter expertise. Ultimately, ways of working together on our model may shift to a more sustainable for-value orientation versus for-fee.

It’s my understanding that, at the time of this writing, no court of law recognizes a smart contract as a legally binding vehicle. This will undoubtedly be tested at some point soon.

Opportunities and Hype

Blockchains can potentially disrupt any product or company that deals with a discrete set of stakeholders that collaborate around specific activities. That’s why today’s news is full of stories about companies embracing Blockchain-based initiatives. Venture capitalists also recognize this new market opportunity and are aggressively looking for early-stage initiatives to nurture and grow as these new value-based markets emerge.

From these efforts, we can expect new technology portfolios focused on the built environment generally and BIM specifically in early 2018. It is certainly imperative that both professionals and their practices begin exploring this landscape and embrace promising new opportunities. As a traditionally risk-averse industry, it will take time before clear winners emerge, but remaining on the sidelines will leave you ill-prepared should disruption occur rapidly.

What will take even longer is for traditional social, business, and legal practices to evolve towards this much flatter, decentralized ecosystem. False starts and every-day hype will cloud and confuse the landscape, but staying informed through education, industry groups, and subject matter experts will be critical to you and your practice.

Conclusion

Blockchains have the potential to solve many of our industry’s historical challenges. Along the way, they will undoubtedly introduce new problems too. For example, the compute-intensive nature of mining consumes an alarming amount of energy; a significant concern particularly as our industry strives towards delivering zero-carbon projects. Similarly, are our mobile devices capable of holding and interacting effectively with our Blockchains or will we still need to rely on third-party hosting? As a technologist, I am optimistic that this nascent technology will rapidly evolve and overcome these challenges.

Hopefully this article creates a bit of excitement about Blockchain and the possibilities for our industry. There are many ways Blockchains can allow us to re-imagine our future and those suggested in this article are just one person’s musings on this disruptive technology.

About the Author

Jim Forester is currently working with early and mid-stage innovators interested in applying new technologies to improve the quality and productivity of architecture and engineering design, construction and operation. Jim was a Co-founder of Newforma where he initially held roles as Chief Data Architect, Senior Technical Advisor, then Global Customer Success. Most recently, Jim was responsible for strategic Business Development at Newforma until its acquisition by Battery Ventures in July 2017. Prior to Newforma, Jim was a Co-founder of AEC3 Ltd. and Founder of Marinsoft, Inc., doing research and developing public and private projects for an international clientele including Autodesk, the Building Construction Authority of Singapore, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, etc. Jim was also a founding member of the International Alliance for Interoperability's Model Support Group responsible for development of the Industry Foundation Classes, which are now ISO 16739 and part of buildingSMART International.

Jim started his career at Syska & Hennessy as a Senior Associate and Project Engineer before moving on to become Manager of Engineering products at the Archsoft Group (ASG) and then Manager of Building Engineering Products at Softdesk, Inc. He has a Bachelor's of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California at Los Angeles and is a licensed mechanical Professional Engineer in the State of California.

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