R&D Director of The Future of Storytelling, Hilmar Koch, is my colleague in the Office of the CTO. Hilmar and I have been discussing the future of Autodesk technology and how it fits in with the futures of the industries that Autodesk serves. One possible future includes blockchain, so Hilmar and I put this together.
In his April 12, 2018 Meeting of the Minds email message on the topic of "Dates and Deliverables from Blockchain," Peter Coffee notes that:
"Exhibiting massive mindshare growth over just the past five years, the concept of blockchain data management has seized the stage of global discussion, in disciplines ranging from finance to industry to scientific research. Bankers look to it for acceleration of transactions, shrinking days to seconds. Manufacturers and shippers look to it for improved consistency and reduced costs in supply chain management. Researchers look to it for reduction of data falsification, saying that the general model's four main properties: identity, timestamping, content, and immutability, could play a valuable role in addressing the diminishing trust in science and scientists due to high-profile cases of questionable (or even fraudulent) data manipulation."
Although the article makes a nod to product design and manufacturing, notice that there is no mention of Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC). So how would blockchain technology apply to the AEC industry?
Blockchain (with a capital B) was originally defined as the electronic ledger for Bitcoin. Today, blockchain (lower case, as in blockchain technology) is most easily defined by an example:
- Let's say you have a Microsoft Excel workbook to track some data. As part of working with others, you attach the workbook to an email and send it to your collaborators. Now you can't make any changes until you get the workbook back from your collaborators. Worse yet, if more than one collaborator returns an updated workbook, you have to merge the changes. These problems occur because you don't have one single source of truth.
- To avoid the problems with the Excel workbook, you create a Google Sheet. Now you have only one copy. Instead of attaching the workbook to an email, you send the link to the sheet. You can continue making changes to the sheet. Also, multiple collaborators can update the sheet simultaneously, and you have a version history that shows who made what changes and when. It's a thing of beauty.
- Although you might be happy with a Google sheet, what if you want redundant copies so that there's no single point of failure? What if you want the sheet to be public and verifiable? Also, what if you want to avoid one centralized sheet for a hacker to corrupt? That's where the distributed nature of blockchain comes in.
"The blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value."
— Don and Alex Tapscott, Blockchain Revolution, 2016.[meeting of the minds]
A blockchain is like the Google sheet but is duplicated thousands of times across a network of computers. The network is designed to regularly update this sheet. Information held on a blockchain exists as a shared and continually reconciled database (every 10 minutes). The database is a self-auditing ecosystem of digital value that reconciles every transaction where each group of these transactions is referred to as a block. The database chains the blocks together, so hence the name, blockchain. Once a block has been added to the chain, it cannot be altered. So if a transaction is posted as a block and needs to be undone, a new block is added that corrects the original block. Everyone can see the original block and its correction.
"As revolutionary as it sounds, blockchain truly is a mechanism to bring everyone to the highest degree of accountability. No more missed transactions, human or machine errors, or even an exchange that was not done with the consent of the parties involved. Above anything else, the most critical area where blockchain helps is to guarantee the validity of a transaction by recording it not only on a main register but a connected distributed system of registers, all of which are connected through a secure validation mechanism."
— Ian Khan, Technology Futurist.[meeting of the minds]
The basis is for blockchain security is encryption. The encryption is based on public and private keys. The public key is a long, randomly-generated string of numbers that represents a user's address on the blockchain — much like username for a traditional login system. The private key is like a user's password that gives the user access to their assets in the blockchain. As part of ensuring that assets on the blockchain are incorruptible, users must safeguard their private keys much in the same way they protect their passwords.
Given these aspects of blockchain, does it relate to AEC? The typical lifecycle of a building includes phases like DESIGN, CONSTRUCTION, and OPERATION. For example, during the DESIGN phase, requests for Information (RFIs) could be managed using blockchain technology to ensure that consensus is reached among all stakeholders. During the CONSTRUCTION phase, monetary transfers between parties could be associated with milestone-achieved reports that are verified by stakeholders. During OPERATION, sensors could report temperature readings by room to validate or debunk assumptions on energy consumption that were postulated during DESIGN. In other words, HVAC installers/contractors could be held accountable for hitting sustainability targets.
The typical AEC project involves tens if not hundreds of parties. Unfortunately, the interaction of so many parties can lead to confusion. Sometimes this confusion is significant enough to lead to litigation. Blockchain is a technology that can help reduce confusion and resulting litigation.
Autodesk has always been an automation company, and today more than ever that means helping people make more things, better things, with less; more and better in terms of increasing efficiency, performance, quality, and innovation; less in terms of time, resources, and negative impacts (e.g., social, environmental). Blockchain is a technology that may be part of that automation. Autodesk stays abreast of technologies like blockchain to ensure that it can apply them offer the most value to the industries it serves.
Blockchaining is alive in the lab.