Abel Maciel and Leo Garbutt of the Construction Blockchain Consortium (CBC) explore the latest developments in Blockchain and its relevance to smart contracts for BIM and digital construction management
According to Statista, by 2025, it is expected that the world will have 75 billion things exchang ing information in theever-growing Internet of Things (IoT). This data flow is becoming a detailed account of all and each one of us and how we interact with our environment. To prepare and respond to this new age of ubiquitous and embedded information, we have to carefully consider data ownership, data veracity and the application of fundamental technologies such as Blockchain.
Blockchain, also known as the ‘Trust Protocol’, can be described as the amalgamation of a few technologies for secure decentralised data management and value transaction. The interest in Blockchain has been increasing since the idea of a decentralised cryptocurrency was established in 2008 and Bitcoin was launched anonymously in 2009.
Since then, the potential of Blockchain has been a well-trodden topic. Put brieﬂy, the main arguments for Blockchain adoption are that its data architecture provides security, anonymity, provenance, immutability and purpose of data without any third-party organisation in control of data transactions. Now, the focus must turn to the specifc deliverables and reality of the technology. This article will explore its latest developments and relevance of smart contracts for BIM and digital construction management.
The post-BIM construction challenges As a highly project-based sector, the construction sector processes are characterised by tasks typically considered as non-repetitive activities where various professionals transact information to drive a series of events. This is a complex undertaking, with often sub-optimal coordination between the various stakeholders starting from its onset.
Construction is also a highly fragmented industry. This fragmentation can be described as informational and organisational, with the vast majority of businesses being comprised of dispersed Small-Medium Enterprises (SMEs). This is consistent with the European average of construction industry structures.
Effective information coordination in construction projects is a persistent problem characterised by a disconnect between design and construction. This is where BIM plays a central role in improving the industry. However, the provenance of BIM information is still a problem. How can we guarantee we are using the right BIM objects and families? How do we know the contents of objects are accurate or have not been tampered with? Is it safe to give all federated models to the entire integrated team? The consequences are many, from statutory compliance and intellectual property protection to building assets’ cybersecurity issues.
From a wider perspective, circular economies in the built environment are becoming a priority for developers looking to curb the consumption of natural resources, prevent waste and increase effciency through the recycling and responsible sourcing of building resources. BIM platforms and protocols are the natural choice to accelerate changes in this area. BIM brings together project stakeholders under one collaborative platform to produce a federated digital design model and therefore a coherent dataset for the construction and management of a new asset. This has resulted in a fast-changing landscape for construction contracts.
Abel Maciel is an architect and Senior Research Associate at UCL. He is the founding director of Design Computation Ltd, a specialist consultancy delivering BIM, Programmatic Design, and Smart Contracts. He is also a founding director of the Construction Blockchain Consortium (CBC).
Enter Smart Legal Contracts (SLCs)
Intelligent computational contracts appear as an ideal extension to BIM whereby the contractual performance itself becomes automated. Smart Contracts, as proposed today, are of short-term execution or of instantaneous effect. For example, buying a book online on websites like Amazon is automated from the moment the book is paid up to the delivery of the parcel at your doorstep. Design Computation envisions Smart Legal Contracts (SLCs) automating many parts of construction law processes and eventually replacing most or all conventional contracts currently being used in construction. SLCs are applications that run exactly as programmed without any possibility of downtime, censorship, fraud or third-party interference. They have the potential to become fully developed computational legal contracts and improve dramatically all aspects of construction project administration and payment systems in the sector. In fact, we have been prototyping and testing this technology in collaboration with major BIM authoring software developers. We believe SLCs can become the engine for smart infrastructure and the combined circular economy.
The use of collaborative BIM has created a necessity for the use of single project insurance. At the same time, collaborative procurement is a decisive enabler of digital transformation and is under intensive study. All the chronic issues identifed in the sector can bring cash ﬂow restrictions, such as late payments and misuse of retentions. To address these, enhanced project management and control, transparency and availability of accurate information in project governance are needed.
Smart contracts operating with BIM processes offer a far more pro-active method for delivering projects. The interoperability of smart contracts and BIM can leverage effciencies in the allocation of accountability in seconds instead of days or weeks. Blockchain can address project complexity and in doing so reduce late payments, remediations and disputes that place companies under cash ﬂow risk. On the other hand, the intelligence leveraged from SLCs is desperately needed by contract administrators and law frms.
A sector-generic and project-bespoke Blockchain-enabled solution can alleviate these repercussions and optimise cash ﬂow restrictions. Design Computation’s current solution development has been addressing the growing diversity of Blockchains out there by multichain SLCs technology embedded in BIM authoring software. Our prototype can successfully exchange BIM data with smart contracts operating on 100s of cryptocurrencies and DID formats, therefore offering traceability of BIM objects in a truly interoperable and decentralised framework.
Leo Garbutt is the Coordinator of the Construction Blockchain Consortium and editor of the CBC Whitepaper Series in association with the APPG Blockchain for the development of future policy and compliance.
Where next for BIM?
As BIM evolves and furthers the 3D design description model, adding extra dimensions of Time, CapEx, Carbon cost and lifecycle costing, and eventually include more complex dimensions of risk, fnancing and change control performance, asset management and project control performance, Blockchain seems to embody the data architecture necessary to enable the deployment of these new dimensions. This evolution leading to highly integrated workﬂows and closer collaboration will demand for more and better professional transdisciplinary in order deal with future challenges and to future proof design and construction.
Blockchain offers the means and opportunity to rethink fnancial, social and political relationships informing the built environment. It does so by providing digital assets with some of the properties and behaviours of physical objects. This represents one of the key technologies enabling the cyberphysical convergence in the Industry 4.0.
The rapid digital transformation of the construction sectors implies that lawyers struggle to keep up with the pace of innovation. DLT and Blockchain also provides a new foundation for machines and humans to interact and exchange information. As a consequence, we may see disruption in infrastructure management, energy and real estate to autonomous transport and water management.
Blockchain can be used as an ID for assets for a circular economy, from design to delivery to operation and reuse. For its resilience, it is the favoured technology to connect people, assets and environments over long periods of time. It can create an ‘automation of trust’ with parties having certainty regarding identity, reputability and a price guarantee.
In order to accelerate the understanding and development of Blockchain technologies, more investment and collaboration is necessary. In the past three to four years, extensive industry analysis and education has taken place through major reports published by a number of companies such as PwC, Arup, Deloitte, Thomson Reuters, and the Joint Contracts Tribunal. Government research organisation Digital Catapult and institutions such as the Institute of Civil Engineers and the World Economic Forum have also contributed.
Alongside continuing investment in piloting the technology, there has been a doubling of tech investment in construction in the past decade. There are a number of well-established open-source initiatives building frameworks such as Hyperledger, R3 and Ethereum. These efforts are increasingly underscoring Blockchain’s potential for BIM and digital construction management.
The University College London based Construction Blockchain Consortium exists as a neutral platform to further these objectives through its series of white papers, providing knowledge transfer and assisting the development of use-cases. Furthermore, there are a number of ways to fnd out more about Blockchain and its application in the construction sector.
The CBC’s website provides a number of resources, including links to our open source codebase and information about our seminars and annual specialist conference.
The CBC Conference 2020 will be held at the Bartlett School of Architecture in Autumn 2020. It was original scheduled for May but was postponed due to COVID-19.
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