Is there truly a case for blockchain technology within the planning process or could it be more hype than help?

Image by Decentraland via Cointribune

Image by Decentraland via Cointribune

TL;DR - Published to The Planner, pg 34


“From space to place: it is about marking a territory by setting up landmarks and boundaries in order to give meaning to a space. According to many specialists, the appropriation process is a reciprocal exchange of “a mutually transformative process” which shapes both the place and the individual(s) – and is central to the construction of the group itself – as a social unity – as well as to the organization of it’s daily routine.” – The Offbeats


The history of humanity is integrally linked to the history of shelter and the claims to the lands that have housed our basic need for homes and ownership of those homes. Our homes are the shapes that keep us safe through structures and constructs (both tangible and intangible) that hold belonging while simultaneously allowing for the freedom to express identity. Wars have been waged and still wage over the value of land and many a structure has found itself demolished as new claims are staked and others revoked. Lesser of the physically violent, though can be verbally violent, are the bureaucratic battles instigated between first time buyers and title deed clerks over frustrations surrounding the sheer volume of time and paperwork it often takes to simply be able to say: “Welcome Home!”

It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, how developed the society or which stamp of time you find yourself wedged in (1920 or 2020) – ensuing strife over land and the claims to ownership over land that allow us to appropriate space towards fulfilling individualised physiological and spiritual needs remain ever present.

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Over time, more sophisticated means of governing space appropriation have developed through cultural customs that mark gentlemen’s agreements, laws that issue chains of authority and the paper-based contracts that enforce them. The developing sophistication of widely agreed upon land distribution and ownership practices have been as essential to the advancement of society as air is to breathing. Co-existence would simply not be possible otherwise. Yet, progress remains stunted by the unequal distribution of developed land governance practices and the corruption often entrenched within top-down organisational structures that are meant to have been instituted to protect the rights offered by these agreements.

Image by Colin Liddell via Fujiland Image by Colin Liddell via Fujiland

Despite the speed at which technology has advanced many other parts of our lives, accepted formats of land distribution and ownership authentication remain archaic and in some parts of the world, volatile and dangerous. Built on the foundation of rocky and slow-speed land governance are the systems and planning processes that construct frames, doors, windows, floors and fire escapes. The supply chains that deliver the materials, the minds that design what all of these could look like when pieced together, the builders that do the building and the regulators that do the regulating sitting very often in air conditioned offices and standing very seldomly on the dusty floors of heat-blazoned construction sites.

Image via Carnegie Mellon University Image via Carnegie Mellon University

Land registration, planning and construction are components to the complex project that constitutes Urban Development. The 2020 planning shake-up in the UK means that the role of planners will come into even sharper focus, and in order to make the right decisions, and to ensure that planning strategy in one local area is aligned with others at a national level, having access to standardized and reliable data is crucial. While progress has been made in digitizing processes, much of this has simply shifted the emphasis from shuffling papers around to shuffling digital copies of papers around. Viewing PDFs on a computer screen is not fundamentally different from unfolding a paper plan and viewing it. This may be sufficient to get each planning application over the line on an individual basis but it does not allow for the free flow of knowledge and data that is crucial for informing future policy-making, at either a local or national level.

Improving the flow of data would allow many of the more mundane processes to be automated, as well as allowing more information to be made available to policymakers. There is currently much variability between councils and the way they process and store such information, which makes an overarching approach difficult. This blog post by Euan Mills at MHCLG explains why “treating planning applications as data, not documents” is so important. While we at Unboxed are proud of our ongoing contribution to this initiative (check out https://bops.digital for information on the beta phase of the Backoffice Planning System (BoPS) that Unboxed is developing with Southwark Council), there is much work to be done on this digital journey.

When we talk about the need for interoperable data and standardization, it may sound like a demand for greater centralization. But there may in fact be a case for increased decentralization, and this is where people tend to start throwing around buzz words such as “blockchain.” Over the past few years, the idea of distributed ledgers (such as the ones that underpin cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin) have been touted as the cure for all technological ills. Blockchains - or distributed ledgers - allow transactions to be recorded in such a way that record-keeping is largely automated, secure from retrospective tampering, and the same data is replicated in multiple places [Blockchain Explained in 100 words].There has been an awful lot of hype around blockchain technology, but once the exaggerated claims have been stripped away, there is much in its trust model that can be useful for planners.

Image by Aurecongroup.com Image by Aurecongroup.com

Indeed, the Land Registry has already conducted its first prototype blockchain transaction, using distributed ledger software called Corda. A property ownership transfer whose paper-based processing had taken 22 weeks to complete was conducted in just 10 minutes. One of the properties of distributed ledgers is that external documents or data can be identified by a unique, timestamped digital signature that can be retrospectively verified. So if an application was granted against a particular drawing or particular conditions, this document could be ‘hashed’ and inserted into the unbreakable chain of data that makes up the blockchain, and this record viewed by any council employee or member of the public who had permission. There would be no need to grant individual access to a particular council’s own legacy computer systems, thus speeding future innovation.

Other than simply validating ownership or tracking the history of planning applications and drawings, there are many areas where distributed ledger technology can also be useful - and establishing the provenance or the standard of building materials, their environmental impact, or the quality of construction work, is an important part of this. It is difficult to talk about building safety without mentioning the unimaginable horror of the Grenfell Tower fire, whose investigation has prolonged the suffering of victims and their families. We have a responsibility to design systems that can validate the safety of materials and building processes with as little room for human error as possible.

Image by Natalie Oxford via Wikipedia Image by Natalie Oxford via Wikipedia

“The construction industry is very transaction heavy and it’s also a very fragmented industry”, explains Dr Eleni Papadonikolaki, Associate Professor in Digital Innovation and Management in the Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management at University College London (UCL) and Partner at Digital Outlook. “There are a number of different trades and professionals involved in the construction of a building project such as architects, engineers, structural engineers, fire experts and so forth. Each of these trades and professions is protected by a different professional institution and all of these different people have to sign off on the project before construction can start. There is a chain of accountability which becomes increasingly complicated.” Dr Papadonikolaki belongs to the Construction Blockchain Consortium (CBC), an interdisciplinary team that draws knowledge from innovations adopted in various other sectors.

The CBC looks to find ways to advance interoperability within the construction industry, enforce higher levels of accountability, transparency and streamline information flows within the sector by moving away from top-down communication flows toward the decentralization of data management systems. Problems they are looking to solve include the issue of siloed knowledge stores – different departments don’t speak to one another necessarily; make use of legacy technologies and archaic, paper-heavy systems, are resistant to change; apprehensive about open source development; and contracts / tenders are often awarded based on systems that are heavily intermediated.

Image by Randall Enos via Architectural Review Image by Randall Enos via Architectural Review

Naturally, many of these issues are process problems that could be solved simply enough without using blockchain technology, as Nigel Duckworth, senior strategist at One Supply Network advises: “There are a number of challenges with the technology, but on the whole, I think it has genuine promise. However, when we talk about how solutions such as decentralized technology can help planning, we need to be careful to separate problems that could be solved easily with data standards and open APIs, and those which genuinely need a blockchain-type approach.”

One of the functions of building control is to ascertain the quality, safety and authenticity of building materials and, sometimes, the qualifications of those who carry them out. In the UK, for example, we have stringent laws around who is allowed to carry out electrical and gas installations. Joists and girders must be graded for strength, and insulation materials for flammability. In areas of historical or conservation interest, builders must use specified material such as Bath stone or lime render, rather than cheap imitations.

“There are quite a few good use cases in the supply chain. Walmart, Merck, Alibaba, and others, are experimenting with DLT. Closer to home, our network has a chain of custody service that is blockchain-enabled. It tracks chain-of-custody as the product moves through the supply chain, so you have an immutable record of who has what, where and when. I think this is an ideal use case, not just because you have this authoritative record, but the very act of tracking can help enforce compliance and deter product mishandling and theft.”

Duckworth works for a company that provides a near-real time multiparty network for global supply chain management which manages anything from US Marine Corps ammunition worldwide, to pharmaceuticals, and even money for a national bank. “These (inherent in planning) are very familiar problems. For example, a bill of material (BOM) is the list of parts that goes into making a product. Most parts are outsourced, so there is a supply chain behind every one of those parts. I think DLT can help in all those areas.

Image via ResearchGate Image via ResearchGate

“Our network has a chain of custody service that is blockchain-enabled. It tracks the chain of custody as the product moves through the supply chain, so you have an immutable record of who has what, where and when. I think this is an ideal use case, not just because you have this authoritative record, but the very act of tracking can help enforce compliance and deter product mishandling and theft.”

Among the reasons to be wary of blockchains as a solution for supply chain validation are their speed and scalability,” he points out. “Global supply chains involve thousands of trading partners, across thousands of sites, managing thousands of products. When you break it down into the types of data you need to manage all the entities involved (products, factories, warehouses, vehicles, people, etc.), it’s a huge amount of data. Also, it’s not static; much of it is constantly changing moment by moment, for example the sales of a product at a store, or the GPS coordinates of shipments in motion. If you want to run an efficient supply chain, you can’t do it on occasional “snapshot” data, it has to be near real-time, streaming data. So you are talking huge amounts of data and more pouring in every hour. Then you have to run calculations and algorithms to optimize things like inventory levels, what transportation mode is best for a particular shipment, and ETAs on when vehicles will pick-up and deliver, etc. Any technology is going to struggle with that, but DLT and blockchain more than most. No technology is a panacea, and probably every technology has been abused. I imagine, it wasn’t long after fire was discovered, that some angry prehistoric character committed arson.”

 Image by Adam Zyglis Image by Adam Zyglis

He is right to urge caution. Many of the uses for which blockchain technology has been suggested will instead be resolved in more efficient ways. Other use cases may be valid, but may never see the light of day because the overhead of getting so many different parties to sign up to one technological solution will prove impossible. However, as councils move forward into a future where the availability of trustworthy, virtually real-time data, presented in a standardized form, becomes crucial, it is easy to imagine that blockchain technology may play at least some part in this.

Image via Jing Culture & Commerce Image via Jing Culture & Commerce

Areas where it seems - at least on the surface - that distributed ledgers could help are land ownership: how do we prove that someone has the right to build on a particular piece of land? The UK government has been pushing forward with its investigation of blockchain technology - and thus it is no surprise to see that last year the Land Registry completed its first prototype transaction using distributed ledger technology called Corda. A transaction whose paper-based processing had taken 22 weeks to complete was conducted in just 10 minutes.


Image via Daily HODL Image via Daily HODL

However, when it comes to land allocations and ownership throughout different parts of the world, inefficient technological processes often only constitute one small component of a much larger, complex problem. For example, within many developing nations, there can often be clashes between cultural ethos, systems that are being imposed, corruption, miseducation and unhelpful assumptions adding additional layers of complexity that may impede progress when approached in a reductionist way. Resolving disputes may not be as simple as allocating a title deed if the community has not psychologically validated the legitimacy of the agreement. Title deeds are then as binding as blank pieces of paper and land reform will remain inequitable. So when looking for solutions, it is important to consider and include cultural and historical context within the system’s design.

Ethical systems design within Urban Development constitutes many considerations, however, when underpinned by the understanding that planning really is reimagining our relationship to the world through the ways in which we co-exist and co-inhabit place by facilitating the agreements that allow us to appropriate space. Then grows the understanding that backend systems design are what allow for the actualization of these dreams. We realize that foundations, doors, windows and fire escapes aren’t merely pieces of material but in fact, the shapes that give life and belonging to individuals, communities and societies. The pertinence of taking care of each other and the environment is ever more pressing as we realise just how integrally the future of humanity (as it has been in history) is linked to the ways in which the systems that facilitate these interactions are designed to create spaces that become places to call home. We’re not just reimagining land registries, construction practices and supply chains... We’re reimagining Home.

Image via Tubik Studio Image via Tubik Studio

Written by Rhian Lewis and Kassie Paschke