Can MineCraft Plus Blockchain Disrupt Engineering Organizations?
A Chain of Blocks: The work of Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industries can be generalized as the “chain of blocks” assembled into buildings, power grids, transportation systems, and all the mechanizations of modern civilization. In fact, the convergence between a new thing called “Blockchain” and an industry characterized as a “chain-of-blocks” would seem inevitable. The Integrated Engineering Blockchain Consortium (IEBC) suggests that the potential value of Blockchain integration applied to the AEC community cannot be over estimated. The question is: how will the transition occur?
This article suggests two direct paths and one hybrid approach to achieving Blockchain adoption rates sufficient to drive rapid and widespread innovation in AEC organizations.
First, the top-down approach is characterized by the collective recognition by all AEC organizations for the need to collaborate and reorganize from hierarchy to a more efficient networked platform. The bottom-up approach suggests that on-line engineering simulation games such as Minecraft, which are already massively networked, may adopt Blockchain technology and jump the chasm into engineering modeling systems, thereby challenging legacy organizational structure along the way. The hybrid approach suggests that the transition may start with engineering information modeling systems, such as BIM, adopting simple Blockchain, gamification features, and an attractive user interface, then expand from there.
Blockchain technology adds one critical component never before accomplished with networks. Blockchains create an immutable transaction record of events from which a unit of account is derived. This unit of account may be called a digital coin or token, but it serves to memorialize those events by arising from the consensus among the network that the event record is valid and incorruptible. This simple function is what allows networks of people to self-manage complex integrations in the absence of hierarchy. Otherwise, blockchains are of little use to hierarchies because the hard-wired command and control protocol ostensibly performs the same task, albeit inefficiently by comparison.
After several years since the earliest formation of the Integrated Engineering Blockchain Consortium (IEBC), we have been amazed how one prominent branch of the engineering profession (software engineering) could devise such an ingenious new building system such as Blockchain while the other prominent branches of engineering remain ambivalent. Even as the world financial and insurance industries invest billions of dollars in what has become a 100 billion dollar industry, there is little sense of urgency among some of the world’s most respected engineering organizations that they may be vulnerable for disruption.
Networks of have long proven to be more efficient, secure, and fault tolerant than hierarchies in the information industries. These efficiencies would clearly extend to the design, engineering, and build instructions. We acknowledge that engineers typically exercise great caution in new any endeavor. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. On the other hand, this state of denial arises where engineering is also segmented, regulated, litigated, and politicized in ways that have little to do with the engineering problems that need to be solved.
AECs are aware that the growth of the industry is constrained by the cost of projects and the number of engineers that are available. The things that worry them are:
1. From where will the “Uberization” of Engineering arise?
2. How do they attract more young engineers to the profession?
There seems to be an odd paralysis among some AECs. Each is waiting for the other to do something. Few appear likely to take a public leadership position in enacting auto-defensive change. In short, Engineering hierarchies appear unable to give up hierarchical structure and function instead as networks. According to Clayton Christenson, this resembles the classic position of the incumbent enterprise under attack by disruptive technology.
It is commonplace to find Lego leagues as a precursor to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) curricula in the US educational system. It is less common to talk empirically about how many kids are actually playing Minecraft instead of Legos. We have no idea what they are building in Minecraft or why. All we know is that nobody has to tell kids to do it, unlike their homework. Many parents and educators may not know that Minecraft immersive engineering mods are being created with increasingly complex system simulations such as nuclear power plants, power mechanics, machine tools, and excavation, etc.
Professor David Comiskey from Ulster University is developing BIMCraft as a means of teaching BIM using specialized Minecraft engineering immersion mods. Further, companies such as Enjin (yup, sounds like Enjineer) provide a social layer, strategy (gamification) layer, leadership layer, and economic layer to Minecraft (and other creative games) using Blockchain technology and associated cryptocurrency. A player may earn tools, resources, or build materials by performing increasingly complex tasks. This performance may be recorded and set in time on an indelible transaction record using Blockchain technology. Players are encouraged to form or join guilds, to earn tokens, and make strategic economic decisions on behalf of their community.
Attributes such as system design, social leadership, resource allocation, strategy, and business acumen, etc., are all highly desirable characteristics demanded of tomorrow’s engineers — and often not taught in a traditional engineering curriculum. By contrast, Enjin can now identify, at a very early age, people who demonstrate a high proclivity and talent for various engineering disciplines whereas standardized education may not achieve this level of granularity.
With an immutable time-stamped transaction record, these young engineers become visible to universities, employers, and entrepreneurs for development, nurturing, and mentorship. There is one catch; these kids cannot perform in a hierarchy because all they know is the massively networked environment.
The Hybrid approach is a very recent observation derived from two separate ideas shared by Vinay Gupta of the Ethereum Project and Malachy Mathews, Architectural Researcher and BIM Anthropologist at Dublin Institute of Technology.
Vinay Gupta describes how society became “reified” by computer network architecture from the 1970’s on. Reification refers to the manner in which society reorganized itself in order to accommodate the awkward and clumsy way in which computers populate and retrieve data from SQL databases — only to find that in a networked system (Internet), databases could not talk to each other without a human intermediary. Not surprisingly, this is the problem that Blockchain solves through the creation of decentralized database, which everyone shares.
Malachy Mathews suggested that society could take advantage of this natural human tendency to become reified by its information systems in order to purposely reorganize in a measured and intact fashion. His recommendation for architects, designers and engineers is to decentralize one important dataset, Building Information Modeling, on Blockchain, such that everyone could simultaneously interact with it. Once reified to the BIM database, the legacy organizational structures would be able to more easily accommodate networked information system thereafter. Since Engineering, Financial Institutions, and Insurance companies each depend on the integrity of the other two, the reification could fan out in a holistic manner across the value chain.
The question remains: Who will get there first? Will Minecraft jump to BIM or will BIM jump to Minecraft? In either case, the network will win. I’ll leave the reader with the question; who will lose?
Throughout human history, from Nomadism, Tribalism, Feudalism, Socialism, Capitalism, and every other imaginable –ism, societies have reorganized to reflect the efficient management of their concurrent information technology. In 2017, societies across the globe are shifting away from hierarchies and moving toward network organizations. This change is natural and inevitable. The engineering profession has three choices, we can fight it, we can ignore it, or we can adopt it. The greater challenge is to transition from one state of organization to the next state of organization without breaking or destroying the valuable institutions that have brought society this far in it’s evolution. Transitions are fragile and opportunities are fleeting, we need to walk an intentional and strategic path in unison.
Note: The Integrated Engineering Blockchain Consortium is focused on developing Blockchain Applications for the Engineering Professions from Aerospace to Construction and Infrastructure.