DAWN OF A ‘SMART’ ERA
Architecture is becoming “smart”. The world is changing. Socially. Economically. Environmentally. Politically. Cryptocurrencies, decentralized computation: these terms seem to linger in shadows, conjuring abstract images of the “dark” web that lurks beneath the glossy surface of the screen.
Over the past 20 years the economy has progressively moved away from the traditional model of centralized organizations, where large operators, often with a dominant position, were responsible for providing a service to a group of passive consumers. Today we are moving toward a new model of increasingly decentralized organizations, where large operators are responsible for aggregating the resources of multiple people to provide a service to a much more active group of consumers. This shift marks the advent of a new generation of “dematerialized” organizations that do not require physical offices, assets, or even employees.
Architecture in the digital age appears as a representation more than something immanent to clicking, scrolling, swiping. Browsing the web, for example, has spatial ramifications — as does hosting a library of architecture renderings on an overheated server. Yet, architecture on the internet is still mostly perceived as a translation (of the physical to image, or of print to screen), rather than a transformation that could potentially reconfigure the practice itself, and likely has already. But, for a growing contingency of architects, the form of architecture, as a field and object, may be on the brink of a radical mutation. Blockchain technology, which drives digital currencies like Bitcoin and smart contract platforms like ethereum, not only offers the possibility of entirely reorganizing the profession, but is itself already a spatial practice.
TMD studio sets out to explore the extreme frontiers of domesticity in the age of network culture with the vision to create a decentralized architecture office and open industry platform. The utopian vision of cyberspace as a place of refuge for the anonymous, instant and endless sharing of knowledge has so far proven radically unfulfilled. It is, rather, the Net that has seeped into the spaces of everyday life, becoming more full-bodied, saturating the most intimate spaces of the home with smartness.
As the distinction between the spaces of labour and domesticity blurs, the idea of ‘machines for living’ morphs into a factory of data: technology is the charismatic roommate from which there is no escape.
Nest thermostats even the fridge is connected to the Internet… As sentient products seep into the domestic sphere, far from being a space of privacy and seclusion, our homes are quickly becoming the space in which we are most closely observed. And as the “sharing economy” comes to prevail, the very concept of the home is transformed.
The blockchain is a peer-to-peer time stamping technology first introduced by the cryptographic digital currency Bitcoin. The technology is essentially a decentralized public ledger that contains a record of all transactions and activity that occurred on the network in chronological order. Every node on the network comes into a consensus about the system-wide order of events within a given time interval, and simultaneously publishes this information within a cryptographic block, which is then linked to all previous blocks to form a chain. Thus, the blockchain works as a shared public ledger, which all who use the network can access.
The information contained on the blockchain is secured by a decentralized network of powerful computers called miners, which anyone can set up and run. Mathematically complex problems, which are both energy-intensive and computationally-difficult, are posed to mining computers, which then attempt to solve these equations by calculating in what are called “hashing algorithms”. When a calculation is solved the miner is rewarded with a block. This block contains all network transactions since the last block was found on the network. A block is found every 10 minutes by one of the miners on the network who receives the intrinsic token, Bitcoin, as a reward for its work, and the block is then added to the blockchain. This serves as the economic incentive for an actor to spend money on the electricity it takes to operate a mining computer.
New digital protocols, such as ethereum, have developed their own blockchains that are able to be programmed for decentralized applications comprised of smart contracts. These smart contracts make it possible for computer code to execute automatically and transparently, operating as a programmable world computer. ethereum has a block-time of 12 seconds, as opposed to Bitcoins 10 minute blockchain, allowing transactions to be published much faster. In general, this method of recordkeeping for urban data is being developed for environmental sensors and internet of things devices.
This technology should already be viewed in an architectural context. The process of securing the blockchain via mining computers has immediate spatial ramifications. Mining consumes energy and produces massive amounts of heat. This thermal condition is often treated as a problem as the largest mining operations require either large cooling fans or highly air-conditioned warehouses.
However, protocols like ethereum are working to develop new blockchain verification protocols that will allow the technology to scale into everyday life without intensive energy consumption.
In addition to using blockchains as a decentralized register of value for a currency, “smart contracts” can be written to represent agreements between parties that could range from a conventional contract involving a mortgage, to voting systems and reputation protocols. “Smart contracts” eliminate reliance on centralized third party services because the contract itself is an intermediary.
What ethereum presents is a vision of a Decentralized Autonomous Society made of decentralized autonomous corporations and organizations (DAC/DAO). The classic example of a DAC is a version of Uber where a self-driving a car owns itself, collects cab fare from users and uses the profit to maintains its services and distribute the surplus to a set of stakeholders.
Architectural transactions could evolve in a number of ways with blockchain technology. For example, from the point of view of the business model, architecture could move away from client-designer relations that rely solely on fixed design and hourly fees. Instead they could exchange equity in the built environment in the form of smart contracts that distribute cryptographic tokens that represent share or equity in the agreement.
Internally, reputation systems for architectural designers could open new freelance markets for both workers and firms. Office projects could scale as they grow instead of offices maintaining a set number of employees, allowing a more liquid flow of work between offices for designers.
Imagine a decentralized architecture office that distributes equity and shares in the built environment and comprises a mesh of users: investors, clients, designers and established offices. Over time each user, while working on separate projects, would obtain equity in built work and procedural reputation. This would allow for a more collaborative approach between designers and introduce a new schema for an architecture business model based on “spatial investment portfolios.” With equity in completed projects the design portfolio doubles as an investment portfolio.
Blockchain technology can be implemented into the design process in the sense that architects should now be applying design thinking to bridge digital and physical environments. For our current condition of endless quantification, the architect needs to create social and cultural exchange by drawing connections and generating unprecedented experiences that are interstitial to digital life.
Digital life now includes blockchain technology and its endless possibilities. In order to restructure the built environment and disrupt geographies of power the spatial ramifications of this technology need to be investigated to the fullest. Ubiquitous sensors, energy consumption, network power, thermal radiation and atmospheric conditions are all elements of the blockchain and how it is already impacting space. The creativity of the architect and its design process can then be applied to researching this domain, while this domain, in turn, dissolves traditional architect-client models.
One of the most exciting things about the blockchain is that it will enable architects to initiate their own projects. We have already seen this take place via Kickstarter. However, with Kickstarter funds are donations, and there is not only no simple way to organize collective interest in the project, but there is also no real way for donors to then participate in the project, and/or be compensated for their contribution.
The blockchain will enable equity crowdfunding, decision making tools to allocate funds, and the ability to scale the project with interested parties.
On a platform where users are a mesh of investors, clients, designers and established offices, projects can be initiated by architects and brought to scale and fruition while consciously distributing the financial stake in the built environment.
Accelerated shifts in urbanization and technology are mounting pressure on the built environment to be more flexible, ecological, collaborative and profitable.
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