Getting to Truth on the Blockchain

Cobweb representing the web of truth on the blockchain

The second phase of the enquiry into the tragic Grenfell Tower fire begins today. As the BBC reports, the first phase found that the cladding work on the tower did not comply with building regulations, and the role of the second phase is to unpick the complex records held by seven different contractors to determine accountability. The investigators are seeking evidence of the crucial twists and turns in the journey from a straightforward and compliant design intent to a deadly installation. For twists and turns there always are, at every stage of a project, and in this case a decision, or series of decisions, led to changes which proved fatal.

The long and winding design road

As Teesside information management company Kraken IM explained to me during research for my forthcoming book, the complexity of different systems across project contractors is matched only by the complexity of the tasks they are recording. A multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project may involve over a million individual items of equipment, and the data on each piece must include the design intent, its function, materials, and operational information such as maintenance manuals. The original design intent may be, as in the case of Grenfell and hundreds of other buildings around the country, to refurbish and improve the visual impact of the exterior. There will be engineering requirements, standards and local regulatory constraints which impact on the specification against which suppliers will be asked to tender. A supplier may propose a slightly different material which in their experience will be more effective in the setting. Even before cladding is fitted, changes are likely to have been made against the design intent. It is vital to accurately record the individual stages of approval, so that at sign-off and commissioning it is quite clear to the operator what has been supplied. In addition to this, the 2018 Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety led by Dame Judith Hackitt (the Hackitt Report) called for digital by default product specifications and persistent identity for components. Here is an industry where the specific properties of blockchain may have far reaching impact.

Provenance and the blockchain

The problem which Kraken IM has sought to solve is that when inevitable changes happen they impact not only the immediate build and commissioning of a project, but also its operation, maintenance and eventual decommissioning. You cannot rely on memory, or on systems of record which undergo changes through decades. When decommissioning an asset, going back to the original designs is not helpful. Local legend on Teesside speaks of a 36″ pipe on a rig in the Able UK yard whose purpose was unknown, and which therefore could never be safely recycled.

Blockchain offered a solution. By recording the detail of each change note and its approval process in an immutable and distributed form, the crucial evidence of a shift from design intent to build can be found quickly and traced to its source on Kraken’s Halcyon platform. It is a simple use of blockchain, but a powerful one, and it has demonstrated a more interesting phenomenon. A blockchain is not a repository of absolute truth, but of transactional truth. The change approvals recorded here have positional integrity, confirming the date and time of a decision, but crucially the fact that the change is both immutable and being “observed” affects the behaviour of the people responsible. Kraken’s clients in the oil and gas industry noticed that the real-world processes around change approval became more rigorous. People knew that they may have to stand by their decisions in any enquiry, and became very careful to do things right.

Persistent identity

The call in the Hackitt Report for better traceability of the parts used in a project represents the other piece of the puzzle. A change to design intent can be recorded immutably and highlight responsibility. Recording in the same way the identity of the actual parts used in construction ensures that what is commissioned matched what it says on the tin. We are seeing strides in the identification of assets across supply chains from food to aerospace, using blockchain constructs such as nonfungible tokens (NFTS) and protocols which record aspects of identity to avoid counterfeiting. There is huge complexity surrounding infrastructure projects, but if persistent identity and traceability of components become law in the UK as expected following the Hackitt report, blockchain is likely to be a significant tool in the solutions that are developed.

The multiple causes of the terrible events which unfolded at Grenfell in 2017 are gradually being teased out by the enquiries which were set in motion, and there is a clear desire to put regulation in place to avert such a tragedy in the future. Blockchain may well play a part in making our world safer.

You can read more about the work of Kraken IM and other innovators in Blockchain Hurricane: Origins, Applications and Future of Blockchain and Cryptocurrency (Business Expert Press, 2020)

Originally published via LinkedIn Pulse, January 2020