You probably heard of the digital currency Bitcoin because of its headline-making and extremely volatile valuation against the U.S. dollar in recent months. But what you may not know is how it works or why it’s so groundbreaking. In case you’re not yet a cryptocurrency-trading-millionaire, what makes Bitcoin possible is the revolutionary software technology upon which it is based, known as blockchain. In their book Blockchain Revolution, authors Don and Alex Tapscott summarize blockchain as “an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions, but virtually everything of value.”
The blockchain-based idea for Bitcoin was first released in 2008 via a whitepaper, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” by an author known as Satoshi Nakamoto. Since then, others have developed Nakamoto’s idea by creating blockchain, the electronic system that ensures the security and integrity of the electronic data that make up Bitcoin and other, similar digital currencies.
Blockchain is what’s known as a “distributed ledger technology” – essentially a big, shared database, constantly reconciled and updated so that every copy of that ledger is the same and is reconciled. These blocks of digital information are not stored in any one location, but rather on millions of computers all at once, which all agree on each block of transactions in the chain. Thus, no single, central location houses the data, and no governmental entity issues the currency, in theory making blockchain a safer way to transact anything of value and less vulnerable to both hacking, manipulation, and the myriad political factors that can influence the relative values of more traditional currencies.
Blockchain technology is consensus-based, so every computer on the blockchain network verifies that each block is valid and accurate before adding it to the chain. Once a transaction has been added, its electronic record becomes an incorruptible, unchangeable, and a public record of that transaction, which exists forever on that block of the chain. This technology also means that it’s transparent – every computer on the network maintains and can see the record of the transaction.
Why should we, as women in the commercial real estate industry, care about blockchain? Because blockchain is one of the next big technology advancements, it could have a big impact on commercial real estate, and women can play a role in that impact.
In traditional real estate deals, multiple intermediaries – brokers, government offices, title companies, escrow accounts, appraisers, etc. – create friction (and extract payments) that slow the settlement process and increase costs. Blockchain has substantial potential to speed up transactions when buying, selling, and leasing real estate. Moving transactions to the blockchain can create a more efficient and transparent peer-to-peer system that would allow title transfers to be completed quickly and safely, without the need for third-party involvement or verification.
Does this mean doomsday is coming for many of us in commercial real estate? Almost certainly not. There will simply be more efficient systems to transact real estate business, and the various roles in a transaction will shift and adapt accordingly.
Blockchain allows for the creation and use of “smart contracts,” which execute according to a predetermined, mutually agreed-upon set of parameters and exchange of value. Transactions would be transparent and verifiable, drastically reducing fraud and non-performance. Common tasks like collecting and paying rent, returning security deposits, and managing contract terms would become more streamlined and transparent, which would be especially helpful across international borders.
While it’s currently possible to pay rent, send a security deposit, or buy a property with electronic funds transfers from your laptop via a bank transfer, or through PayPal or Venmo from your smartphone, the “smart contracts” that utilize blockchain and cryptocurrencies are more than just electronic payments. All of the transactional terms of the lease—from the initial security deposit, to maybe a few months of free rent or tenant improvement allowance payments, standard monthly rent payment, annual rent escalations, tenant billing obligations, and the lease termination or renewal and security deposit refunds—can be coded into the cryptocurrency token contract to automatically execute when each condition, be it lapse of time, receipt or payment of money, or other conditions, is met. This mechanism can help to prevent fraud on both sides of a transaction and transparently ensure the mutually agreed-upon conditions are fulfilled by both sides. Further, the parties to the transaction do not have to depend on a trusted third party (such as PayPal or a bank) to guarantee and verify the transactions, and to provide any necessary proof of funds. While cryptocurrencies have their challenges due to still being very new and evolving, they offer many advantages over existing systems both from a technical standpoint and from a transparency and efficiency standpoint.
There are many more ways that blockchain will transform our industry. From transacting real estate using cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, which allows us to cross borders and more freely transact across the globe, to issuing token-backed real estate funds, allowing fractional ownership in newer, more transparent and efficient ways, I believe that we will continue to see more growth and rapid development using blockchain in the coming years.
So who is actually working on applying blockchain technology to commercial real estate? The technology may still be in its nascent phase, but success stories abound and the future looks bright. Currently, the state of Vermont is working with tech startup Propy to be the first state to successfully pilot a program to record land and property transactions using blockchain. Other start-ups continue to pop up around the world like Ubitquity engineering a blockchain system to securely record and track property title and ownership; Rex MLS creating a new multiple-list service; Propify rethinking how real estate is marketed; Factom ensuring and validating digital assets; RealBlocks tokenizing real estate assets; and BuildCoin changing how public-private construction and infrastructure projects can come together more efficiently and with greater transparency.
So how would a blockchain system differ from other electronic systems that have existed, such as a Torrens? Blockchain would not be dependent on a trusted third-party (a government, municipality, etc.) to verify and guarantee title to a property. A blockchain-based system is different because of its trustless, distributed, and transparent nature. A blockchain system could make a U.S.-based title system more efficient and transparent, but also change the game in the developing world where there is much greater opportunity for government-sponsored fraud and deception related to private property rights and ownership.
It’s certainly still the Wild West when it comes to blockchain and the commercial real estate world. We’re some ways off from full enterprise-level development and adoption, and we don’t know exactly what that will look like when the time comes. But it is imperative that women play a significant role in shaping this next phase of the intersection of technology and commercial real estate. Seek to actively learn about this new technology so that you can participate in its development and application. New technology means opportunities to get in on the ground floor and have an impact on early development.
Katherine Pinkard, President, Pinkard Properties, oversees the operations of the certified woman-owned firm, providing property management, asset management, development, and consulting services to private and public-sector clients. She has worked with clients ranging from local owners and developers to publicly-traded REITs and State agencies to manage and consult on an array of complex projects, such as the adaptive reuse of urban sites, ground-up greenfield development, and public-private partnerships. Pinkard has developed a particular passion for blockchain technology and its application in the commercial real estate field. From software developers, to venture capitalists, consulting attorneys, start-up founders, and real estate tech experts, she has spoken with key players across the country who are developing new technology and innovative use-cases for blockchain. Pinkard has written on the subject for real estate trade organizations and she is currently exploring several ways that Pinkard Properties can leverage blockchain technology to make an impact in the real estate development and services industry.
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