Unless you use 3D Building Information Models (BIM) or Geographic Information Systems (GIS) you may not even know about plans to create a 3D Digital World, but you should.

TL;DR (Executive summary)

The internet has been a boon, but also a source of increasing threats: cyber-crime, terrorism and war; fakes, misinformation, and exploitation. Unfortunately, without specific action, the 3D Digital World is destined to become subject to the same dark forces, with potentially much more serious consequences (as our models are linked via sensors into the fabric of our cities).

To realise the benefits and mitigate the existential risks arising from the emerging 3D Digital World, we must act now to create the governance framework for a new piece of Digital Infrastructure: The Digital Built & Legal Environment (DBLE).

The DBLE would be based upon a simple principle: the rights of access, use and trade in any part of the DBLE (and related data) would mirror each entity’s rights in the property that the DBLE represents.

It means that if we know our real-world rights, we would know our rights in the DBLE.

The DBLE would not restrict our rights to create and deal in any digital models in any way we wish.

It would simply enable people to link their models within a common framework.

This would not only simplify access. Most importantly, it would also help to protect privacy, enhance security and provide trust in the decision-making processes relating to the creation and operation of our cities.

You can help speed its development and guide its design by joining our National Workgroup(1), or simply by offering advice, including via commentary on this series of articles.

What’s the opportunity?

The 3D Digital World is a ‘full-scale’ computer model of the real world. As prefaced in the first article in this series, it is going to become the place where we make decisions about what to build where; enabling us to simulate and manage the construction and operation of our buildings and cities; as well as a place to trade goods and services, and to communicate (via our 3D avatars).

It will help people throughout the property supply chain to do their jobs more quickly, at less cost and with less risk, while achieving better outcomes (from planning and surveying to design and construction, through asset and facility management, to leasing and sale). It will make financing and insurance simpler, and speed emergency response and disaster recovery, while reducing both financial and personal risk. In part, it will do this by providing the ‘spatial context’ for information, so it can be viewed via both Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), allowing authorised people to access information about any object by merely looking at it in the Real World (via AR), or its Digital Twin (via VR).

It is about to become ‘Second Life’ in real life.

While this may sound exciting, you should also be very concerned.

What’s the problem?

The current version of the internet and world wide web has undoubtedly been a huge boon in terms of communication and trade.

However, as detailed in the second article in this series, it has also spawned fake news and deep fakes, and groupthink and polarisation, and invasion of privacy and surveillance, and fraud and exploitation, that appears to be getting worse by the day.

Additionally, as our digital models become increasingly linked (through the ‘internet of things’) to the systems that control our energy, water and transport, as well as communications, the risks from cyber-crime, terrorism and war escalate exponentially. It is well recognised that within a few days of loss of our basic infrastructure society would break down. Imagine water and sewage failing because the pumps no longer operate, and the same with fuel, or no gas and electricity for even a few days. What if all systems are taken offline simultaneously without a shot being fired?

In this article in Vanity Fair, Tim Berners-Lee (father of the web) expresses his utter devastation at the way in which the internet has evolved. The article points to the internet’s greatest strength (its decentralised power) as also its weakness. The same open protocols give everyone power for good or ill. It is a winner take all world that gives organisations the ability to suck up content into walled gardens, and to create divisive echo chambers, rather than a ‘common vision’. It lets people hide behind fake identities and to make unsubstantiated claims to exploit and defraud without recourse.

Andy Polaine, in a recent blog, made another perceptive observation: “…I wonder if we can think about our digital social spaces in the same way [as ‘shopping malls’]. Many of those [digital spaces] that were popular in the ‘90s and early ‘00s are now vaporware. The companies went bankrupt or were purchased and mismanaged to death. Users fled. Communities were destroyed. Data was liquidated. We should be concerned that a majority of our online spaces are owned by corporations who do not have our best interests in mind, despite fuzzy PR statements about “building communities.” Our digital spaces can suddenly be destroyed or altered in disturbing ways without our consent. Why don’t we have control over them? Why can’t we? Always remember: Facebook and Instagram and Twitter are malls, not parks”.

If you are at all doubtful about the threats, The Great Hack on Netflix may be worth a look.

Imagine these trends extending into the emerging 3D Digital World that purports to be a ‘true version’ of both ‘the world’ (property and processes) and ‘people’ (avatars). How will we be able to ensure continuity of the data, protect privacy, maintain security and provide trust in this Digital World for decision-making about the Real World?

When the internet started people knew the names of those involved, they were polite and professional and wanted to make things better. The downsides were not even imagined.

We are at the same early stage in the evolution of the 3D Digital World.

At a practical level, it is currently being developed on an ad hoc basis by professional people who are generally acting in good faith, with little thought about the potential harm it may engender.

Unfortunately, without a change in its basic governance framework, the 3D Digital World is destined to become subject to the same dark forces as the web… with potentially much more serious consequences.

What’s Being Done to Mitigate the Risks?

Tim Berners-Lee has become so concerned that his brainchild has morphed into a monster that he has devoted the rest of his life to creating a new version of the web.

He is not alone in his quest. Many others are working to improve privacy, security and trust across the web.

They are talking about ways to ‘take back control of our data’ while ‘countering fake news’ and ‘improving transparency’.

Tim’s proposal is to isolate our own data within ‘personal data pods’, with access being granted to third parties based on the benefits they offer.

Of course, this would include data about the property and goods we own, which we regard as ‘private’.

However, ‘property data’ is special because we live in a shared world with specific rights of access, use and trade in specific parts of it – defined by the ‘laws of the land and by contract’.

In essence, property is both ‘private’ and ‘communal’ – governed by specific rights that underpin virtually all commercial transactions, as well as providing us with ‘private spaces’ we can retreat to.

It means we cannot have completely ‘open’ property data, nor can we make it entirely ‘private’.

Getting the balance right is a technical, legal and process problem.

Evolution of the 3D Digital World

More and more organisations are creating ‘Digital Twins’ that represent the 3D physical attributes of an object (along with its related data, as well as its role in any system or process), at all scales and with all details necessary for decision-making.

The term ‘Digital Built Environment’ (DBE) references the entire built form.

Under the current scenario, the DBE is evolving as a collection of individual models, some under the control of government and most under the control of other parties, where the rights of access, use and trade in the models are determined in accord with varying local, state and federal laws and regulations, as well as differing contract terms agreed between each party on a case by case basis.

Currently, most models are made for a specific purpose and left to be forgotten once the project has been completed.

Merely locating useful third-party data is problematic, let alone getting access to it!

At a government level, the UK is one of the leading jurisdictions looking to tackle the problem. Their focus is on ‘data sharing’ based on a set of principles, the ‘Gemini Principles’, that define the Digital Twin as “a realistic digital representation of assets, processes and systems in the built or natural environment”. The underlying assumption is that the 3D Digital World will be used for ‘good’.

The key element missing from the ‘Gemini Principles’, and other policy statements around the world, is the ‘operational’ link between the 3D Digital World and the Real World.

The whole purpose of the 3D Digital World is to make it easier, cheaper, quicker and less risky to plan, design, communicate and decide upon changes to the Real World. It is all about managing and changing Real World.

Obviously, our ability to access, use, make changes to, and trade in the Real World is determined by our real-world property and contractual rights.

Given this purpose, it makes no sense to have separate rights for the Digital World that differ from our Real World rights. It simply adds unnecessary complication and risk that compromises both privacy and security.

Our differing real-world property rights are complicated enough. Imagine trying to make decisions in a digital world that purports to represent the real world, where the rights we have to deal in it differ from the rights we have to deal in the property that it represents!

Imagine if these digital rights also differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

National developers, construction companies, architects, engineers, financiers, insurers, property owners, lessees and others already must contend with different laws in every municipality relating to real property. If we continue without an over-arching Governance Framework for the 3D Digital World, everyone will have to employ a ‘digital lawyer’ in each state along with property, planning and contract lawyers just to be sure what our digital rights are, and to understand how they differ from our real-world rights!

We don’t need ‘more and different rights to use the 3D Digital World’ to make decisions about the Real World.

In fact, if we do not mirror our Real World rights in an ‘official’ 3D Digital World, it will cause errors, delays and disputes, and/or result in arrangements that are much more complex, costly and risky than they need to be.

Conversely, the 3D Digital World can become a hugely valuable resource… if only we can federate the disparate models in a way that respects individual, corporate and public rights in the property that the models represent.

Evolution of the Governance Framework for the 3D Digital World in Australia

While most governments in Australia are now exploring options to create a 3D Digital World, it is still early days.

To assist both government and industry in understanding the opportunities and challenges, a National Workgroup of key stakeholders was set up in Australia in 2018 to explore development of the Digital World. It uses the descriptor ‘Digital Built & Legal Environment’ (DBLE) for three reasons:

  1. To designate the DBLE as the ‘official’ (legal) version of the 3D Digital World for all ‘property-related’ decision-making.
  2. To make it plain that the ‘official’ 3D Digital World (DBLE) needs to do more than just mirror the physical features of the Real World. It must also mirror the boundaries of our Real World rights. Not merely to provide information about the location of the boundaries in the Real World (which is important). But most importantly, to use these (3D) boundaries to section the models. These ‘sectioned models’ can then be simply accessed based on each person’s real-world rights to the property inside the boundaries – enabling us to more easily maintain privacy, security and trust within the DBLE.
  3. To highlight the idea that the DBLE would be a new piece of Digital Infrastructure set up under its own Governance Framework (without limiting the creation and use of any other models). It would be like the banking network, but instead of holding our money, it would securely hold our DBLE models against change, loss or destruction, while facilitating access to all authorised parties.

The purpose of the Governance Framework is to avoid the ‘wild west’ of the web by creating a separate federated digital environment where people can both control their own data and rely on the digital twins (and related data) of the property and people they interact with – to make binding decisions in the Digital World that impact the Real World.

The aim is to ensure each person, each organisation, each government body, and each member of the public (third-party) has the same rights in each DBLE model as they have in the ’real-world’ property that it represents.

The basic principle is: if you know your rights in the real world, you will know them in the DBLE.

It’s that simple.

Ten Critical Requirements

To do this effectively, the workgroup has identified ten critical requirements:

1.      Digital Twins of each object, including their correctly dimensioned physical form (and ideally appearance), at each scale required for decision-making, linked to all information about the object, including relations to other objects, its operating parameters, and role in any process.

2.      Every object located in its spatial context (either through geo-referencing, perhaps using a 3D Discrete Global Grid System, or positioning within a geo-referenced model).

3.      All boundaries (statutory, common law, contractual, administrative and statistical) to be geo-referenced and embedded in the models for information purposes.

4.      The models to be sectioned by all the legal and contractual boundaries intersecting it, so each person can only see, use and update any part of a model and related data that they are entitled to view, use or update in the real world).

5.      All data relating to the laws, regulations and contract terms applicable to property within each boundary to be linked to the boundary and thence to each object/property inside the boundary.

6.      Each person accessing the digital world must be identified and be authorised to deal with any digital object and its related data (to view it, and to create a new version of it). Development of ‘Self-sovereign Identities’ will be helpful in this regard.

7.      It should not be possible to delete any data once entered. All changes must be managed via version control.

8.      All models and data must be held by authorised entities subject to a common governance framework (to simplify access while maintaining privacy and security), and on sovereign soil and/or in a distributed database (to limit interference by foreign jurisdictions). This is critical as more and more of our real infrastructure and services are linked to their digital twins, controlling the flow of energy, water, vehicles, data and people within our cities.

9.      Trust in the Digital World is imperative. Accordingly, all Real World certifications (eg planning, building, fire, etc.) need to be linked to a model and locked against change. The model itself and all boundaries may also need to be certified correct (within required limits) on a case by case basis by a suitably qualified professional.

10.   Establishment of a National Governance Framework to put these requirements into law.

We cannot eliminate fakes and frauds and other abuses from the internet.

However, we can set up an ‘official’ 3D Digital World that is designed from scratch to support decision-making about the Real World, while protecting privacy, maintaining security and providing trust within the Digital World.

Ultimately, the National Workgroup believes that an over-arching legal framework needs to be adopted by the Federal and State Governments. Importantly, the framework would support State rights as it ensures that whatever rights the State has in real property, they would have the same rights regarding the DBLE Models of the property under their jurisdiction.

In fact, the basic principle applies regardless of the jurisdiction, not only within Australia, but to all countries of the world.

The proposed Governance Framework is still to be fully debated and agreed. The purpose of these articles is to get you involved… it is your future, and that of your children and grandchildren we are talking about. It is the future we are making together.

Get Involved 

To know more and to help ensure the 3D Digital World delivers on its promises while avoiding the worst of its possible downsides, join the National Workgroup, or just contact us with your questions or advice: email [email protected]

Next in the series 

The next articles will look at the incentives for people, business and government to participate in its creation. They will also canvass the need for some form of ‘federation’ to manage the retention and integration of the disparate models, including recent discussions begun with the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as suggested approaches to capturing model costs for inclusion on the balance sheet (following feedback from the Australian Accounting Standards Board). And then look at what it means for procurement and data sharing.


(1)    National DBLE Workgroup
The National DBLE Workgroup was founded in February 2018 and now comprises over 150 professionals throughout the property ‘supply chain’, from planning, through surveying, design, engineering, costing and finance, as well as manufacturing, fabrication and construction, to asset & facility management, including representatives from both local and State governments and national and international technology providers, as well as legal professionals.

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