The outward appearance of the small, prism-shaped hut in the recently opened Student Project House on ETH's Zentrum campus is enough to arouse the curiosity of anyone looking at it. It is decorated with LED lights, connected to a solar panel and has comfortable seats for meditation inside. However, the visionary idea on which the wooden construction is based cannot be seen at first glance. “It’s a powerful vision,” believes Hongyang Wang, who began working on the project when she was a Master’s student. “It touches all parts of society and turns many of our basic assumptions upside down.” Now Wang is a doctoral student with the Chair of Innovative and Industrial Construction, which deals with topics such as new technologies, governance strategies and organisational models for construction processes.
The vision mentioned can be a very small one or a very large one, explains Wang. The small vision might look something like the hut in the Student Project House. The solar-powered meditation cabin functions autonomously and anyone can book it online for a certain time period in order to meditate. The pod grants access automatically when a QR code is presented, which is practical. The larger vision starts at a level above the immediate experience of the room, when we look at the way the hut functions and is organised. The name of the project, “no1s1” (pronounced “no one’s one”), provides a clue: the meditation room is a prototype for a building that belongs to no one. It runs itself and rents itself out. In future, the intention is for its income to take the form of the cryptocurrency Ethereum – the current test version does not cost real money – and to be held in an account (wallet) controlled by the building itself. In theory, it could not only call someone itself for repairs in the event of damage, but even legally own itself, facilitated by a decentralised autonomous organisation (DAO) linked to the building.
Infrastructure with a natural ecosystem
The organisation of this computer-supported self-governance is based on blockchain technology, which promises enormous potential for decentralisation: for example, it enables contracts to be concluded without a central, highly trusted authority, such as a bank or government, vouching for it (cryptocurrencies rely on the same idea and technology). So a large number of people – or digital systems – can coordinate for a specific purpose without the need for hierarchical structures or human mediation. These “smart contracts” form the basis for the DAO that operates the meditation pod. Within this, people can organise themselves and even change the rules in the contracts in accordance with democratic principles – meaning the structure does not need a human owner. Furthermore, the continuing development of the rules could theoretically be fully or partly taken over by artificial intelligence. Depending on their development, autonomous forms of organisation such as this could one day have the same legal status as traditional companies.
This is not yet the reality. Nonetheless, it demonstrates the implications of the idea: no1s1 as an alternative model for real estate and infrastructure. Wang emphasises that the technology is not yet ready, and no1s1 is still the first project known to her worldwide that connects a DAO with a physical property. She explains its potential in these terms: “If real estate does not have a human owner, the automated coordination eliminates high administrative costs. Above all, however, the model does not need to be profitable.” Any surplus income could go back into the maintenance of the structure or be returned to the users.
If the vision is followed through to its logical conclusion, you arrive at an idea called “Nature 2.0”: a self-sustaining human infrastructure that manages and regulates itself – just as a natural ecosystem such as a forest does. The project demonstrates an alternative to the idea of living space as capital investment, says Wang’s doctoral supervisor Daniel Hall, Professor at the Institute of Construction and Infrastructure Management at
the ETH Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering (D-BAUG)
: “The growing economic inequality in many places, and developments on the real estate market provided one of the starting points for our thinking.” This is where he sees the idea of decentralised, autonomous properties playing a role: “
Through technical demonstration that no1s1 can be self-sustaining instead of profit-maximizing, we can take another step towards a
goal of providing everyone with suitable, affordable housing.”