All About Blockchain

Embracing Sustainability Goals with Blockchain Technology | Dorit Aviv

October 27, 2020 Season 1 Episode 7
All About Blockchain
Embracing Sustainability Goals with Blockchain Technology | Dorit Aviv
Show Notes Transcript

How can we individually improve our energy consumption?  We might think about  reducing our carbon footprint, but to improve our behavior, we need to effectively measure our individual usage.

Architect Dorit Aviv is doing just that with a distributed energy monitoring and environmental sensing network using blockchain technology, which she is leading together with Professor William Braham at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design.  Specializing in energy and ecology, they are experimenting in this project with an opt-in data system for performance tracking and reward system.

 She shares how this not only creates conscious energy usage but incentivizes  good performance. We are getting a peak at the beginning stages of a sustainability resource that can quickly scale.   Further info is described on Dorit Aviv's
Thermal Architecture Lab website.

Lauren (00:00):

Okay. So the goal of this episode really is to talk about UPenn's environmental experimentation across the university campus that's examining how energy and environmental monitoring via blockchain and IOT network can be used to incentify energy savings. So Dorit Aviv is an assistant professor of architecture at the Weitzman School of Design, who specializes in energy and ecology. She's the director of the thermal architecture lab, a cross disciplinary laboratory at the intersection of thermodynamics, architectural design and material science. Dorit, welcome to the show.

Dorit Aviv (00:39):

Thank you. It's really great to be here and talk to you, Lauren.

Lauren (00:43):

Thank you so much for being on All About Blockchain. So you're a licensed architect who has worked around the world and your work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Tides foundation, Microsoft, Princeton's Office of Sustainability and the Council on Science and Technology.

Our listeners who are absorbing future use cases of this technology want to know, what turned you on to blockchain as a tool to use in your research and your applied practice?

Dorit Aviv (01:31):

Well, it's actually a really interesting story for how I started working with blockchain technology. So it starts back with another research project I was working on, which is how to create energy savings for data centers through design. So I've been working with both other universities and tech companies on this initiative, trying to use design to create the energy savings on data centers. As I was doing this research, I came across crypto mining farms, basically, that either they have their own data centers or they are within other data centers and I started thinking about this energy consumption that comes out of crypto mining farms and the fact that, for public blockchain it is inherently by design energy inefficient, right?

Dorit Aviv (02:34):

That's part of the design of public blockchains and I really asked myself, looking at those server racks, looking at all of this waste here that's created by these server farms and thinking about blockchain, "Can we use this emergent technology for energy savings? Can we use some of the potentials of blockchain to actually incentivize energy savings?" At the same time, we were interested in creating a network of environmental monitoring and energy monitoring. My partner on this project, William Brown, professor at Penn, who's the head of the Center for Environmental Building and Design, has actually been working on energy monitoring of buildings for a long time and we were looking for a way to bring it to the individual user, to the individual space level and to the individual user rather than to the whole building level.

Lauren (3:19):

So the unique proposition of BlockPenn is that it's bringing it to an individual level. An individual person could track their usage, their energy consumption on a publicly audited system on campus.

Dorit Aviv (3:29):

Right. And it's a multi-user system, there's multiple nodes, right. Each user has their node. That's how it's connected to the blockchain network. Right. So because it has these multiple nodes, it's also comparable. Right. And you can, without compromising people's anonymity, you can still see how you're doing. And of course, all of that data has to be normalized for things like how big is your space, or how long do you spend in that space? Or what is the weather condition outside? Do you really need it to do this other process because it's necessary? Right. So, or did you just forget to turn off your air conditioner? Right. So those are all things that we can monitor with these sensors. And so really give people a high resolution understanding of how they're using the space and how that contributes to energy savings or energy wastefulness.

And we actually had interest from students on campus who were telling us, "How do we know how much energy each of us consumes in their own dormitory space? How do we know how much each faculty or staff person uses in the building?" And currently there's no access to that information or a way to really know that data. So connecting the interest in creating energy savings with the blockchain network. And this interest to have individual users data on energy performance, and environmental performance, we decided to create this project. This is how the BlockPenn was born out of this interest and building up a network of IOT sensors that can monitor those energy and environmental performance parameters, but it's connected and monitored and tracked by a blockchain system. So you can actually incentivize energy savings using the blockchain network and smart contracts on the blockchain network.

Lauren (05:28):

Well, so it's so great to hear that you have willing participants. The students sound like they're really interested in saving energy, understanding how to do it better.  Has the Penn blockchain club gotten involved at this at all?

Dorit Aviv (5:39):

Yes. We've been talking to a few people on the blockchain club, the current president of the blockchain club has talked to us about this project. And just we're keeping them in the loop definitely on the development.

Lauren (5:53):

Yeah. I just know Penn has such a thriving large block chain club where these students not only educate each other with workshops on the tech, but they collaborate with other schools that don't have as built up of a club. And they even consult companies who need to learn more, understand more about the tech. So it's pretty advanced. That's great. 

When we talk about energy saving efforts to mean like turning out the light, when you walk out of the dorm room, maybe even unplugging your computer or other devices when you're not there, what else are we talking about?

Dorit Aviv (06:23):

Yes, exactly those small things. And even the duration or time of the day that you might do certain tasks. So anything from just raising awareness, right? If you know that your energy performance is actually monitored and your opting in, we're not forcing anyone, this is all coming from people that want to be monitored. Right? So if you know you're being monitored, you're definitely going to think of, "Well, yeah. Does my computer need to be charged right now? Or is it fully charged or do they turn off with light? But also when do I use a specific thing that is maybe in my dorm room, when do I use a specific device that is high on energy consumption in relation to when is it best to use energy heavy devices, because there's the least carbon footprint to it." Right? So then it's actually starting to be connected to the energy grid and how that's performing. 

Lauren (07:22):

So they can see time of day. So it's if everyone runs back to their dorm room after classes around five and dumps off their books and gets ready for dinner, that happens to be a high energy time. Maybe they're not plugging in their cell phone then, maybe they're doing that in the middle of the night when no one else is using it. So they could, you can spread out the grid.

Dorit Aviv (07:40):

Or when actually there's more of a reliance of the grid on wind energy, right. At certain times of the night. So kind of just starting to create this awareness, that your own individual behavior, right? It's not just using glass because certain activities, you can definitely scale down and certain activities you cannot, but it's how you're using these different devices that you need to use. When are you using them? And then it actually goes beyond just energy savings. It's also correlating to energy performance, right?

Because let's think about this pandemic, what is going on right now, air quality in interior spaces is really important. And we're going to try to maintain that over time, right? So for example, if you open your window, instead of turning it on the air conditioner, right, you're bringing in more fresh air, right. And you're using less energy. We can monitor the air quality at the same time in the room and correlate these things, right. So we're using environmental sensors, not just energy monitoring at the same time and correlating them.

Lauren (08:47):

That's amazing. Unless you live in California during the fires where I have to close all my windows and turn on my air purifiers, which makes my energy consumption go way up.

But it's good to hear that.

Dorit Aviv (08:58):

Yeah. And air pollution is a huge barrier for natural insulation. So yes, of course. That's another thing that we're measuring is air quality, both from within and the exterior conditions.

Lauren (09:11):

And how granular can you get with the reporting on it, for example, will the student be able to see their overall usage in their dorm room on any particular hour or day, or can they actually see particular outlets that had higher consumption than others? So they know, "Oh, that's my computer." Or "Oh, that's my hairdryer." Can you see physical actual locations 

Dorit Aviv (09:32):

Right. So this really depends on the wiring of a specific space, right. And how the wiring happens. And that gives us an idea of how granular we can get in terms of the device and the type of usage. But we're definitely connecting it to other parameters within the space that are going to tell us what is happening in the space without intruding people's privacy rights. So just things like temperature and humidity in the room or lighting level, right? So you can actually correlate energy usage and the type of lighting that you have. We can monitor if we're having natural daylight or artificial lights. Right? So we can definitely connect those type of usage behavior between the energy monitoring and the environmental parameters.

Lauren (10:21):

Interesting. So, okay. So in this launch of this project, you can deploy the test sensors, where you wish, you have control over that, what will the dashboard look like?

Dorit Aviv (10:29):

So we're using an open source dashboard it's called Grafana. It gives you great options for visualization of data and monitoring of different type of sensor data over time. Yeah. We're connecting that to our database and that's what we'll have a central dashboard and individualized dashboard, et cetera, that's built on that platform.

Lauren (10:51):

That's great. So if you're putting the sensors in dorm rooms, or if you put them in faculty offices, because it's open source, the faculty or the students will be able to go on at any point and look at their consumption.

Dorit Aviv (11:03):

Yes. The idea is to provide access or visibility, essentially. Right? To this data and the fact that the Penn coin, this point system that's based on your performance is actually going to provide you a different type of tracking because it's not just going to give you, okay, where you are now. It's going to give you how have you been performing over time, how have you been performing in comparison with other users or in comparison with yourself, right? So it's going to give you this point system is actually going to give you another kind of vantage point into this data.

Lauren (11:36):

I think that's the exciting part of this. Aside from also raising awareness and consciousness of energy consumption, but that I'm a competitive person. So I could see myself if I was a student on campus and you were tracking my energy usage and I got to rack up Penn coins for all the energy I was saving. I'd want to see how I was doing compared to my neighbor or my friends, and almost create something out of it. Okay. So good carbon footprint citizens can spend these coins as a reward?

Dorit Aviv (12:01):

Currently. It's just a point system. And it's actually really targeting what you just mentioned, Lauren, about the making people competitive about their performance, right? So if someone opted in, they're already interested in being part of this system and improving, and the point system is really giving you more incentive to be the best, to get the most points. In the future, if there's interest to give rewards based on that, we can do that. But currently it's a point system.

Lauren (12:31):

When are you going to launch these tests sensors? When will they actually go live?

Dorit Aviv (12:37):

We have some of the sensors already collecting data, but there is the barrier of when we're going to have people fully back on campus and that's related to the pandemic. And so we're waiting on that. Right now we're building the infrastructure and we are deploying them in spaces that are operable even if not fully, but a lot of the students are not on campus currently. So it does give us a chance to just lay out the infrastructure and make sure that this the system is replicable and scalable, which is what we're working on.

Lauren (13:15):

That's great. So you are ready for the post pandemic world when you have all the students full capacity back on campus, you'll have some data collected, so you'll know what works and doesn't work. So you can really roll it out. 

Dorit Aviv (13:25):


Lauren (13:26):

Yeah, that's great. What else can you do with the data collected, say in a year from now 

Dorit Aviv (13:30):

The data is really going to be fertile ground for experimentation. We already have a group of undergraduate engineering students that are interested to run a machine learning on the data once we collect it and look at correlation between different parameters and patterns of usage. We were going to look at the tracking of the Penn coin and has this competition and incentive work, or how did it work? How did it impact people's performance over time?  We can do this, we can compare this data to public sources of data like environmental parameters that are collected by public weather station data,  And actually look at correlations between indoor and outdoor and, sorry, environmental conditions and how that impacts energy consumption, right?

Because are you using, again, an air conditioner or a heating system in the winter? Obviously, there's going to be different, during different times of the year, there's going to be different energy consumption in rooms based on those differences, right? So we can start correlating these different parameters it we've collected and really give value or meaning to the data 

Lauren (14:37):

And in a perfect world, if this project in raising awareness and consciousness over energy consumption, has people perform better, and Penn as a campus does really well with this project. Can you see sharing your systems with other campuses around the world 

Dorit Aviv (14:51):

Definitely. We're already collaborating with another university who is interested in really the energy monitoring part, but mainly the blockchain network that we're building, it's meant to be scalable. It's meant to be available for different types of experimentation. And really right now, this, we're building it as really as a platform of experimentation for Penn, for the university. But if currently we're really focusing on energy monitoring, it doesn't mean that other departments or schools may not be interested to do something else with it. And this network is going to be there and they can even write their own smart contracts and connect to the network. And the idea really is to connect hardware, sensors to a blockchain network and have this communal network of experimentation that is available as a resource for the university.

Lauren (15:46):

Did we talk about what particular blockchain you're building this on? Is there one ledger or have you augmented a ledger? I'd love to hear, I'm sure we'd all love to hear what you've been using.

Dorit Aviv (15:56):

So we've been using Ethereum simply because it is a well-established blockchain and it allows for smart contracts, which is mainly why we chose to use it. And our network is not a public blockchain. It's a private blockchain currently that we're using to build this application on top of Ethereum.

Lauren (16:18):

And you probably don't have experience with other blockchains. So I can't ask you, how does it compare? How are you finding it using the tools that it's providing you.

Dorit Aviv (16:26):

Yeah, that's correct. I've only worked with this blockchain. And this is really my gate into working with blockchains in general, this project. So may have more experience in the future with others, but currently that's my experience.

Lauren (16:40):

So where do you see this evolving over the next five years?

Dorit Aviv (16:43):

We're working on the infrastructure right now, but how this is going to evolve is really exciting because once it's available, once the network is there and it's scalable, we're really going to offer it to the university as a resource. We can see people plugging in that have very different types of incentives or interests. For example, if students want to connect other types of devices to it, like their robots that they're experimenting with, or maybe some student in economy wants to build with it a new economic model for token distribution, right?

It's really exciting what could happen in the next five years. We can maybe have a network that a large amount of the university offices and dorm rooms are connected to, right. Because more and more people will want to opt-in to this network. And so we really have, like you said, granular level information about individual users in campus, right. In terms of their energy performance, in terms of their environmental performance. So we can really have a different type of large data collections. It's going to help us achieve the university's sustainability goals. So there's so many things we can do with it. We're really excited to see how it's going to develop.

Lauren (17:59):

And when you have that infrastructure built out and you feel like you have the test data, and it's really solid at Penn, you've got the university of blockchain research initiative, dozens of other schools that I'm sure would be keen to get involved and look at this with you because they have thriving blockchain eco spheres. 

So many conditions with energy consumption to think about and how you can get better. Is there anything that I haven't asked you that you'd love to answer or that you wish I asked you?

Dorit Aviv (18:2):

I just want to thank my collaborators on this project. First of all, Professor Bill Brown from Penn, who is leading this project with me and then our blockchain experts collaborator, the Lior Glass and then there's all the students that are working with us, both PhD students and undergraduate students that are involved in this project. And they're all listed on our project site page, or our project page. So that I hope you can share with listeners.

Lauren (18:54):

Where do you want to send people to find out more information about this project?

Dorit Aviv (18:57):

My lab's website is And in there you can go and find the BlockPenn project. And I will post updates on it as we go along and news about this project. So if you're interested to learn more about it, stay tuned.

Lauren (19:14):

I'll make sure to drop that link into the podcast itself. 

Dorit Aviv (19:17):

Thank you, Lauren. It's been a pleasure and I do want to thank Ripple for funding this project and supporting this project.

Lauren (19:23):

Well, Dorit, This has been enlightening. I'm excited for this project because in a time of climate crisis, we all are looking for ways that we can personally get better. And this game that you're creating on campus for people to raise awareness and consciousness and act in better ways is awesome. So what a pleasure to have you on the show today. I want to thank you for advancing interesting ways this technology can be utilized to make our environment better. And listeners, thank you for tuning in. If you have any questions about this episode or feedback for next episodes, please reach out to Looking forward to our next session.