Bringing design, blockchain, and computer science together

Dave Murray Rust, TU Delft, Netherlands, Ella Tallyn, Edinburgh College of Art
BLING Mid-term magazine article
Reading Level
Readiness criterium
Blockchain architecture, Business Need, Legal Requirements, Mandate


Dave Murray Rust from TU Delft looks at the challenges of linking blockchain systems with the ‘messy and interesting’ real world, and how smart contracts built on blockchains can enable new types of location-based services.

Dave Murray Rust is a researcher at TU Delft, working on human-algorithm interaction – and exploring the messy terrain between people, data and things!

Hello Dave! Would you like to introduce yourself?

I’m Dave Murray-Rust, and I’m a researcher and lecturer at TU Delft in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. I started with the BLING project when I was at Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh. I’m interested in all the messy bits between humans and technology. I started out looking at AI and music, and how people can interact with intelligent systems to do ‘creative stuff’. I spent a long time working on models on how people interact with their environment, looking at land use and climate change, and I’ve spent the last couple of years looking at how design and computer science come together and how we can understand the new technologies that are coming into the world and trying to create the kinds of futures that we want to live in. It’s important to always create spaces in which people can be humans – and not letting technology dictate the way things are going to be. So that can be looking at AI, and how it sees the world, and how it classifies people – and recognising that this doesn’t always line up with how people see themselves. It can mean designing systems that go wrong in useful ways – where machines do the boring bits and let humans do the interesting bits.

How did you get involved in BLING?

We got involved in BLING through taking with Keith Fisken at SEStran (the South East of Scotland Transport Partnership). We had been experimenting with location based smart contracts, and this aligned with some of the things SEStran were trying to do around transport infrastructure, and we then looked for a way to bring this work into the BLING project.

Tell us about ‘GeoPact’ – what problems is it trying to solve, and how does it work?

GeoPact is looking at what happens when you bring location into smart contracts. Smart contracts are part of blockchain systems – they’re programs that people write.

One of the funny things about blockchain systems is that connecting them with the physical world is always tricky, because blockchain is very formal and rules driven, while stuff in the real world is messy and interesting. So GeoPact grew out of the question of what can you do when you know where people and things are. There were ideas we played with in Edinburgh about geo-located currencies – things you could only spend in certain places, or money that would flow depending on how you moved around the world.

GeoPact grew out of this, asking how we could use the location of things in blockchain systems. There are a lot of blockchains that focus on the ownership of things – like houses. Houses are easy because they (mostly) stay in the same place, but there are other areas like logistics where you are moving expensive things around the world, and it would be very useful to adapt some blockchain approaches to help enable that.

How does blockchain enable this? Could you do something like this with other technologies?

In most cases you don’t really need a blockchain to do things, but we think there are some properties of blockchain that make them very useful to deliver approaches like this. A key thing when you’re working with location is that location is a very personal and private thing – ideally you don’t want to be sharing your location with everyone in the world!

But it’s also very useful to be able to prove some facts about where you were – so we saw that working with blockchain systems in this way means we can create systems that notarise where we were without revealing this to the whole world, and you can then say ‘I definitely was in this place at this time’ and here’s a blockchain proof that that is true. So the goal is that we can build a secure way to deal with location without sharing all of it.

The other thing that’s very useful with blockchain is that it can give objects autonomy – you can give objects on the blockchain a wallet, and they can then start spending money and being a part of financial transactions through smart contracts. By connecting together smart objects with smart contracts – and in the case of our GeoPact pilots we’re dealing with physical lock boxes – they can decide when they lock and when they unlock, and they can decide when the courier gets paid for moving them from one place to another. So the physical object has control over money – and that can support a slightly different way of thinking about the world.

What’s a smart contract? Can you explain how smart contracts work with blockchain?

A smart contract is just a computer program – albeit one that runs in a blockchain environment. Smart contracts do have some special properties though: because they’re running in a blockchain context they’re things that can move money around and carry out financial transactions, and they’re run by lots of people at the same time – so they can be checked to see that they’re running correctly.

Most of the time when we explain this to people in workshops, we say smart contracts can be understood as a set of conditions and actions – if this thing happens, then do that – for example if a package arrives in a certain place, then pay the courier some