Imagine that you’re a visitor to Seoul, exploring landmarks such as Namdaemun Market and Deoksugung Palace. After a few hours, you decide that you’ve had your fill of South Korea’s oldest marketplace and seen enough of the home of the former royal family, so you simply slip off your headset and immediately you’re back at home.
Similarly, as a resident of Seoul, you might meet a local government official in their office to discuss a problem with your rubbish collection or local bus service, but without having to bother leaving your sitting room.
Launched last year, with a bell-ringing ceremony taking place in both the virtual and physical realms, Metaverse Seoul claims to be the world’s first Web 3.0 virtual communication system designed to cover all aspects of municipal administration. It allows citizens to access a digital city hall, complete transactions like filing planning applications, paying rates and complaining about public services. They can even create an avatar to enter a 3D simulation of the mayor’s office.
As the tech underpinning the metaverse has advanced in recent years, urban planners have been producing so-called digital twins – virtual representations of their cities – to model new developments. New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, has created a digital twin aimed at educating people about the effects of climate change on the city, for instance. It was among 15 municipalities worldwide to be awarded $1m (£830,000) last year after its project won an innovation competition sponsored by Michael Bloomberg, philanthropist and former mayor of New York.
The use of digital twins has the potential to extend into other aspects of urban planning and management, notes Jean-Philippe Vergne, associate professor of strategy at University College London’s School of Management.
“For instance, a property developer from the UK should be able to have an avatar walk into a digital replica of Boston, say, and bid on a plot of land with a proposed price, lease term and building design,” he says. “If that application is granted, the transfer of ownership would happen upon the city receiving a cryptocurrency payment. The developer would then have to build the real-world project according to the specifications approved in the digital world.”
The city of New Rochelle, New York, has built a virtual-reality platform called NRVR to help local people understand what proposed developments would look like in reality, for example.
Tom Winstanley is chief technology officer and head of new ventures at NTT Data UK&I, an IT consultancy that has worked with municipal authorities in Rome and Las Vegas, among others. He says that metaverse tech enables local government officials to “safely simulate inefficient or dangerous situations in a city-wide context and implement changes proactively. Instead of waiting for an incident to happen, planners can use metaverse tech to gather data and put safeguards in place. Gridlocks can be predicted, say, and traffic can be diverted before a problem escalates.”
The effectiveness of municipal services rendered in the metaverse naturally depends on the quality of the digital infrastructure over which they’re provided. Seoul is one of the world’s best-connected cities, with more than 95% of its 10 million residents subscribing to 4G or 5G services. The capital also has a wide-ranging public broadband network, which provides over 100,000 Wi-Fi access points for free. But few other urban areas are anywhere near as advanced.
“I see two key infrastructure challenges,” says Mimi Keshani, COO of Web 3.0 startup Hadean. “The first concerns networking capabilities. Replicating cities in the metaverse requires streaming data from thousands, or even millions of smart devices. Consolidating that material and making sense of it all will require new kinds of networking infrastructure.”
The second challenge concerns “how we process all this data. Cloud and edge computing have opened access to more and ‘nearer’ computing power, but scaling up applications across so many disparate machines is problematic. Governments will need to use the latest Web 3.0 tech to solve both challenges.”
A smart city is a way to address such a large new IT need. Neom, a $500bn settlement that’s being developed in Saudi Arabia, offers a glimpse of the next stage of the relationship between cities and the metaverse. You can visit Neom as an avatar, hologram, or physically. It will also be home to a marketplace for cryptocurrency and other non-fungible tokens. It is hoped that the virtual version will be used to help build the physical manifestation. In effect, visitors will be invited to ‘crowdsource’ its design.
But there are caveats to consider when using the metaverse for city planning purposes, warns Mischa Young, assistant professor in the department of urban environments at the Université de l’Ontario Français in Toronto.
“It’s important that city officials ask their citizens: ‘What do you want from the metaverse?’ so that they can have ‘buy-in’ from the public,” he says. “There’s also a question of the digital divide and inequality, with some citizens having better connectivity than others.”
Jane Jacobs is another issue civic authorities will have to address if they want to make use of the metaverse. Jane Jacobs was a prominent critic for urban planning practices in the 20th century.Th century, described as “eyes on the street”. The theory of safety in number is based on the belief that cities are more livable and thrive when they have large numbers of people. This theory states that people feel safe around others. However, empty streets are dangerous and frightening. Could civic leaders’ keenness on the metaverse end up turning urban areas into ghost towns?
Local and national governments must assure citizens that the metaverse will not bring dystopian cityscapes but tangible benefits, in addition to the technical hurdles. Although the public’s understanding of the metaverse is not yet well developed, a recent survey of consumers’ attitudes to it by management consultancy Momentive found that many more respondents found it scary (32%) than those who found it exciting (7%).
A lot of the motivation for introducing the metaverse to planning and other aspects urban life is based upon the promise of better citizen engagement. The challenge for local government leaders will now be to manage their use of the metaverse in a way that wins public support for the concept itself.