Cities urged to help shape the metaverse featured image

Cities urged to help shape the metaverse

by Sarah Wray, Editor, Cities Today

For some, the metaverse is the future of the internet, retail, media and everything in between. For others, it’s distracting hype beset with risks. Whatever its eventual form turns out to be, the likelihood is that the metaverse is coming.

That’s why Lena Geraghty, Director of Sustainability and Innovation at the National League of Cities (NLC), believes now is the right time for cities to engage. She is one of the authors of the new NLC report Cities and the Metaverse.

“The metaverse is definitely the new buzzword in a long list of emerging technology buzzwords, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile for city leaders to get familiar and comfortable about what it could mean for their communities,” Geraghty noted.

“The metaverse has real potential to improve city services and the lives of residents if deployed well. For that to happen, city leaders need to be at the forefront of the conversation.”

There is no agreed upon definition of the metaverse yet, but it is envisioned as the next evolution of the internet based on the integration of physical and digital experiences. It is bringing together technologies such as gaming engines, digital twins, blockchain and cryptocurrencies, and virtual reality.

The concept has gained greater traction since Facebook rebranded itself as Meta last year and outlined plans to shift its focus to the metaverse. Since then, companies including Microsoft, Autodesk and Nvidia have started aligning themselves with the emerging digital world.

According to Bloomberg, the global metaverse revenue opportunity could approach USD 800 billion by 2024.

Cities in the metaverse

A handful of city governments have also begun to engage with the idea.

In November last year, Seoul was the first to announce its plans. Eventually, the city aims to create a metaverse environment for all administrative services, including economy, education, culture, and tourism. Several cities in China have also outlined metaverse ambitions.

In the US, downtown Santa Monica offers a virtual way to experience the district through a partnership with FlickPlay, a “metaverse social app” company. FlickPlay provides users an interactive map of the retail district where they can collect tokens as they move around the city. Some tokens can be used to unlock digital experiences in the app and others can be redeemed for physical items at retailers in the area.

NLC’s report outlines a range of metaverse options for cities, including bringing public services online.

“Instead of having to go to city hall to file printed paperwork, residents can simply enter the metaverse and submit digital paperwork there,” the authors say.

Experiences could be as simple as an avatar-based interaction on a smartphone to finalise a licence application, or something more advanced such as a headset-based virtual tour of neighbourhoods to identify the potential impacts of sea-level rise.

The metaverse could also help cities advance their use of digital twins to prototype changes before implementing them in the physical world.

Cities could hold cultural events in the metaverse and facilitate a new digital economy, according to the report.

Ready or not

The metaverse also poses potential risks, including exacerbating the spread of mis- and disinformation, accessibility issues, cybersecurity threats, and increased inequity.

“Emerging technologies will make their way into our cities whether or not city leaders are involved,” said Geraghty. “If cities are proactive in the conversation, they will have the opportunity to avoid some of the potential risks and advocate for solutions that meet community needs.”

“It is beneficial to cities when their leaders are informed about trends in government innovation,” she added. “Without foundational knowledge, cities can be left behind or stuck with the decisions that others are making.”

On what practical steps cities should take now, Geraghty said:

“Because the metaverse is still a new topic and being defined, city leaders should focus on getting informed about how it is being envisioned and what that could mean for their communities.

“Many cities are working on the digitalisation of city services and considering new ways to connect with their communities. As this work is happening, consider if and how the future vision of the metaverse could support these efforts.”

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

This article first appeared on Cities Today.

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