The metaverse: city planner’s dream or urban nightmare?

The rapid advance of Web 3.0 offers municipal authorities new opportunities to govern towns and cities more efficiently. But, like many bleeding-edge technologies, it also presents risks

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 enables citizens to visit a digital city hall and complete transactions such as paying rates, filing planning applications and registering complaints 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 collecting data and putting safeguards in place after an incident has occurred, planners can use the metaverse to stay ahead of the game. Gridlocks can be predicted, say, and traffic can be diverted before a problem escalates.”

Instead of putting safeguards in place after an incident has occurred, planners can use the metaverse to stay ahead of the game. 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. There is also a comprehensive public broadband network that provides more than 100,000 free Wi-Fi access points around the capital. 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 will involve streaming data from thousands, if not 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.”

One way to deal with such a vast new IT requirement is to build a smart city from scratch. 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. It will be possible to visit Neom both physically and virtually, as an avatar or hologram. The city will also host a marketplace for cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens. The aim is for the virtual version to inform the construction of its 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.”

Another issue that civic authorities seeking to use the metaverse will need to manage is what Jane Jacobs, a prominent critic of urban planning practice in the late 20th century, described as “eyes on the street”. Based on the theory of safety in numbers, this is the idea that cities thrive and become more liveable when they host large numbers of people, who feel reassured by the visible presence of others around them. Empty streets, on the other hand, seem dangerous and frightening. Could civic leaders’ keenness on the metaverse end up turning urban areas into ghost towns?

Alongside the technological hurdles, local and national governments will have to reassure citizens that bringing the metaverse into their communities will bring tangible advantages, not dystopian cityscapes. 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%). 

Much of the incentive for introducing the metaverse into planning and other aspects of urban life is based on the promise of better engagement with citizens. 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.