Back to the Future: can the metaverse cities of tomorrow help with urban planning today?

The metaverse is deemed to be the future of society – specifically in our social interaction as well as in the sectors of gaming, finance, and entertainment. Because of this focus, the metaverse has gained a somewhat negative reputation, especially prevalent in developing economies where access, awareness and regulation are limited, as explored in my previous article on play-to-earn gaming. Despite this, the metaverse can offer many benefits. As outlined by the World Bank[1], it is not only possible for the metaverse to offer benefits for emerging economies but there are also active efforts underway to harness the metaverse positively in one key sector that can prove beneficial: urban development.

Urban development or urban planning answers “questions about how people will live, work and play in a given area,” facilitating the development and design of land use to provide transportation, communication and distribution networks[2].  With this definition in mind, we will zoom in on a few examples of countries deploying the metaverse in varying stages to facilitate urban planning processes:

Stage 1: Using the metaverse to aid specific use cases within urban planning i.e. public service

As of November 2021, South Korea became one of the first countries (and Seoul the first major city government) to commit to “a variety of public services and cultural events available in the metaverse” within a period of 2-5 years[3]. Following the pandemic and subsequent increase in social distancing, Seoul’s Mayor Oh-See Hoon saw an opportunity within the country’s Digital New Deal initiative to launch “a metaverse communication ecosystem for filing civil complaints and [accessing] consultations at the municipal level“ which would improve access to public services, minimise the need for in-person interactions and eliminate current bureaucratic red-tape-ism[4]. This is a major step by any city government to deploy advancements in digital technologies and the metaverse within the public domain whereby the benefits of the technology will be reaped by the general population in terms of improved access to public goods, services and representatives. It is also a promising demonstration of using a more iterative approach to leverage the metaverse for urban/city planning as opposed to plunging head first in to a relatively new technology (though there are plans to deploy the metaverse to other aspects of city planning such as traffic, public safety, environmental metrics and increase investment in private metaverse projects[5]).

Seoul is not alone – as of December 2021, a Shanghai city department unveiled plans “which included encouraging metaverse use in public services, business offices and other areas”[6]. While the plan did not outline concrete initiatives, goals or timelines for metaverse development (and, unlike South Korea, there has also not been any formal indication from the Chinese government on investing in the metaverse), the Shanghai Municipal Commission of Economy and Information Technology highlights the metaverse as a key frontier for exploration and intends to “increase research and development of underlying technologies, including sensors, real-time interaction and blockchain” to facilitate the same. Thus, we are already beginning to see city governments actively considering the metaverse for key use cases.

Stage 2: Deploying the metaverse for holistic urban mapping & planning

A pioneering city in its own right, Singapore is developing a “digital twin” i.e. an accurate 3-dimensional model and data platform of the city. Called Virtual Singapore, the model’s intended use is “by the public, private, people and research sectors… to develop sophisticated tools and applications for test-bedding concepts and services, planning and decision-making, and research on technologies to solve emerging and complex challenges for Singapore”[7]. In effect, Singapore is working on replicating itself in the metaverse, to a painstakingly accurate degree, using its digitized version to visualise and facilitate infrastructure and development, test new ideas, technologies and capabilities, and identify improvements for all aspects of urban living. By making this technology accessible to citizens and not just the corporations and agencies responsible for making these changes, Singapore is enabling its citizens to see the impact of changes and to feel included in the urban planning process (which has typically taken place at the municipal and government levels). While Singapore is a relatively small country in terms of both population and land mass, its efforts with using the metaverse and digital twins to visualise, plan and facilitate urban planning, present an interesting opportunity for other cities to leverage emerging digital technologies in a similar manner.

Stage 3: Enlisting the metaverse to build real cities

While the examples above explore how the metaverse will be utilised to enhance existing cities, Saudi Arabia is going one step further using the metaverse to design a new city called NEOM from scratch. Using the example of Singapore’s approach, Saudi Arabia’s Tech & Digital offshoot has launched a “cognitive digital twin metaverse” called XVRS that will “enable visitors to have a simultaneous presence at NEOM both physically and virtually, as an avatar or hologram” and leverage their decisions in the virtual world to guide construction and urban planning in the real world[8].

Too meta? Let’s break it down – historically, urban developments have been built in the real world based on the decisions of urban planners and policymakers and then bought, let or occupied by residents. In the case of NEOM, the city’s entire design in real life will essentially be driven by people’s decisions, behaviours and appetites in the virtual world such that “if enough people buy apartments in a virtual building, the decision could be made to build it for real… or an artist could post an NFT in a virtual space—which would then also appear on the wall of a real physical apartment“[9]. Thus, the entire process of creating a city in the real world will be driven by the decisions of people in its twin virtual world (as opposed to the other way around). While it is revolutionary and there remain outstanding questions around regulations, Saudi Arabia’s efforts do showcase the metaverse’s potential in not just bridging the real and virtual worlds but also changing the direction of influence between these two worlds going forward.

What does any of this mean for developing economies?

While the use of the metaverse for urban development is still in an experimental stage, there is a growing consensus that metaverse technology can support urban planning by providing a more data-driven process to urbanization, an opportunity to experiment with new, creative and sustainable designs and a digital playground for testing prior to execution. For developing countries specifically, there are already a few identified ways in which the metaverse can aid urban planning efforts. For example, in some countries in Africa, as noted by Tanner Regan in his article, “Harnessing the Potential of Urbanisation in  Africa”, there is a pressing need for pre-emptive urban planning, as demonstrated by a study in Mbeya, Tanzania, where “buildings are larger and more regularly laid out where the sites and services planning took place” – meaning that “through pre-emptive urban planning, the government can signal public investment and encourage coordinated private investment in land.”. Leveraging the metaverse to guide pre-emptive urban planning (as is being done in Singapore and Saudi Arabia) can help African countries better utilise their urban areas, especially mitigating “the proliferation of slums” [10]. Similarly, countries such as Hong Kong SAR, Barbados and Maldives that have surrounding natural territories can create “digital twins” of their countries and surrounding regions to, not only facilitate urban planning, but also support tourism and environmental protection. Cuba, which has struggled with citizen participation in urban planning  can leverage “digital twins” to boost public awareness, interest and participation in urban design and development. Disaster-afflicted countries such as Lebanon can also leverage the metaverse to help rebuild its cities (notably Beirut after the explosion in 2020) in a more sustainable and citizen-friendly manner. While such efforts may be tougher to pull off in countries like India and Brazil, given their size, they can start by scoping specific ways to use the metaverse within urban planning in key large cities (e.g. public sector communications, as currently being done by China and South Korea).

These are just a few potential examples of how the metaverse can be utilised to address specific and general urban planning needs in developing countries. While the opportunities may seem apparent and promising, it’s also true that investing in the metaverse is not a low-cost or easy undertaking – and developing countries may struggle, both operationally and financially to support such large investments. However, such countries need not lag too far behind and can leverage the greater investment capabilities and metaverse appetite of developed countries to observe and learn what works versus what doesn’t using their efforts as a sandbox to encourage investment into similar programmes. Furthermore, by governments taking the lead in developing metaverse technology for urban planning (versus such efforts being led by the private sector and tech giants such as Meta, Microsoft, Alphabet, etc.), developing countries can ensure that any continued evolution in urban planning will take place in a manner that is well-regulated and stands to benefit their populations.




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Nandini Mazumdar (MBA 2022) is a Co-President of the Tech & Media Club (and co-founder of the Fintech Community) at London Business School. Prior to the MBA, she completed her undergraduate studies in Econometrics and Political Science at New York University and worked at Mastercard Advisors, offering consulting and advisory services in the payments, fintech and technology sectors. Nandini is an intern for the Wheeler Institute, contributing to the creation of content that amplifies the role of business in improving lives.

The Wheeler Institute is seeking to understand, illuminate and offer solutions to the challenges faced by the developing world, with an aim to identify the role of business in addressing these challenges and a focus on the implications and actions for those in developing countries. In support of our students, we approach this blog section as a reflective platform and a space where individuals can generate debate as long term agents of positive change.

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