What would it be like to visit your country's embassy… Without having to leave your home? The way we relate to public institutions and government could take a 180º change in the coming years, due to the arrival of the metaverse and its incorporation into government.
In fact, the metaverse is one of the topics that generates more interest at present, especially since Meta, formerly Facebook, announced in 2021 their clear commitment to these new virtual worlds. Today, we can already find other recognized companies such as Microsoft or Epic Games laying the foundations of the digital future. But among the early promoters of the metaverse, we also find governments and public institutions, which have begun to use it to promote tourism, public service or prototype design. As an example, we can find initiatives such as CatVers, a virtual space developed by the CBCat (Blockchain Center of Catalonia), where the vehicular language is Catalan in order to prevail the language.
A radio program taking place live in CatVers
What are the main challenges and problems presented by the metaverse? Should governments really bet on putting the foundations in this new parallel world? What are the practical implications that would benefit society from building it? And above all… Will the metaverse be the future? In this article, we are going to analyze and answer most of these questions.
What is the metaverse, exactly?
The exact definition of the metaverse is still a big question mark for most specialists and futurologists: is it a new space to play video games? A new economic model? A new world? Since Mark Zuckerberg's announcement last October, where he communicated the change from Facebook to Meta, the metaverse has been increasingly present in the media. However, companies and institutions have been following its lead for some time now.
Although there is still no exact definition of what the metaverse is, in essence, it is a parallel space to our world, with digital objects, digital avatars, digital cities... And where you can live experiences that will expand our reality. From concerts to weddings, everything indicates that the next step in the digitization of our everyday life will be to jump into the metaverse.
As Cathy Hackl, futurologist and metaverse expert, says, it's not about escaping our reality, but about amplifying it.
"We don't want to escape reality, but rather embrace and augment it with virtual content and experiences that can make things more fulfilling and make us feel more connected to our loved ones, more productive at work, and happier people."
— Cathy Hackl ( McKinsey & Company ).
But beyond entertainment and socialization, this new digital space also offers other advantages for the public sector, which some governments have already dared to put into practice.
A quick look to the future: will the metaverse succeed?
Given future prospects, with the arrival and popularization of the metaverse, a profound change is expected in several sectors: from the purchase and sale of assets (where the blockchain will play a key role), the evolution of business models, the integration of the physical world with the virtual world, and even the gamification of education and jobs. Currently, in 2022, we are still in the initial stages and, as Ibrahim El Badawi indicates, the companies and governments that have already made the leap to the metaverse are the ones that will mark the evolution and future of these spaces.
For example, one of the spaces that can completely change thanks to metaverse is work. Especially since the pandemic we have been experiencing since 2020, where it is estimated that more than 50% of the hours worked were teleworked (US Bureau of Labor Statistics), companies are already looking for new solutions to simulate the real workspace… And the metaverse could be their answer. As indicated by Mark Purdy in Harvard Business Review :
“the metaverse opens up new possibilities to rethink the office and work environment, introducing elements of adventure, spontaneity, and surprise”
Meta proposes the new workspace with new technologies
The governmental side of the metaverse
And which position should the government take? Technology has become a fundamental part of government and politics, whether in decision-making or election campaigns. Just as it plays an increasingly important role in society, governments have a responsibility to understand and take advantage of new technological solutions to improve their services.
"Over the past few years, many government institutions have tapped into Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality and other technologies to tackle specific public service and policy challenges."
Today, some governments have already started to put the metaverse into practice for different aims, in which they stand out:
The creation of digital twins of their cities, to test technical and structural changes in our cities.
The improvement of the offer of services for citizens.
New proposals and tourist experiences, linked to the territory.
Infographic: Main Uses of Metaverse in Government
Therefore, we are already beginning to see some clear lines on how the metaverse allows the projects of some institutions to be amplified while permitting the creation of virtual spaces to validate projects before applying them to our reality.
Metaverse and the government: real practices
To understand in more detail what are the possible applications of governments in the metaverse, we will look at some of the incipient countries that have begun to put some of their practices into action in the virtual space.
Digital twins: the new metaverse cities
Although the metaverse allows for the creation of entirely new worlds, the main trend is the creation of twin cities inspired by reality. For example, we find the case of Orlando, Boston or Las Vegas, which have created replicas of the cities, to be able to anticipate the impact of new buildings or which could be the best strategy to improve traffic. The city of Pittsburgh is a successful case of these practices since thanks to a new transit system tested in the metaverse, it managed to reduce travel time by around 20% (source: Techonomy.com).
Metaverse as a public service
The metaverse will also mean a complete turnaround in the way services are offered to citizens. It will also be useful to improve communication or request more participation. The country that is betting most on this change is South Korea, which is creating its own metaverse with the aim of positioning the country as one of the pioneering countries in technology.
Some of the actions that in a few months the inhabitants will be able to do through the metaverse are civic complaints, and attending cultural or tourist events. The transformation of the city is included in the Digital New Deal, a clear commitment to new technologies, such as artificial intelligence tools, to improve the city's infrastructure or medicine (source: Quartz).
New forms and experiences for tourism
Interacting with this digital world has also opened the doors to continue exploring new ways to deliver memorable experiences. For example, the city of Santa Monica (California) has become one of the first cities in the United States to use the metaverse to boost tourism. Through a play-to-earn application, the visitor can experience the city with a gamified experience, which combines augmented reality and virtual reality (source: Smarcitiesdive.com).
Other uses for the metaverse for public services
With technological advances, we often find the collaboration of public entities and private companies. Another case study is Transport for London, where they used technology to improve the operation of public transport, with the collaboration of the company Spinview. Other more imaginative practices, but also useful for society, is the case of Bucks County, in Pennsylvania, where they use virtual reality to train their officers in specific situations.
Future challenges and problems with the metaverse
However, before the metaverse exists as a reality in our everyday lives, there are still many challenges to face. Especially if we talk about the responsibility of the government, since it is necessary that the following challenges can be solved to ensure the safety of the citizens.
As metaverse expert Cathy Hackl points out, privacy will be one of the great challenges of the metaverse: “I worry a lot about data and privacy and challenges that we might not even know yet might happen.”
If the metaverse starts to become part of the routine of governments, essential aspects such as cybersecurity, data protection or digital policy will have to play a leading role.
Advanced technologies: 5G & blockchain
On the other hand, it will also be necessary to make advances in different technologies and, above all, in the education of this evolution. The concepts of blockchain, cryptocurrencies and metaverses are becoming more and more present in everyday life, however, there is also a lot of ignorance about what their real implications are.
Access to virtual reality glasses, 5G or the energy needed to run the metaverse on a large scale will also be a key point for proper functioning. In fact, renewable energies will have to play an important role to ensure the continued use of the metaverse (source: NIC.in ).
In summary: will the metaverse succeed?
In short, there are already several early governments that have decided to make a strong bet for the incorporation of the metaverse in their territory, with different proposals. However, before it becomes a reality, it is most likely that there will have to be an even stronger collaboration between the public and private sectors, to face some technical difficulties such as 5G or renewable energy generation. On the other hand, it will also be necessary to review the legal protection of the public in these worlds, as well as the cybersecurity and data protection of its participants.
"Governments should not “sit and wait.” Instead, they are responsible to their societies, to practice leadership and work with people to decide how emerging technologies should be leveraged for good in a proactive, innovative and responsible way."
— Ibahim El Badawi
After all, on the other side of the table, several companies have already begun to invest and create the foundations of the future of the metaverse. Before it reaches the public, the government will have to make a strong move to inform and normalize this new trend that will become more and more present in our daily lives. As the poet Paul Éluard said, "there is another world, but it is this one".
Find out about this and much more at Democracy4All 2022!