Just a few weeks ago, residents of the capital city of South Korea gained some impressive bragging rights about their city. The Seoul Metropolitan Government officially launched the Metaverse Seoul project, which grants access to city services in a virtual setting. Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon announced on January 16 that the first phase of Metaverse Seoul was open to the public, and that the second phase (which involves making Metaverse Seoul more accessible to the country’s growing senior citizen population) would be soon to follow. The project seeks to help the business sector and even provide routes for virtual tourism for both Koreans and foreigners, in addition to creating virtual, digital, and immersive ways for citizens to interact with city authorities. During his announcement, the mayor defined the project as a virtual space that would serve as a “place of communication for citizens” of the nation’s capital, enabling them to virtually visit many of Seoul’s attractions, view official papers, lodge specific concerns, and get assistance with filing municipal taxes.
Now, when the term “metaverse” pops into your head, it’s not likely that your next thought has anything to do with filing official paperwork for the local government. You’re likely thinking of cryptocurrency, blockchain, AR technology, or, since you’re reading this here, the wildly speculative world of metaverse real estate. Between the layers of tech marketing hype, the metaverse is often framed as an exciting alternative digital reality, not necessarily an avenue to complete mundane errands for your real-world self. But the metaverse is still a novel technology, and for Seoul’s citizens, especially those who may have trouble commuting to city offices in person (not to mention tourists who may easily get lost in Seoul’s streets), the metaverse can improve how their real-world city functions. What’s more, Seoul isn’t the only city laying out a strategy to take advantage of the virtual world.
China’s newest major
Last summer, the Shanghai government released a policy paper that detailed a development plan for a metaverse economy worth $52 billion by 2025. At the press conference announcing the plan, Wu Jincheng, the director of Shanghai’s Economy and Information Technology Committee, announced that the city intends to develop at least 10 cutting-edge, industry-leading corporations in the metaverse sector and 100 smaller businesses that offer technology relevant to the metaverse, all of which will have a global presence. In order to do this, the policy paper suggests a number of actions, such as the creation of virtual enterprises, the use of virtual reality in education, and the incorporation of technology into tourism and entertainment, to name a few.
Despite the country’s notorious aversion to cryptocurrency, Shanghai’s metaverse investments is a signal that China is betting big on the metaverse in hopes that it will boost China’s economy, which is currently beleaguered thanks to its debt-ridden real estate sector. As Shanghai is a political powerhouse and economic trendsetter for the rest of the country, the city’s move to venture into the metaverse was a strategic move intended to aid in future development and hasten the pace of the recovery of the entire economy. And so far, that seems to be exactly what’s unfolding.
Soon after Shanghai’s announcement, a slew of other Chinese cities began to follow suit with their own metaverse initiatives. Plans for the development of the metaverse have been released by the provinces of Zhejiang, Henan, Beijing, Guangzhou, Chongqing, and Jinan. Most recently, Suzhou, a city of 12 million residents located in the eastern coastal province of Jiangsu, unveiled a strategy to establish itself as a center for metaverse research and development with the objective of luring more than 200 enterprises involved in the virtual reality technology sector by 2025. The official announcement (which is admittedly entirely in Wu Chinese) details that Suzhou aims to build 30 model metaverse application scenarios by 2025, with a focus on the local government, tourism, healthcare, and education sectors. What the announcement does not share, and what still has yet to be released to the public, is how much the city intends to spend on this venture.
Meanwhile, the precedent set by Shanghai’s metaverse goals have also rippled into Chinese academics. The School of Artificial Intelligence (School of Future Technology) of Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology in Nanjing, Jiangsu, made headlines last September for setting up China’s (and frankly the world’s) first metaverse major. Not only that, the university renamed its Information Engineering Department to Metaverse Engineering Department. To further support the integration of education and production, the new department will also work closely with businesses that are related to the metaverse. Additionally, the department plans to jointly train master’s degree, PhD, and postdoctoral fellow students with The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Dubai’s newest industry
Just two weeks after Shanghai laid out their metaverse plans, Dubai made waves with their own. The Dubai Metaverse Strategy intends to draw more than 1,000 blockchain, cryptocurrency, and metaverse enterprises to the city and support more than 40,000 virtual employment opportunities by 2030. Digital architects, AR and VR engineers, 3D graphic designers, artists and architects, innovators, NFT experts, storytellers, and digital salespeople are just a few examples of the many different roles that will likely be needed.
Dubai’s plan to capitalize on the virtual world comes after the establishment of the Dubai Virtual Assets Regulatory Authority (VARA) and the release of the Virtual Asset Law earlier this year. It also comes after the opening of the new Digital Economy Court at the DIFC Courts, which will handle disputes involving current and emerging technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence, and cloud services on a national and international level. Additionally, the Dubai Metaverse Strategy aims to create worldwide standards for creating user-safe and user-secure platforms as well as metaverse infrastructure and rules to hasten the adoption of these technologies to manage Dubai’s physical infrastructure.
Dubai’s metaverse push is also set to make a seismic impact in real estate transactions. Real estate developers will be able to raise buyer knowledge of the benefits of using the metaverse by scheduling virtual tours, online reservations, land registers, and obtaining quicker, better, and round-the-clock services via chatbots. The Dubai Metaverse Plan is poised to increase transparency in the real estate industry and guarantee the highest level of security for investors’ funds, or at least, that’s the marketing pitch for it.
The city’s metaverse strategy is also focused on bolstering Dubai’s smart city capabilities. One of the key pillars of Dubai’s metaverse action plan includes expanding the reach of 5G organizations to enable edge processing and provide on-demand PC system resources. Data can be gathered, processed, and stored locally via smart devices and local networks as opposed to being sent to the cloud.
The metaverse is a completely new concept and how cities plan on using it is rapidly evolving and its potential uses in urban planning and administration are still being explored. Seoul’s metaverse plan highlights how the technology can be wielded to streamline local government management. Then there’s the additional value-add the metaverse adds to smart city management. Dubai’s metaverse strategy underscores how the metaverse can be best utilized as a digital extension of a smart city.
We’re not exactly sure what shape a city’s metaverse will take, but we do know from looking at Shanghai’s initiative that the metaverse offers unfettered economic potential, not to mention a crucial addition to urban planning and administration. Looking towards the Eastern hemisphere, we can see that city leaders have a chance to influence how to deploy metaverse technology to more effectively administer public services, engage residents, and boost activity with businesses or downtown areas. If done correctly, metaverses will enrich the value of both the physical and virtual world as the two blend together. If done thoughtlessly, they will be nothing more than a marketing ploy and another digital city service that few understand and even fewer actually use.