Report: Governments stand to benefit from ‘metaverse’ and its associated technologies

Ever since Facebook became Meta, the “metaverse”—a term coined in the early 1990s referring to a network of virtual three-dimensional worlds—has been a hot topic of conversation online, at home and in many town halls. The implications of this next generation of digital interaction, and the technology that’s driving it toward reality, is profound.

“The most common future visioning and current application of the metaverse is very much tourism based—local governments thinking about how to use augmented reality to draw people into their local tourist cities or historic sites,” said Lena Garrity, director of iinnovation and sustainability at the National League of Cities’ (NLC) Center for CitySolutions. Garrity is author of a report released Monday titled “Cities and the Metaverse.”

Beyond regulating these and other emerging technologies, learning about and engaging in whatever the metaverse will evolve into is important because it’s vital administrators are “a part of the conversation, determining what the purpose of a new technology is and what are the benefits?” Garrity continued. “There are certain versions of the metaverse that could certainly really help people live their lives as they want to live it.”

From applications intended to help those with mobility limitations to digital communities tying people to each other via augmented and virtual reality, Garrity said it’s important for local leaders to begin thinking about how they can advocate for their constituents’ interests instead of letting tech companies drive the conversation.

And beyond advocating, the metaverse could provide an opportunity for local administrators to better serve their communities—bolstering economies, increasing accessibility and creating new connections, among other benefits.

What if a true simulation of our physical world could be recreated in a virtual manner? What value would this bring to people’s lives, what challenges would it present, and would it ultimately prove to be a net positive for cities?” the report asks. “Imagine a future where community members can interact ‘face-to-face’ with building department personnel on the plans for their new deck from the comfort of their own homes, comment at a virtual public meeting from their office chairs, or even connect with their mayor without having to step into city hall.”

While the technology required to fully launch a global metaverse isn’t yet developed, it is advancing, and some American governments have begun experimenting with technologies that will serve as the foundation for future metaverse development.

“We’ve seen governments use everything from augmented reality, virtual reality, blockchain and cryptocurrency, which we see as the building blocks of a wider metaverse,” Garrity said.

As an example, she pointed to a project in Massachusetts led by the Boston Planning and Development Agency, which has built a digital twin that maps the city’s physical landscape, “from water and sewer systems to tree canopies,” the report notes. “In the case of one controversial development proposal, the digital twin was used to assess shadows that a proposed new building would cast on a popular park, leading (the agency) to modify the building plans and minimize the impact on the park” while still in the planning process.

From urban planning to climate change and natural disaster mapping, digital twins—a virtual model designed to accurately reflect a system or location—are clearly beneficial for governments. The internet-of-things, a term that refers to devices loaded with artificial intelligence and edge-computation, is another aspect of the metaverse that can clearly be leveraged for the public’s benefit.

In Pittsburgh, Penn., for example, administrators have deployed “adaptive traffic signals which change the lights based on actual traffic to reduce commute times and fuel consumption. The smart traffic system has reduced travel delays in Pittsburgh by about 20 percent,” the report says.

And in Austin, Tx., homeless people are able to get a digital identity that’s stored via blockchain so they don’t have to carry around a physical identification card, Garrity said.

Besides driving tourism with three-dimensional virtual reality tours that users can experience before visiting, other applications of metaverse-related technologies include a virtual reality town hall where constituents can conduct business from afar.

“Increased access to information is going to be really key,” Garrity continued. When visiting local government websites, “sometimes it can be really tough to find what you need.” In this, a virtual advisor could “point people in the right direction.”

Within the metaverse more broadly, Santa Monica, Calif. was the first US city to join the metaverse, according to the report.

“The city now offers a virtual way to experience its downtown district through FlickPlay, a Santa Monica-based metaverse social app company. In its partnership with Santa Monica, FlickPlay provides users with an interactive map of the city’s retail district where they can collect tokens as they move around the city,” the report says. “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.”

Beyond a pilot program intended to test an emerging technology, the venture pushes foot traffic to local businesses and underutilized spaces, the report continues.

As local leaders start to navigate this unprecedented next step in the digital universe, they should “feel empowered” to investigate further, Garrity noted.

“We’re still at the beginning stages of having these conversations,” she said. “How local governments are using these technologies, and how local governments might engage with the metaverse in the future is a great first step.”

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