The Metaverse – a new dawn for government services?

Chris Hornung, managing director of public sector business at Totalmobile, explores the Metaverse and its potential uses in the public sector.

Posted 13 December 2022 by Christine Horton

The concept of the Metaverse has been capturing headlines for a couple of years now, generating a constant stream of comment and debate that ranges from genuinely excited to deeply cynical. And for good reason.

In 2021, Facebook led the charge by rebranding itself as Meta, with commentators across the Internet viewing the development of the Metaverse as technology’s latest gold rush. However, all was not plain sailing. For instance, one of Meta’s recent demonstrations – Horizon Worlds – was roundly mocked because of its relatively poor graphics, generating a “torrent of critical memes”, according to one media outlet. Even more recently, the company has announced massive layoffs of over 11,000 employees, with costs and expenses increasing 19 percent year over year in Q3 2022 partly to blame.

So does this signal problems for the Metaverse, or is it simply par for the course of an innovative technology that is understandably going through teething issues? In the eyes of its proponents, it has the potential to transform the way people work, shop, socialise, and play – among many other possibilities.

A brief history of the Metaverse

Behind the scenes, the concept brings together a range of technologies, including 5G, AI, IoT, blockchain, machine learning, and, of course, virtual reality. That’s quite a list, representing a huge innovation opportunity and explains why Meta was among many organisations spending billions on trying to bring its vision to life. If and when that comes to pass, people the world over will be living their lives in a world where physical and digital experiences coexist.

The trends that have led to the emergence of the Metaverse have been gathering pace for the past two decades. Online gaming, for example, has been delivering hugely immersive and effective digital entertainment experiences, often set within open, ‘sandbox’ virtual worlds, where players have huge freedom over whatever they do.

More recently, however, advances in computing power and the massive growth in the adoption of digital blockchain and decentralised Web3 technologies have accelerated the scope for building Metaverse platforms. As a result, delivering the new era of real-time interactive 3D digital human experiences and simulations is – at present – the catalyst for the development of a whole new sector of the digital economy.

The bandwagon is rolling, with tech companies both large and small aiming to play a leading role in shaping the Metaverse, and the major revenue-generating opportunities it is likely to bring. And this is far from just a commercial enterprise; governments across the world are also looking to get in on the act. These include developing digital twins of physical spaces to analyse how they can be better managed in their real-world equivalents, using AI to focus on how issues such as traffic management or energy consumption can be better addressed.

Government bodies are also interested in the scope the Metaverse offers for delivering public services and delivering better value to communities. As one commentator puts it, we may be heading for a “future where all of us will be able to engage with governments in the Metaverse either directly or through our avatars to participate in a policymaking, obtaining information and services from AI-enabled government virtual representatives that will provide a human-like experience to citizens or users.”

Indeed, the scope of the Metaverse is so broad that governments simply can’t afford to ignore it and increasingly, authorities are taking steps to build applications and services. As explained in a recent Accenture report, “The city of Seoul, South Korea, is creating “Metaverse Seoul” — which combines digital twins, virtual reality (VR), and collaboration — to improve city planning, city administration, and support for virtual tourism. The city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has stood up a new government agency to regulate digital assets that will have a headquarters office in The Sandbox, one of the largest virtual worlds today.”

Work in progress

Despite the hype and momentum, most Metaverse applications remain very much a work in progress, as demonstrated by Meta’s evident struggles.

The Metaverse concept also faces a gathering storm of controversy and risk, as investors are targeted by cybercriminals, and funding scams see people losing real money in digital worlds. The phrase “rug pull”, for example, is being used more widely all the time to describe situations where seemingly exciting investment opportunities (particularly around DeFi and NFT projects) are abruptly halted after the project owners suddenly pull the funds. This not only leaves investors out of pocket, but the people involved and missing funds often prove difficult to track.

In addressing all these opportunities and challenges, the Metaverse is certain to be guided by the development of new legal frameworks and regulations aiming to protect users. Clearly, issues ranging from privacy and data protection to ethics and cybersecurity are all likely to attract the attention of lawmakers and regulators in the years ahead.

For example, the UK government’s Digital Catapult brings together stakeholders from industry, academia, and regulatory authorities to examine how best to support Metaverse innovations. The aim is to ensure that ‘safety by design’ standards are embedded into Metaverse platforms and technologies.

Behind the headlines, however, the Metaverse offers huge potential for both public and private sectors to deliver a new wave of digital innovation. As the technologies and applications mature, time will tell how deeply they become embedded in the way governments interact with their citizens.