Benjamin Shultz

Disinformation & Artificial Intelligence Researcher

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Is the Metaverse Still the Future of Digital Governance in the Post-COVID World?

September 08, 2023

On November 3, 2021, Seoul’s mayor Oh Se-hoon announced his city’s plan to build a functional metaverse aimed at carrying out government services virtually, the very first plan of its kind in the public sector. Seoul’s effort to digitize government services is bold—considering that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic they were largely unavailable online.
The beta version of Metaverse Seoul was released on September 1, 2022. A year later, the project is flourishing, having served more than 100,000 residents already in 2023. It allows residents to create avatars and attend city business within digital twins of Seoul’s city hall and other government buildings. By 2026, a year ahead of schedule, Metaverse Seoul eventually plans to create a digital twin of the entire city that uses real-time data to monitor public safety and support virtual versions of tourist attractions. This effort is slated to happen in phases over several years and the city has invested 3.9 billion (3.3 million USD) into the project.
One of the most important tenets of democratic governance is that of access and inclusivity. Access to virtual government services at all levels has traditionally been difficult, particularly for underrepresented groups, however out of necessity, the pandemic has sped up digital transformation across the globe. Moreover, Seoul has emerged as the top city for technological innovation in recent years, edging out Silicon Valley.
Despite the public and private sectors alike adjusting the functionality of their services over the last three years, attempting to match the quality of in-person interactions from the pre-COVID world, it has nonetheless been a tall task for organizations to develop a degree of connectivity good enough for maintaining everyday operations through bouts of quarantine and isolation. And even though Zoom has become a household name, the newest virtual meeting tools and spiffy new government websites still lack what Mark Zuckerberg dubs social presence, “the feeling that you’re right there with another person.”
The United Nations’ 2020 E-Government survey notes that in the wake of the pandemic, 80 percent of Member States now offer “specific digital services for youth, women, older people, persons with disabilities, migrants and/or those in poverty.” This is a marked improvement over figures from years past, however government websites across the world are notoriously difficult to navigate. Undoubtedly, some people still face exclusion from digital government services.
Seoul’s vision of an all-encompassing Municipal Metaverse has the potential to address this dilemma.
A Municipal Metaverse could give citizens the best of both the physical and the digital. One could attend a city council meeting or pay a speeding ticket in hyper-realistic detail, and, with a similar degree of interaction to one achieved in real life, all from the comfort of one’s own home. With a visit to city hall’s digital twin, one could attend council meetings and important documents could be digitized with blockchain, something already happening in Estonia and Chandler, Ariz.
From the citizen’s perspective, a headset, two handheld sensors and an internet connection could eliminate the need for searching for government forms online or trekking to a government office only to wait in line for an extended period of time. Instead, Seoul envisions fully interactive government offices—forms, staff and all—existing virtually.
Metaverse Seoul has kicked off a spate of local government ventures into the metaverse. Public agencies in Dubai have since announced the opening of metaverse-based offices and Santa Monica, Calif. has launched an augmented reality app that allows residents to unlock virtual collectibles and redeem them for prizes in partnership with local businesses and the Chamber of Commerce.
Surveys show Americans to be significantly less keen on the metaverse than Koreans, at least so far, and it will be some time before the United States sees municipal governments offering services in extended reality. There, too, are still technical and security challenges surrounding the decentralized web that need to be resolved before a “Municipal Metaverse” can be fully realized.
However, the degree of interactivity the metaverse promises is what inextricably links the tenets of democracy to its development. Government services in the metaverse that prioritize access and inclusivity will offer people the chance to be more connected and empowered than ever before, both to their government and to each other.

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