Seoul says it will be the first major city government to enter the metaverse. On Nov. 3, the South Korean capital announced a plan to make a variety of public services and cultural events available in the metaverse, an immersive internet that relies on virtual reality. If the plan is successful, Seoul residents can visit a virtual city hall to do everything from touring a historic site to filing a civil complaint by donning virtual reality goggles.
The 3.9 billion won ($3.3 million) investment is part of mayor Oh Se-hoon’s 10-year plan for the city, which aims to improve social mobility among citizens and raising the city’s global competitiveness. It also taps into South Korea’s Digital New Deal, a nationwide plan to embrace digital and AI tools to improve healthcare, central infrastructure, and the economy in its recovery from the economic crisis caused by covid-19.
Seoul’s metropolitan government will develop its own metaverse platform by the end of 2022. By the time it is fully operational in 2026, it will host a variety of public functions including a virtual mayor’s office, as well as spaces serving the business sector; a fintech incubator; and a public investment organization.
The platform will kick off with a virtual new year’s bell-ringing ceremony this December. In 2023, the city plans to open “Metaverse 120 Center,” a place for virtual public services where avatars will handle citizen concerns that could previously only be addressed by physically going to city hall.
So far the plan offers sparse details about exactly what devices citizens will use to access the metaverse platform, though city officials emphasize that the goal is to broaden access to public city services, regardless of geography or disabilities. But specialized equipment could be a barrier for many people. Virtual reality headsets still sell for $300 and $600, and are not as widely accessible as smartphones and computers.
Municipal governments are using digital technology and real-time data to optimize city operations as part of the “smart cities” movement. The metaverse could be its next evolution. Although the details of how the metaverse will work are still hazy, even to the companies that are trying to build it, it’s a natural next step for Seoul.
The South Korean city is planning to use artificial intelligence to monitor its sewers and water waste centers. An AI chatbot serves as a public concierge, fielding public questions and complaints related to everything from parking violations to covid-19 protocols. Earlier this year, Seoul rolled out plans for a public internet of things network—a series of sensors and base stations throughout the city that collect data on things like traffic, public safety, and environmental metrics and feed them into a central operations platform managed by city workers.
The future of the metaverse is being built almost entirely by companies. Microsoft, Nike, and Facebook’s parent company Meta are all staking claims to digital real estate. South Korea is among the only governments attempting to recreate the virtual public square. But if they can, it could expand the utility of the metaverse to millions of citizens whom might otherwise be excluded.