19 Sep 2023
by Dr Christina Yan Zhang

Should there be a UK national strategy for people-centred metaverse and Web3 for all?

Guest blog from Dr Christina Yan Zhang, CEO of The Metaverse Institute. Part of techUK's #SuperchargeUKTech Week 2023.

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Please note this is a member opinion as part of techUK's Supercharging Innovation Campaign Week

The Definition of the Metaverse

The term ‘metaverse’ is nothing new. Author Neal Stephenson coined the word in his 1992 science-fiction novel ‘Snow Crash’, which envisions a virtual reality-based successor to the internet.

The First Wave of the Metaverse

The 2003 virtual world Second Life is often described as the first metaverse. Second Life allowed people to create an avatar for themselves and have a parallel life in an online virtual world. Developed and owned by the San Francisco-based firm Linden Lab and launched on June 23, 2003, it saw rapid growth for some years and in 2013 it had approximately one million regular users. It is still going strong as of 2022, with around 900,000 active users.

An early adopter since 2006

I was lucky to be one of the early adopters of the metaverse, in 2006. I saw it as the next generation of the internet, and both my Master’s degree and PhD were focused on using the metaverse to help education institutions develop their international strategy, and on how architects, engineers and the construction industry can use digital twins in the metaverse environment for optimisation.

The Second Wave of the Metaverse

The metaverse we talk about today is actually the second attempt at mass adoption. It started with a successful IPO of Roblox in March 2021, which achieved a market value of $38bn. The excitement about the metaverse really ramped up after Facebook changed its name to Meta in October that year.

Convergence of Technologies around the metaverse

Now, the metaverse has become a convergence of a whole range of cutting-edge technologies, which together will form the next generation of the internet. These include better and faster IT infrastructure, such as 5G and 6G mobile networks; new user interfaces such as XR, wearables, haptics, and voice/gesture recognition; and new computing technologies such as spatial, edge and quantum computing. There are also new information-organising tools such as AI and machine learning; digital-finance technologies such as blockchain, NFTs, and cryptocurrency; and new forms of social interaction online, such as e-sports, virtual events and gaming. Many of these developments are interrelated or even interdependent, but it is still uncertain what shape the emerging ecosystem will take. Nevertheless, it seems inevitable that many of these elements will combine to make the internet more immersive, interactive and intuitive.

Current state of the metaverse and web3

The Web3 and metaverse industry overall is still at its infancy. Most industry leaders are working their way to find the most efficient business models. Investment to this space seems to be slow. Money seems to be flowing into projects which can potentially bring better IT infrastructure of the metaverse environment. Many big Fortune 500 companies are watching this space with great interest. However, they also want to see how various elements of the Web3, and metaverse complement their existing offering or creating new business market. Education is important for adoption. Many entrepreneurs are working on educating the public on different part of the Web3 and metaverse system. But to have major cultural change, it takes time. Online safety is a concern. In 2023, research from British Computer Society pointed out that, 77% of tech professionals are concerned about safety issues in the metaverse. The UK's online Safety Bill includes safety issues of the metaverse. But would that be enough consider the complexity of the metaverse? It is important to notice that 3 billion out of 8 billion individuals, lacks access to the internet, exacerbating the digital inequality. This needs to be addressed for the metaverse to flourish.

The World’s First People Centred Metaverse Strategy

At The Metaverse Institute,we developed the world's first people-centred metaverse strategy in collaboration with the Tampere municipal government of Finland. Our report, Tampere Metaverse Vision 2040, sets out a “systems approach” to happiness, equality, governance, sustainability and wellbeing/health by rendering the interdependencies between these domains visible and their relationship with the physical and spatial world transparent. We developed The Metaverse Governance Operating Model 2040, using AI to outline a robust mechanism in line with regulations from UN, EU, national and municipal legislation to protect human safety, personal data, digital identity, quality assurance of all tech, IP etc.

We have formed a “Technology Map” outlining when certain technologies will mature. This covers the short, medium and long term out to the year 2040, and includes key technology applications for different industries along with their ethical and societal implications. This work is an important contribution to the effort to establish international standards for how city and national governments use metaverse technologies. The Tampere report has been included by the UN on its website as a resource for governments. I co-chair the UN Task Group on the CitiVerse (part of the International Telecommunications Union’s working group on the Metaverse). Amongst other things, the Task Group will produce the UN’s first official definition and roadmap of the “CitiVerse”- how governments can use metaverse related technologies to develop sustainable and inclusive cities.

A UK’s National Strategy for Metaverse and Web3

As Vice Chair of the UN’s ITU Working Group on Metaverse focusing on Sustainability, Inclusivity and Accessibility, I am currently leading a project at the UN working with members states and experts on “Metaverse for all”, ensure the technologies will benefit all.

More than 30 countries in Asia, Middle East, Africa and Europe have or are in the process of setting up their metaverse or Web3 strategies. The EU has prioritised initiatives such as CitiVerse and Web4. Why there is not yet a UK's National Strategy on the Metaverse and Web3? The UK has some of the world's best technology, from quantum computing, AI, cybersecurity, semiconductor chips etc. All those technology are important parts to build the metaverse and Web3 ecosystem. Perhaps this is something need to be addressed urgently? We look forward to working with industry and governments to help navigate this landscape while bearing in mind our obligations to people, the planet, and the future.

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Dr Christina Yan Zhang

Dr Christina Yan Zhang

CEO, The Metaverse Institute

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