Since Facebook was reborn as Meta last October, our newsfeeds and dinner conversations have been ablaze with questions about the metaverse. What is it? What can we build there? What will meta cities look like in this new place?
First, let’s start by defining the metaverse. It is important to remember that there is no one metaverse. It’s not just Facebook. It’s not just Decentraland. The term describes any virtual-reality space in which we can interact with a computer-generated environment and, critically, with other users. You can travel to the metaverse through your normal internet browser, through VR goggles, or through hybrid AR spaces.
But more important than what it is, we need to think about its impact, both intentional and unintentional, on our cities, streets, and architecture. The second-order effects of moving our interactions into the virtual world will slingshot back into our analog lives whether we like it or not. It will alter how we see the world around us, how that world is designed, and who it is designed for. The metaverse may seem like an ethereal, sometimes hypothetical concept, but in reality, our built environment has already begun to morph and evolve around it.
Perhaps then we shouldn’t just be asking what buildings and cities we can design in the metaverse, but rather how the metaverse will design our buildings and cities–here on earth. How will it impact our infrastructure? Our neighborhoods? Our homes?
On a fundamental level, this technology will require new types of spaces in our everyday environments, and the elimination of other types of spaces that we now consider a given.
For example, spaces specifically designated for formal in-person meetings, such as conference rooms, zoom rooms, or entire offices in some cases, may be fully or partially eliminated as virtual gatherings continue to take over. George Bileca, CEO of metaverse-exclusive design firm VoxelArchitects, has grown his practice from 2 to more than 20 employees over the past twelve months. His main clientele: large corporations that are building conference space in the metaverse for remote employees, as they shed their physical meeting places. Just recently, Vice Media Group consolidated three Brooklyn offices into one and simultaneously opened its first virtual headquarters, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group, in Decentraland.
The metaverse could also make its mark on real estate development by altering approvals and community input processes. For decades now, architects and engineers have used platforms like Endscape, Revit, and Sidewalk Lab’s Delve to communicate what a design will look like once it’s built. Now, imagine taking that mock-up and planting it in the Sandbox. Forget seeing 2-D renderings printed on poster boards at city council meetings–with one headset, the metaverse will bring stakeholders into the renderings. Suddenly, we’ve created a platform for hundreds or thousands of people to explore the building, see it from new angles, and interact with it in a way that, pre-metaverse, was only possible once construction was finished.
They can observe pedestrian walkways, shade and parking impacts, and proximity to transit entrances. They can even opine on whether they’d feel safe interacting with this structure. Scott Duncan, Design Partner at SOM with projects such as One Bangkok, the largest private development in Thailand’s history, and an expansion of O’Hare International Airport, emphasizes the possibilities this could create. This kind of interaction could make community input–oftentimes just a box that developers check before they build whatever they want–truly impactful.
“The metaverse could be leveraged towards the democratization of design, where people give feedback and make suggestions in a process that could become much more commonplace,” said Duncan. “You can imagine it being very iterative because it’s very low cost and low effort.”
That democratization could extend far beyond simply allowing us to opine on the proposed design. With its malleable physics and egalitarian foundations, the metaverse could open our minds to new, industry-shifting ideas for the built environment.
“There is always a place for a completely imaginative architecture that is never built,” said Jay Valgora, Principal of STUDIO V Architecture. He gives the example of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an Italian Classical architect whose tremendously influential and mind-bending work changed the practice to this day, but was never brought to fruition. “There is an opportunity for the Le Corbusier of the metaverse to come forward that might have the most transformative, profound effect on our building and cities—something that has vision and meaning,” said Valgora.
The Institute for Black Imagination (IBI), a newly minted metaverse hoping to reframe how cities and buildings are designed in the context of equity, serves as a prime example. A few clicks through any internet browser and we are flown through an interactive, three-dimensional interface, designed like a starry galaxy, with each orb pulling us into a library of seemingly endless information about art, race, and cultural influences. We’re met with knowledge, resources, and provocations.
“IBI has always been about the built environment,” says founder Dario Calmese. In addition to building technology and design for urban spaces, Dario envisions IBI becoming highly interactive in streets and neighborhoods through augmented reality. “It will open up an entire world of possibilities in design.”
IBI is a heroic example of a metaverse that transcends selling real estate, showcasing brands, or hosting fashion shows. It dares us to open our minds, question systems, to reassess the rules that we’ve always accepted as a given. In fact, its opening message reads: “The world around us has been designed. By Whom? For Whom?”
These are the questions we should be asking in order to build more equitable and sustainable cities for us all. In these types of metaverse platforms that obtain feedback and provide thought leadership, there is tremendous potential.
The metaverse today is in its very nascent stages. It is a malleable and interpretable space. We have the power now to avoid looking back from our Ready-Player-One apartments and bemoaning the effects of the metaverse, and rather, can harness its enormity to open minds and change the trajectory of our cities.