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ViewPoint|Xiao Chaowei: Prospect of digital transformation of urban meta-universe


Along with the leap-forward development of high technology in artificial intelligence, driverless technology, big data, cloud computing, 5G communication, neurotechnology and brain-computer interface, the digital economy has grown substantially, whereas a great many offline businesses have fallen into recession or seen sluggish growth in the context of the global COVID-19 outbreak. Apparently, the digital economy has become an important engine for international economic development in the future. According to Chinese President Xi Jinping's speech at the 34th collective study session of the 19th Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee published on Qiushi Journal (2022 No.2). the development of the digital economy is of great significance, because it is a strategic choice to seize new opportunities in the new round of scientific and technological revolution and industrial transformation.

In January 2022, the State Council issued the plan to facilitate development of the digital economy in the 14th Five-Year Plan period, which defined the guiding ideology, basic principles, development goals, key tasks and supporting measures for boosting the sound development of digital economy during the 14th Five-Year Plan period. According to the plan, the digital economy will usher into the stage of comprehensive expansion by 2025, with the added value of its core industries accounting for 10 percent of GDP; innovation-driven digital development capability will be improved greatly; and the integration of digital technology and real economy will make remarkable achievements. Although the plan didn't mention the word, metaverse, it mentioned strengthening the supply of high-quality data elements, vigorously promoting technological transformation and integrated urban-rural development based on digital technology, and improving the governance system of digital economy, all of which are closely related to metaverse. In the context of the development of digital economy, it is necessary to study the influence of metaverse on urban development.

Influence of Metaverse on Urban Development

The concept "metaverse" was first proposed in the science fiction Snow Crash. Its relevant Chinese translations also include "Chao Yuan yu", "Xu Ni Ling Jing" and "Ling Jing". In the fiction, metaverse is a virtual world parallel to the real world, where people in real life can have virtual identities and share the virtual world through VR devices. In subsequent art works and game creations, there have emerged many similar virtual parallel worlds, such as the "Matrix" in The Matrix, the "Oasis" in Ready Player One, and large-scale multiplayer role-playing games, like Second Life, Minecraft and Roblox, and other sandbox games. When Roblox went public successfully on an American stock market, the concept "metaverse" became popular in the investment market. Moreover, Facebook, Tencent and ByteDance had a quick response to the concept as well. Therefore, the year 2021 was also called "the first year of metaverse."

Metaverse-based virtual space will not only extend the influence from the Internet, but also replace the demand for "face-to-face" activities to a large extent due to its high immersion feature, thereby reshaping the real urban space. The influence of metaverse on the real urban space is a multi-level and multi-stage complex dynamic process. According to different scales and development stages, it'll have distinct influences on the real urban space.

At the microscale, old communities break down, while new "communities" are reshaped. The emergence of metaverse enables individuals to break the temporal and spatial restrictions in their original life and access to information from the outside world more freely. In traditional communities, "locality" and "regionality" are fundamental characteristics of communities, because the region where people live together is an essential condition for mutual relations and information sharing. In the past decades, modern communication technologies, such as radio, television and Internet, have gradually separated the media space of information spread from the physical space. Accordingly, metaverse-based Internet space will inevitably accelerate the breakdown between individuals and local communities. In that case, people will more likely to establish mutual relations and share information in virtual space, so that the focus of communities may shift from common regional space to common interests and close relations. Therefore, in the stage of metaverse, as the virtual space is more capable of replacing the real space, online + offline integrated communities will become increasingly important to a certain extent. People may tend to have social contacts and participate in community activities with their friends in "interest-based communities" in metaverse, but become more estranged from those in real communities, which will lead to interpersonal estrangement and corresponding social isolation, spatial variation and polarization.

At the mesoscale, the spatial distance is weakened, while the "divide" is widened. In recent years, the Internet has facilitated a more equal and rapid flow of information. The emergence of metaverse has accelerated trans-regional information and culture spread. People could participate in various metaverse activities, such as holding and watching large-scale performances and experiencing culture and history through metaverse in place of current demands for travelling to other regions. Although metaverse could make different regions more interconnected, there will be differences in digital accessibility among regions because information and communication technology and Internet facilities couldn't be evenly distributed in space, which will cause differences in social and economic levels in different regions. Due to the high requirements of metaverse for network transmission speed and equipment, there will be a higher possibility of equipment and data transmissibility barriers. In the future, regional differences in the information service level may be more significant than the existing location differences. For example, the regions without high-speed Internet service and virtual reality devices may become "remote areas" or "backward areas" that are inaccessible to high-quality online education, medical treatment and other public services in the stage of metaverse and unable to get fair development opportunities. Therefore, it is necessary to alert potential spatial injustice caused by regional monopoly of information service resources and reduce the influence of the "divide" in the stage of metaverse.

At the macroscale, small- and medium-sized towns are less interconnected, whereas global cities become more central. In the era of constant development of globalization and information technology, the attention degree of a city in the Internet space has become an important dimension to measure its centrality, which is a comprehensive reflection of its economic strength, city image, degree of opening-up, cultural deposits, development capability and other factors. Some cities even built their image as an "Internet celebrity city" and "Internet celebrity economy" by social media, in order to boost tourism and strive for population inflows for a long term. According to Kearney's Global Cities Report 2021, the Internet power and status of cities have become more important in the context of the booming global digital economy spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Accordingly, the capabilities of providing unique and localized Internet resources and transforming virtual "flow" into sustainable production and living have become an important guarantee for cities to keep attractive and competitive in the digital economy. "Global cities" (or the world's first-tier cities) have the potential to become the gathering centers of various information flows and provide the soil for Internet cultural reproduction by virtue of their richer cultural activities, more diverse urban space, more improved Internet infrastructures and relevant supporting industries. Furthermore, their core blocks and large commercial complexes are also most likely to be the first to access metaverse, improving urban blocks and commercial facilities based on augmented reality and achieving virtual and real interconnection through metaverse. In this context, the "inflow" into central cities will weaken the interconnections among small- and medium-sized cities and neighboring cities, while global cities will become more influential, with enhanced capabilities of attracting virtual information flow, population flow and capital flow. As a result, there is likely to be a global urban network with new super-flow digital global cities as the core nodes, which form the "master server" of metaverse, while other towns become subordinate and rule-governed.

Development Prospects of Digital Urban Transformation Based on Metaverse

After analyzing the influence of metaverse on urban development, I believe that in the context of the development of digital economy, the virtual communities of interests in metaverse, digital transformation of urban industries, integrated urban-rural development based on digital technology, metaverse virtual reality of urban blocks and large commercial complexes may become new growth areas of the digital economy. And metaverse application scenarios will also drive the development of VR, AR, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, blockchain and other relevant digital economy industries.

In the new wave of digital economic development brought by metaverse, the space construction, temporal and spatial perception and social application based on metaverse will inevitably give birth to new spatial cognition patterns, new social communication patterns and new economic operation patterns, thereby bringing new development opportunities and challenges to production and life, culture and education, social management and even human development in the future. Therefore, it is necessary to explore and study new theories and methods of spatial perception, cognition, expression, analysis and prediction that are adapted to metaverse, so as to enrich the connotations of the digital economy, extend its application, and lead the sound development and application expansion of metaverse.

Meanwhile, there is still no standard regulation and supervision system relating to metaverse. Therefore, in the context of the development of metaverse, urban governance may need to focus on the following principles. First, spatial equity of information shall be guaranteed. As the "digital divide" is likely to expand, special attention shall be paid to the regional monopoly and rationing of information service resources, and even the uneven information, education and job opportunities among regions, which may have negative effects on social and economic equity and cause spatial injustice. Second, public security of information shall be protected. Relevant public service organizations shall protect the security of important urban information and data and urban management systems, and guard against online "terrorist attacks"; incorporate important information infrastructures into urban lifeline projects, and prevent disasters from producing adverse chain reactions on online and offline space. Third, local digital resources and product creations shall be encouraged, such as the digitization and patents of local cultural resources. Efforts shall be made to recreate and spread local resources to improve the influence of locality in virtual space.

Putting aside the seemingly grand definition of the term, metaverse is the product of the development of digital economy to a certain stage in essence. With the rapid improvement of computing, communication and display capabilities, virtual carriers in the future will be bound to carry more users and behaviors, provide richer and more simulated experience effects, and establish more improved technology systems to record and manage creations and transactions among users. Furthermore, it'll also be bound to form closer ties between people and the digital economy, and produce new platforms and products, so as to change people's production modes and lifestyle. However, the emergence of any new things is always accompanied by exaggeration, risks and misunderstanding, such as blind pursuit and absolute criticism of metaverse. We should realize that metaverse, as the development direction of digital economy, is beneficial to the development of social economy to a certain extent. However, it remains unknown whether metaverse has any substitution effects on the real world as imagined. After all, we shall be cautious about whether some expensive "virtual products" on metaverse platforms are scarce really.

About Author: 

Xiao Chaowei, Researcher of NADS.