How can a ‘Citiverse’ help develop people-centered sustainable cities?

On 24 October 2023, GCH and ITU organized a webinar on the citiverse to explore how it can help Local and Regional Governments (LRGs) develop people-centered sustainable cities and what is required on the regulation and technical sides. An excellent line of speakers presented their views, shared their experiences and explained the challenges stakeholders face from the local through the regional to the global level. The video recording of the session is available here.

Citiverse might offer new administrative, economic, social, policy-making, and cultural virtual goods, services, capabilities to local governments and community actors such as citizens and local businesses. It might be a gamechanger for LRGs to successfully and sustainably accomplish future city-developments, and offer better and more efficient services in several areas, such as:

  • internal connectivity of city-owned buildings, security systems and services;
  • traffic monitoring, predictive traffic management and sustainable mobility planning;
  • data-services related to weather, climate and extreme weather events;
  • management of energy flows in a city in conjunction with other sectors;
  • zero pollution actions, including air, water, soil pollution and waste management;
  • sustainable urban design, including built infrastructure and nature-based solutions.

But how can cities use citiverse to implement the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, foster innovation and create new opportunities for their inhabitants? What is the role of the relevant international organizations?

Davis Mwamfupe, mayor of Dodoma, eloquently described how the rapid growth of cities across the globe – especially in Africa – represents a challenge and tests the limit of infrastructure development and equitable delivery of services. Planning future needs and designing inclusive, resilient and sustainable cities requires complex approaches that might be well supported by digital technologies. A citiverse can provide sufficient data to enable LRGs to make well founded data-driven decisions. Its predictive power can become a valuable asset for mayors to envision the future urban landscape and discover the social, environmental and economic potential of the city.

Dr. Okan Geray, strategic planning advisor at Dubai Digital Authority, indicated that a large majority of our social, economic and environmental challenges are manifested in cities and elaborated on the combined framework of the SDGs and local priorities in creating the cities’ own agenda. The metaverse – and therefore the citiverse – is one of the most disruptive emerging technologies with a potential to redefine urban living and redesign urban planning in addition to economic opportunities. Its standardization is necessary but not sufficient. To harness this technology to redesign cities and reimagine the economy, we need to join efforts to identify the cities’ needs and share the good practices. This is the best way for LRGs to help each other achieve their maximum potential. The Dubai Metaverse Strategy aims to make Dubai the No.1 in the region and one of the top 10 cities globally in terms of metaverse economy. Multilevel cooperation is also key to overcome the numerous challenges, including standardization, regulation and governance, data privacy, security and safety, as well as interoperability.

Cristina Bueti from ITU explained how multistakeholder collaboration can contribute to answering the different technological, societal, economic and governance challenges. ITU supports cities by developing and implementing international standards (ITU-T Recommendations) and policies that can help to accelerate their digital transformation leveraging emerging technologies including the Internet of Things, digital twin, AI and metaverse. She reported that a new ITU Focus Group on metaverse (FG-MV) has been established. The group is open to all stakeholders and has already developped a series of deliverables covering a wide range of topics, including opportunities and challenges, ethical concerns, accessibility, sustainability, and policy and regulation. She gave concrete examples where citiverse can bring added value to local and central governments, like the use of smart contracts to facilitate municipal services, creation of decentralized virtual administrative hubs, etc. She echoed the importance of establishing a new Digital Coalition on CitiVerse as suggested by the FG-MV. This new coalition would enable partnerships among cities and would foster innovation in cities by creating sandboxes as well as sharing best practices and solutions.

Isabel Wetzel from UN-Habitat shed light on the people-centered smart cities program run in collaboration with national and local governments to advance digital transition. To secure this goal several milestones are necessary to reach: constructing resilient infrastructure, increasing digital literacy, building local capacity on technology, providing practical tools and playbooks to LRGs. We must assure the balance between working for the SDGs and meeting the real needs of the residents. Closing the digital divide is key to avoid negative impacts on marginalized and vulnerable populations. Better cooperation on the different aspects of this issue could benefit all stakeholders.

Cristina Martinez, deputy head of smart technologies for communities unit at the European Commission, emphasized that our joint efforts should follow the principles of sustainability, inclusivity and accessibility. The Commission works on a broad spectrum of regulatory issues and possible citiverse applications, like citizens engagement, public service distribution, education, entertaining, tourism and cultural heritage. The EU offers a definition based on ISO/IEC 23005 and IEEE 2888: “A CitiVerse can be composed of a series of interconnected distributed virtual worlds representing their physical counterparts and synchronized at a specified frequency and fidelity. Each world can offer certain kinds of virtual goods/services and virtual environments to citizens and other users represented as digital avatars.”

Answering to questions, several speakers mentioned that citiverse can offer a radically new experience and opens up numerous possibilities for the local governments. It is more about the expectations what we want to create and how can local governments use it to function more efficiently and offer better services for the citizens and local businesses. It is challenging to set regulation before the technology is fully developed, but multistakeholder cooperation can help to identify the key requirements.

Citiverses might be gamechangers for LRGs to successfully and sustainably accomplish people-centered city-development for a smarter future. The Covid-19 pandemic for example showed how important local data is, and the citiverse makes the collection of these data – by type, by source, etc. – more efficient. However, it is of crucial importance to avoid the mushrooming of different citiverses, because the lack of interoperability and shared security would block reaching its full potential.

United Nations entities – like ITU and UN-Habitat – as well as the EU play a leading role in ensuring that cities can bring their fair share to accelerating digital transformation while bringing connectivity to the public and bridging the digital divide. New forms of cooperations involving LRGs exist in all organizations: the Digital coalition on citiverse, United for Smart Sustainable Cities and the Partner2Connect at ITU, the Global alliance of mayors on digital transformation at UN Habitat, and the European digital infrastructure consortium at the EU.

Digital transformation, smart city development, use of the emerging technologies like the metaverse and citiverse are crucial areas for LRGs. Strategically assembled, properly regulated and efficiently managed people-centered citiverses have the potential to answer the challenges of rapid urbanization and can contribute to the development of cities as agents of solutions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. Good examples exist already on all continents – Dodoma, Dubai, Singapore, and Tampere, just to mention a few – and others will follow for sure.

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