From the metaverse to the meta-city: how to use the concept of the metaverse to improve sustainability

March 1, 2023

Derrick de Kerckhove, author and journalist, Media Duemila; former Director of the McLuhan Program
Maria Pia Rossignaud, SVP TuttiMedia and Editor Media Duemila

The metaverse as digital destination and destiny

  • Continuity from 1992 to the present
  • Simulation and twinning as key principles of DX
  • The metaverse and spatial technologies as a simulation of one’s own space
  • Immersion, presence, and sharing as key features of the habitability of the metaverse (Zuckerberg and Matthew Ball)

Since 1992, when the term was invented by Neal Stephenson, the metaverse, after several false starts such as Active Worlds or Second Life, has gone through many iterations to arrive at its current explosion in world markets. Although still a surprise given the previous lukewarm reception, the duplication of an immersive, not to say “living,” space was in the works from the beginning of digital transformation. Together with the incorporation of AI into every human activity, including sleep, the metaverse will be both the spearhead and focus of technological and market developments.

The metaverse makes evident something we have experienced without realizing it, namely, that we have occupied a new space, entered a new civilization, and disproportionately expanded our individual powers. Space is no longer exclusively geographical, nor is it ontological. It is virtual, yes, but now that it is technically stable it has become habitable in the way we inhabit physical space. This is what we call “immersive.” In addition to this property, the metaverse is a “sharing” environment just like the physical one, where we take it for granted that we are in the same space with the people we meet. Mark Zuckerberg also understood this: “The defining quality of the metaverse will be a feeling of presence, as if you are right there with another person or in another place. Feeling truly present with another person is the ultimate dream of social technology.”

According to Matthew Ball,“The metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users and with continuity of data such as identity, history, rights, objects, communications and payments.” All words are important, however beyond the fact that ‘immersive’ is missing, the most significant is perhaps the word ‘persistent.’ Because this is the one that corresponds to reality and allows interesting comparisons between the physical world, dream, fiction, cinema, and metaverse. For me, the four key words beyond ‘virtual’ are, as with real space, presence, immersive, persistent, and shared.

From the metaverse to the meta-city

  • Two functions of the metaverse: entertainment and public service
  • Entertainment drives technology and the marketplace as literature and film provide various experiments in living
  • The meta-city concept suggests the possibility of public service (Accoto)

The above does not mean, however, that the metaverse should or will remain focused on entertainment and profit, nor does it mean that it should shy away from realism. The playful version of the metaverse is also part of its heuristic function. Like literacy, which has served both fiction and science, the metaverse can be both a stimulus to entertainment economics and a public service. Hence the twin concept of “metacities.” Like the metaverse, the metacity is a simulation of immersive, interactive and participative space, but it simulates existing physical spaces so that people can act on it virtually and apply relevant decisions accordingly. We can foresee many benefits for citizens, if only to find easy access to authorities and negotiate with them plans to improve the city (and more). But one thing that a virtual environment as a metacity can do that the real city cannot is to collect and integrate all the data, all the sensors and all the traffic in real time and predict consequences or improvements.

According to Cosimo Accoto, “Environments populated today mostly by aesthetically colorful and fun avatars, for sure, but not yet inhabited by politically, socially aware and empowered digital citizens (…) will be the real challenge of the metaverse.” The concept of “meta-cities” reveals the real advantage of the current innovation trend, namely the duplication of reality, not only at the urban level, but, as the European Union envisages, also on a regional, national, continental, and ultimately, global scale. Mapping reality in its immersive dimension may become the way out of the impending ecological and social disasters. The EU, in its wisdom, has initiated the DestinE digital twinning of Europe project1 as a service to improve the management of the economy and combat climate change.


  • Neither the meta-city nor the metaverse is environmentally friendly.
  • But both are necessary for the maturation and diffusion of technology.
  • As we have seen so far in the lukewarm results from a range of COP meetings, from Rio to Sharm- el-Sheikh, it seems that nothing will convince governments, industry, and the general public to take sustainability seriously

By themselves, particularly in applications visible today, neither the metaverse nor the meta-city are intended to sustain the environment, far from it. Their playful and commercial or practical applications may actually increase, rather than reduce, the already considerable consumption of energy and materials in cycles of innovation, obsolescence, renewal, and generalized consumerism.

However, industry and the market, hence consumerism, are needed to develop technologies and products that will eventually achieve (or should achieve) the necessary balance between consumption and sustainability. We cannot stop halfway, much less continue with unbridled consumerism. As we have seen so far in the lukewarm results achieved by a range of weak policies, from Rio to Sharm-el-Sheikh, it seems that nothing will convince governments, industry and the general public to take sustainability “en masse” seriously. By comparison, from the early 1960s to 2011, it took almost five decades of public persuasion to reduce the world smoking population to 20 percent.

From the experience economy to the experience ecology

  • The metaverse as the prominent technology of the “experience economy.”
  • Externalization of experience (literacy vs. screenology)
  • Externalization of ego in the form of the avatar
  • Critical difference between metaverse and metacity
  • Metaverse = extension of traditional media
  • Metacity = extension of one’s own reality
  • Techno-ecology depends on quantum simulation (Ball taken up by Accoto)

The market did not wait for the resurgence of 3D immersive technologies to promote the “experience economy.” But the metaverse becomes a reference point for understanding the full implications of the term. We observe in passing that experience creation began early in all literate cultures with fiction and theater. But with fiction the experience was internal to the user. Cinema externalized it again as theater had done and then TV took over, providing the watcher with a complete substitute for imagination. Today that externalizing process is shared between the user’s mind and the screen, but evermore under the control of the screen. The complete externalization occurs with the metaverse because it not only externalizes three of the five sensory experiences, but also externalizes the ego in the guise of the avatar. Here then is the critical difference between the metaverse and the meta-city.

The play and entertainment value of the metaverse, in addition to inviting the creation of a new kind of albeit conventional commercial service, is an extension of other media commodities since the invention of the theater and the novel. In comparison, the concept of the metaverse deals with reality and how to use it. Immersive simulation is directed at predicting and improving the conditions of real life, and as we can predict from current developments, the trend is already considered to go beyond the city to regional and eventually global environments. The metaverse could realize its truest destiny as the simulation of complete environments, replete with data from sensors and real- time predictive analysis to identify potential hazards and their causes, thus protecting the total environment rather than just the human environment. Perhaps we could start thinking about the ecology of experience beyond the economics of experience.

A true difference can only be made when an immersive, comprehensive, and integrated synthesis of all data from all sensors on all key factors that threaten human survival is made available. And this can only come about through rapid advances in quantum computation.

“From a technical point-of-view, the prospective urges us to look at the metaverse both as an interpretive lens through which to begin to read the environment, and the actual architecture that will have to be developed over time for the vision to become a reality. It is therefore not simply a video game or merely virtual reality, although many people use these similes to account for it, it is a new techno-ecology within which humans, objects, data will live.” (Cosimo Accoto)

And may I add ‘animals and plants’ to complete the vision of a truly comprehensive ecology.


Derrick de Kerckhove is a journalist at Media Duemila. He has spent many years as a professor and cultural researcher in digital media and digital transformation of society in both Canada and Italy. He is a former long- term Director of the McLuhan Program of Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto.

Maria Pia Rossignaud is Director of Media Duemila, Italy’s first digital culture magazine which was founded in 1983. She is also one of 25 digital media experts chosen by the Italian delegation to the European Commission to advise on digital culture and digital transformation of the media. She is a frequent contributor to The Mobile Century and a long term supporter of the work of the GTWN.