• The Kaunas Manifesto for inclusive urban metaverses

    All Rights Reserved -© 2022 -Courtesy of a 12 years old girl born in Kaunas, SSR of Lithuania, in 1983.

    Building culture of social justice across digital territories. Sept, 2022


    This manifesto is the first step of an interdisciplinary, collective reflection on urban and civic applications of “metaverse” platforms. We are a diverse group of practitioners, researchers and citizens from different backgrounds. We aim to deliver the first design guidelines for inclusive urban metaverses, by working on the (so far) fictional case study of building a civic metaverse in Kaunas (Lithuania) that mirrors the urban regeneration area of Aleksotas Innovation Industry Park (KAIIP). By investigating the requirements of an inclusive urban metaverse in Kaunas, we want to highlight the challenges of deploying Extended Reality (XR) in cities through the lens of social justice. The Kaunas metaverse is an experiment in collective imaginaries through which we hope to inspire other cities to to conceptualise their digital territories as enhancers of inclusiveness and avoid technosolutionist approaches.

    A “metaverse” is a fully virtual or hybrid environment (this is why we use the term “Extended Reality”, encompassing both) that relies on a combination of technologies (Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence). “Metaverse” territories are still in their infancy and concentrated in the entertainment and real estate industries. The enabling technologies are R&D priority at the moment: as a matter of fact, running the metaverse race is an investment on future commercial opportunities in endless application fields, included the urban context.

    We observe the growth of “metaverse” platforms, and especially how, in the public debate, they are depicted as the future of social interactions and as a novel form of everyday reality for our societies. Putting things into historical perspective, the metaverse appears as one of the newest in a long list of technosocial systems being attributed a salvic role.

    Although the metaverse is often coupled with Web 3.0 and its decentralised paradigms for organisation and remuneration, the most popular use cases follow the extractive models that so far led digital technologies to exacerbate inequalities and social fragmentation. This can be observed at different levels: the operating systems (owned by big tech players like Meta, Epic Games, Microsoft, Niantic, Roblox); the financial models (real estate and art speculation, Ponzi schemes); the economic accessibility (the need to own expensive hardware - headsets or computing power - to join) the ergonomic accessibility (with ableism shaping all the interfaces) and the digital accessibility (enjoying a full and aware experience requires a high degree of digital literacy and skills).

    Moreover, the mental models of the metaverse reiterate those of big tech and their social externalities: the financialisation of every walk of life (associating identities and tokens, forcing in-platform shopping to enjoy a full experience); the top-down design, in the hands of a not-very-diverse elite of experts (underserving women, queer individuals and POC, generating sexual abuse and ignoring how to protect minors in virtual environments) and anthropocentrism (environmental concerns have not yet reached these platforms relying on high computing power, new hardware and fast networks). Needless to say, despite this evidence, the hype for the metaverse will only grow, as it happened in the past for other innovations. This is part of how our global economic system and society work.

    We believe that a healthy society is fuelled by informed debate, and is capable of nourishing collective imaginaries without digressing into dystopia. It is likely public institutions will look into the metaverse in the coming years as a tool to innovate their functioning, exactly as they have been looking into the digitalisation of public services for some years now. In the vast realm of the public sphere, we focus our interest on the urban space and consider translating its materiality into the virtual space as an ideal ground for debating social justice for our future society.

    As cities across the world prepare for the next step of the “smart city” and look into Extended Reality (XR) as a means to provide services to citizens and optimise the city, our ambition is to provide the first set of basic guidelines to orient the Extended City towards social justice.

    Driving values

    Feminism: digital territories should welcome a plurality of voices and acknowledge differences in identity, background, race, and socioeconomic position

    Accessibility: digital territories should be understandable and usable by the largest amount of citizens

    Safety by design: the handling of digital identities and the interactions in XR should respect privacy and avoid abuse

    Community wellbeing: platforms should serve community goals in their governance, values and use

    Individual empowerment: the sense of agency and entitlement of users must be made possible with explainability and transparency, joint with possibilities for creativity and expression

    “We hope our work will become a reference for urban developers, municipalities as well as civic communities involved in the digitalisation and hybridisation of the urban space.”