BRIAN KENNY: In April of 2006, Beth Goza, a programmer at Linden Lab, excitedly showed off her image on the cover of BusinessWeek Magazine. But only those who understood Beth’s true passion would’ve recognized the image as her, because it was actually an image of her avatar, Kealiaha Trudeau, who resided in Second Life, a virtual 3-D world that many considered to be the stepping off point for the Metaverse. Launched in 2003, Second Life allowed users to interact with each other in real time. The open source virtual world hosted a thriving economy that scaled quickly on the wings of user generated content. The site plateaued at about a million users by 2006, but proved too technically clunky for the casual user. But Second Life stoked the imagination of a generation of digital natives, who now have the benefit of working with significantly advanced technology, to create virtual worlds that might in some ways surpass the real thing. Today on Cold Call, we’ve invited Professor Mitchell Weiss to discuss his case entitled, “Metaverse Seoul.” I’m your host Brian Kenny, and you’re listening to Cold Call on the HBR Presents Network. Mitch Weiss studies digital transformation and innovation ecosystems and is an expert on public entrepreneurship. He also holds the record for most appearances on Cold Call at six. So, this is our seventh time sitting down together. That’s pretty cool, Mitch.
MITCH WEISS: That is cool. We should have sort of a Saturday Night Live jacket ceremony or something like that. Thank you for having me back.
BRIAN KENNY: Always great to have you here. Your cases are always really interesting and kind of ripped from the headlines. So the Metaverse is something that I personally have been wondering a lot about and I think our listeners probably will enjoy hearing how this is happening and unfolding in Seoul, Korea. So when I first heard the case title, I thought it was going to be S-O-U-L, Metaverse Soul, but it’s not. It’s S-E-O-U-L. So, thanks for writing it and thanks for being here to talk about it.
MITCH WEISS: Thank you. Glad to be here.
BRIAN KENNY: Why don’t we just dive right in and you can start by telling us what the central theme of the case is and what your cold call is to start the discussion in class.
MITCH WEISS: So, as you mentioned, Seoul, Korea, has embarked on this path to build essentially a metaverse version of itself. The case covers actually the sort of pilot version of what that will ultimately be. One of the main themes of the case is, how do you get input from citizens or customers, if you will, on an early prototype? How do you hear from people, in this case, people in the public, about what they want and about what you’re building? The other theme, of course, is just the question of the Metaverse et al. What is the Metaverse for? What is government in the Metaverse for? We do both things in class. The cold call goes something like this: I play a video of what the Metaverse is in Seoul. You’re welcomed into the lobby of City Hall. You’re welcomed into the mayor’s office. The mayor’s avatar, Mayor Oh, is there, and this is the first version of Seoul’s Metaverse. And there’s this narrative overlaying the video, your escort into the Metaverse the first time, asks you to leave many valuable opinions. And so I play this video in class and I ask the students, “Now that some 2000 people have visited Metaverse Seoul, we have a bit of data about that from the case, did they leave many valuable opinions? What has the city learned?”
BRIAN KENNY: I’m reminded a little bit of the case that you and I discussed in a previous episode about the City of Toronto and them building the infrastructure for a high tech community. And so this sort of jogged that memory for me, because I think people will be interested in hearing about Seoul and the technical infrastructure that maybe makes them kind of an ideal place to try and do something like this. Before we get into that though, I’m wondering, you’ve written a lot about public entrepreneurship. You have your book that came out a couple of years ago on that topic. How does this particular case get your attention and how does it connect back to some of the things you think about as a scholar?
MITCH WEISS: Well, all my work on public entrepreneurship comes from this one single question I ask over and over and over again, which is, “Can we solve public problems anymore?” And the answer I arrive at in the course over all these cases we’ve talked about in the book is, “Yes,” but it would need a giant shift from what I call, probability government. Doing things that have been done before. They probably quote unquote “work.” They kind of achieve mediocre outcomes towards possibility government, which is the trying of new things. But because they’re new, they’re only possibly going to work and they probably won’t. And so what caught my attention here, Brian, was this is absolutely the story of something which is brand new. By virtue of its novelty, probably isn’t going to work. It only possibly might. And if it did, and again, that’s a big if in the case and the conversation and the world today, and I’m sure in the listener’s minds, but if it did, it might actually lead to transformation in the way cities function, support their citizens, and communities operate. So that grabbed me, the novelty of it all. And then this question I mentioned of, “Okay, well when you’re doing new things, how do you learn from users?” Of course is an age old question and is a very important part of the course. Where do we go for ideas? And when we go to outsiders or we go to our citizens for ideas, our residents for ideas, how do we use those? All of them? Some of them? To what extent? On what topics? So the overall novelty and the question of where we go for ideas and what we make of it when citizens help us with them, were two big riddles on my mind.
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense and it certainly is a novel approach. And the Metaverse I think is something that a lot of people aren’t… It’s a little fuzzy for most of us, and I’ll include myself in that category. So I teased a little bit about Second Life, and I only remember Second Life because I was at another institution at that time and we bought an island in Second Life. So we were a brand trying to figure out how to operate in that virtual realm. And I would imagine a lot of the same things are starting to unfold in the Metaverse, but just maybe pull the lens back a little bit. What is the Metaverse? How do you define it?
MITCH WEISS: Well, you’re not the only one that’s fuzzy and even the people that define it, are still fuzzy. I would say there’s a broad range of definitions. There’s a broad range of definitions. Let’s start with, there’s a group of folks who will describe the Metaverse as being this immersive often AR, VR, XR, augmented reality, virtual reality, enhanced multiplayer or multi-user world. Virtual world, simulated worlds. And then there’s another group of people who will avoid describing them thusly and so richly and so in some ways so complicatedly and say, “It’s just the internet.” And I think we’ll see whether this is a giant step function away from the internet as we’ve known to understand it or whether it’s just layering in a little bit of new technology to think that we already know this distributed way of communicating with each other.
BRIAN KENNY: Who goes there? Who goes to the Metaverse, Mitch?
MITCH WEISS: Well it’s funny you keep mentioning Second Life because Second Life still exists. And while you were busy buying land, I guess in Second Life, I was in City Hall and predecessors of mine tried to open up a city hall in Second Life. People go to the Metaverse for lots of reasons. They go for gaming, people think that’s going to be a big use case. They go for socialization. That may well be a use case. One of the questions in this case is, will they go there also for services? Will they go for counseling? Will they go for government documents? We can get into some more of that. But companies, residents, citizens, entertainers, athletes, there’s been concerts in the Metaverse. People go for all the reasons into the Metaverse that they spend time in real life.
BRIAN KENNY: What are some of the concerns that people have about the Metaverse? It sounds like it could be a dangerous place too.
MITCH WEISS: So, there’s already been questions and episodes of harassment. People worry about that substantially. Physical harassment, sexual harassment, bullying. There’s a lot of concerns about privacy. There are concerns about intellectual property. All the concerns we have in real life. All the concerns that have played out now with the internet, are certainly on people’s minds as it relates to the Metaverse. And by the way, we should just also say one of the other questions is whether there’s going to be a metaverse or metaverses. So even as we’re sitting here talking about a metaverse, we should recognize it may actually be many metaverses. People aren’t sure yet how interoperable they’re going to be.
BRIAN KENNY: Which also sort of further confuses the thing, because if there’s many of them then which one do you go to? Who are some of the other players? You mentioned Second Life is still around and they are. They actually still have about 400,000 regular visitors to Second Life. But who else has sort of emerged in the spaces as players?
MITCH WEISS: People obviously recognize Meta, the company that was Facebook. They’re spending many billions of dollars now every year. Other big tech companies like them. Microsoft is another one here in the United States that’s invested a lot of money and bought companies that are operating in the Metaverse, both for work and for gaming. In Korea, Naver Group, probably Samsung, other big tech companies really involved here. The media companies are getting involved, because we’re thinking about how to produce content for a metaverse. And then a bit of the question in the case is, of course, to what extent other non-business organizations are getting involved, including government and their entree into the Metaverse. So it certainly is a buzzword these days and lots of people are rushing in. The other important player that people should understand are the folks that are building decentralized metaverses. So Decentraland or the Sandbox or other places and they become very important players in the Metaverse as well. Places people go to buy land, participate, create activities, throw concerts. So those are important as well.
BRIAN KENNY: So, let’s now zero in on Seoul and the situation there and Mayor Oh, who has embarked down this path. What was the platform that he ran on for mayor?
MITCH WEISS: Well, Mayor Oh had been mayor in Seoul before, but then runs a second time, well another time, on basically trying to shake Seoul out of what he called, was a hibernation. There was a lot of concern about rising housing prices. There were concerns that young families, young people, were being priced out of the city. There was concern about a kind of stagnation that had set in with a lot of COVID restrictions. His platform was trying to shake Seoul out of what he called hibernation and try to move Seoul into its future.
BRIAN KENNY: And I think it would be helpful also maybe if you can talk a little bit about Seoul Vision 2030, which was the way that he started to see that this might be a possibility for Seoul.
MITCH WEISS: So, he says, “We have to move Seoul into the future. Why don’t I gather actually more than 100 people over more than 100 sessions to help lay out what would be a vision for the future of our city, what the city should be experiencing by the year 2030.” And among the categories of things they worked on, one was, and the translation here might not be quite perfect, so I apologize for that. It was essentially Future Vibes.
BRIAN KENNY: It kind of works.
MITCH WEISS: It kind of works. And among the topics, among the ideas that came under Future Vibes, was actually building a metaverse version of Seoul. That was in many ways the beginning of the effort that then unfolded into the mayoral pilot, which we discuss in the case.
BRIAN KENNY: And the case also points out that Mayor of Seoul is a big job in the country of Korea. It’s a pretty powerful role.
MITCH WEISS: People say it’s the second maybe most powerful political job in Korea. Seoul is a giant city. It has an international reputation for being rather tech forward. And this is an important and highly scrutinized project for them.
BRIAN KENNY: What’s his background? Does he have a tech background?
MITCH WEISS: He’s a lawyer by training. And many of the people I met who were working on the project had not expertized in the Metaverse so to speak. In fact, in the case we meet one who talks about basically becoming expert along the way. And that’s frankly what many on the team are doing. They’re really pioneering this. And so the mayor’s not a metaverse expert. Some of the folks on the team are not metaverse experts. They have experience in other communications technologies and they are trying to find their way through.
BRIAN KENNY: And that’s why I asked the question, because I thought the composition of the team was really interesting and counterintuitive. I guess you would think that he would tap software engineers and programmers and people who were really immersed in the world of technology. But it didn’t sound like he was doing that. He was going to people who would probably approach this much more in the way a visitor to the Metaverse would approach it.
MITCH WEISS: I’d say both. I mean there are certainly very sophisticated technologists on this team. And what I think is striking that even as they’re undergoing this project, there are literally like 1,000 other digital transformation projects being undertaken in Seoul. They have a very large and robust and well-funded, essentially, smart cities team, full of technologists. But it is true that at the same time they’re inviting perspectives from outsiders. There’s this mix of experts and outsiders, mix of experts and residents all along the way.
BRIAN KENNY: Talk a little bit about the technology landscape then, because Seoul seems like it might be particularly well suited and maybe the people in Seoul are more comfortable with technology. Is that a fair assumption?
MITCH WEISS: The penetration rates of technology are quite high there. They do have some of the concerns about digital divides that exist in so many other places, because there are have and have nots when it comes to technology. So even with the high rates of interest and intrigue around things like this, they were concerned that something like the Metaverse could exacerbate inequity and they don’t want to do that.
BRIAN KENNY: So, how did they move down the path? What was the way that they arrived at a strategy?
MITCH WEISS: Well, they laid out a basic plan for Metaverse Seoul. They looked around the world and saw what other people were doing with the Metaverse in general and for public stuff. They looked across Korea and said, “What else are we doing as a country on the Metaverse in the private and public sector?” They thought about their own needs in their city for which a new technology might be deployed for. And then they arrived at a plan, a roadmap, to build out aspects, various aspects of the Metaverse over time, which included various individual services and also the technological infrastructure that would lay underneath. The City Hall pilot, that we come across in the case, is the first thing in that plan basically. And then soon after that would follow a number of city services potentially, including access to government documents, including easier ways to basically access advice about starting up businesses, including ways to get youth counseling, if you’re not comfortable doing it in person, maybe the teenagers will come online to do it, classes about the Metaverse. So the plan starts with essentially a pilot that is the mayor’s office. Projects that there’ll be a handful of services they’ll deploy into early and then gestures towards what the longer, wider, broader implementation would be. Ultimately, essentially a digital twin of the city where you could visit various places in Seoul in the Metaverse, where you could access almost all the city services of Seoul in the Metaverse and even where you could as a citizen, create new spaces, new cultural and other spaces in inside the Metaverse.
BRIAN KENNY: Sounds like you could also maybe have an avenue for tourism through the Metaverse.
MITCH WEISS: It’s a big thing on their mind. And in fact, I think part of the impetus for all this was obviously this comes to be essentially during COVID lockdowns and two of the many things people can’t do, are one, meet in person and travel. And so many people who are thinking about the Metaverse are thinking this might be a way to meet for people who can’t meet in person. And it might be a way to go visit places that you might not otherwise be able to visit, whether for cost reasons or time reasons or environmental reasons. And so Seoul very much is contemplating actually making this a tourist play as well. And in fact, in the early queries they actually asked the citizens, “Which tour sites should we prioritize for building in this Metaverse first? Where do you think people’s avatars would want to visit?”
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah, what else did they learn from the citizens? And I’m curious as to how they engaged them to get these ideas that led them to the first version of Seoul City Hall.
MITCH WEISS: Well, they engaged citizens in some, what you would regard as some traditional ways and then they engaged citizens in some pretty contemporary and technologically enabled ways. So when they do basically do the Seoul Vision 2030, there are various sessions and meetings and committees and ways to enlist opinions that way. They also have had for a very long time in Seoul something they call mVoting, which is a mobile voting platform people can use to vote on government propositions as well as ideas that have surfaced from citizens themselves. It’s become a very popular way for them to solicit ideas all the way from, should we change the tone of the way the subway sounds to what do you think the Metaverse should be for? And so they solicited it as the pilot that is getting up underway. They’re soliciting opinions via mVoting, which turns out to be useful for them. In addition, they’re soliciting opinions literally via the Metaverse. So when you walk into, quote, unquote, “walk into” the mayor’s office in Metaverse Seoul, you walk by this bulletin board and this red mailbox. You can actually put your ideas about what the Metaverse would be or about other issues in Seoul, in this mailbox. If they get enough interest, they get put up on this bulletin board and eventually the government is made to respond to these ideas and requests. Yeah.
BRIAN KENNY: And you can take your picture with the mayor.
MITCH WEISS: You can take your picture with the mayor. I mean it speaks to basically there are a lot of potential purposes for government in the Metaverse and for Seoul’s Metaverse. And at some level, it’s economic development. We talked about tourism, we talked about opening up businesses. At some level it’s saying, “Hey, we want to be part of the modern economy.” At some level it’s about government service. We talked about getting government documentation, we talked about getting government counseling. And at some level and maybe some deep and eventually profound level, although broadly speaking, this is also maybe where the things get perhaps scariest, is it could be for citizenship. And if this all goes well, it’ll be for deeper and more engaged citizen where you can go, not just have your picture taken with the mayor, but go meet with the mayor, go meet with fellow residents, actually help co-create the place. And that’s why he’s there. Not just to have his picture taken with you, but to gesture towards how this might be a vibrant community.
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Isn’t it a little, a bit of a double edged sword though? You worked in a mayor’s office, I mean, do you really want all that engagement with the citizenry?
MITCH WEISS: Well, it’s a really funny question. It’s actually part of the question in the case, if you will, there’s a big notion in the air these days, Brian, in the waters I swim in, which is you really should go to citizens for their opinions. Citizen engagement is a very hot topic at any conference you would go to in the government space these days. And it’s taken as a good. And in fact there’s some cities, where in fact where it’s almost constitutionally, you have to listen to citizens. Citizens know best. Not by their voting, but actually all the time. And these ideas about how much you should trust the crowd, go back to the founding of every democracy and every nation. And so I do think it’s worth asking in a case like this. So you’ve asked the citizens for their opinion and now they’ve given it to you, to what extent are you going to actually listen? In this case in particular, for example, one of the things that comes out, is that the planners, the people who put together the basic plan, had anticipated this to be really useful for starting a FinTech lab, for helping incubate FinTech companies, actually inside the Metaverse. And when the polling data come back from citizens, they’re much less enthusiastic. So then the question becomes, “Should we listen to the experts that laid out this plan? Might have a long-term view on economic development, or should we listen to citizens who say, ‘This thing doesn’t feel very useful.”
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. And I guess the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but also the people that are more inclined to participate in a pilot of this kind, may not be representative of the population as a whole. So I’m wondering, does something like this maybe exacerbate a gap, whether it’s socioeconomic or it’s a technology gap, you’re getting a certain type of person who would want to engage this way. Do you over weight their opinion if you listen to them?
MITCH WEISS: You could, if you’re not careful about where you’re selecting your feedback from or how you’re regarding it, you absolutely could. I mean, the folks that I met with on the Metaverse team in Seoul, were attuned to this. They were hopeful that ultimately that Metaverse Seoul would actually be a way to include people, who maybe couldn’t be otherwise included for physical ability or some other reason. They were cognizant of not accentuating the digital divide. They were thinking about how to make the technology more accessible. But no doubt, it’s a worry that’s on their mind and should be on anybody’s mind as they deploy new technology and think about who they hear from on that front.
BRIAN KENNY: Did they face controversy within their own ranks? I’m wondering if people who had been sort of stalwarts in city government in Seoul saw this as sort of a distraction. We got real work to do. Forget this virtual stuff.
MITCH WEISS: I didn’t hear of that much controversy, but the folks I spoke with absolutely said there was a lot of education they had to do around City Hall about why this was necessary, about why we should invest, essentially, substantial monies in this. And as with any new thing, there are always going to be people in general and especially in government who say, “Look, we know how to feed real people in real life. Why don’t we spend money on that?” That’s always been the riddle of all the cases that I write, which is, “We know that we could do something that feels safer, why would we do this?” And when the Seoul officials came to class, what they basically said was, “Somebody needs to try this. And we feel like given our reputation for digital advancement and our skill at this, that it probably should be us.”
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. I could see that. I mean, that makes a lot of sense. Somebody has to try it, right? You never know what you can do. Do you know of any experiments that are happening in other cities? Anything in the United States?
MITCH WEISS: It’s hard to say for the Metaverse per se, since the definition is so hazy. But if you think about there are absolutely episodes of people using virtual reality and augmented reality to do training, for example, for the military. There are examples at the city level, the Economic Development Group in Orlando was trying to build a digital twin so they could run simulations. I wouldn’t say this is by any stretch dominant here in the United States or anywhere. This is still super preliminary and experimental. There’s a few other examples. In Barbados, they opened up an embassy essentially in, or are opening up an embassy in Decentraland, one of the decentralized metaverses. So there are small efforts to move government into the Metaverse. Seouls’ is by far the largest and most advanced.
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Super conversation, very interesting stuff. I’m wondering if there’s one thing you want our listeners to remember about the Metaverse case. What would it be?
MITCH WEISS: The biggest thing out of the case isn’t a metaverse thing, but it’s on this question you asked about citizen engagement and I picked it up from a colleague at the Kennedy School, Archon Fung, who talks about, the real pivot when you move to citizen engagement, is moving from a situation where it’s essentially the city versus a problem, or oftentimes people versus the city versus a problem, to where it’s people and the city versus a problem. And so you might imagine what’s going on even in Seoul and even with the Metaverse, which is it’s not the city versus high housing prices or the people versus the city. Angry at the city because of high housing prices. But now, if you can actually create citizen engagement richly, it’s actually the people and the city versus high housing prices. Now it’s a way too giant leap to say the Metaverse is going to cure high housing prices, but it’s not too far of a leap to say, “This might be another episode or another way we can engage people with us as we face problems, as opposed to have them against us and then us against the problems.”
BRIAN KENNY: And I’m breaking my own rule, that was supposed to be the last question, but I have one more question because you just made me think about it, which is Second Life when it first started in 2003 was really in an environment that was not as technologically rich as we are today. People’s mobile devices couldn’t do the things they can do now. We didn’t have the bandwidth that we have now. Do you feel like this version of the Metaverse is now one that is coming at the right time, where the technology’s going to enable it and the adoption rate will be higher, because people are just more comfortable engaging this way? And COVID probably made people more comfortable being in a virtual setting. We’re using Zoom all the time, so our behaviors have changed.
MITCH WEISS: Well, at some level there’s no question that technology has advanced in this front and made it all potentially much more possible. Whether it’s visors, whether it’s processing in the cloud, whether it’s sensors, whether it’s our comfort with all those things. Certainly we’ve come a long way. On the other hand, and I was just listening to an expert this morning on essentially hardware for the Metaverse, we might actually be a ways off still from the technology that would really allow this to feel like it’s a simulated world. And so I think we find Seoul certainly on the heels of some incredible technological advances. We didn’t even mention what Web3 and the blockchain can help enable in these places in terms of exchanging digital documents, digital products, certificates. So, there’s been a huge advance. We are still probably, or almost certainly in the very early days.
BRIAN KENNY: Yeah. Well maybe there’ll be a follow-up case on this at some point. We can have you on an eighth time.
MITCH WEISS: Maybe your avatar and my avatar can meet.
BRIAN KENNY: Mitch Weiss, thanks so much for joining me on Cold Call.
MITCH WEISS: Thanks, Brian.
BRIAN KENNY: If you enjoy Cold Call you might like other Harvard Business School podcasts: After Hours, Climate Rising, Deep Purpose, IdeaCast, Managing the Future of Work, Skydeck, and Women at Work. Find them on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And, if you could take a minute to rate and review us we’d be grateful. If you have suggestions or just want to say hello, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks again for joining us. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School and part of the HBR Podcast network.