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Metaverse: hopes, promises and unknowns

Is the metaverse a tool for sustainable development?

Carole Davies-Filleur, Executive Director, Head of Sustainability & Technology at Accenture
On September 20th, 2022 |
4 min reading time
Carole Davies-Filleur
Carole Davies-Filleur
Executive Director, Head of Sustainability & Technology at Accenture
Key takeaways
  • The metaverse can be defined as a continuum of experiences using both old and new technologies – a new Internet, of sorts.
  • Contrary to popular belief, the metaverse could have a positive ecological impact: digitisation could be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of five.
  • Eco-design, as well as environmental and ethical responsibility, are key issues for the development of the metaverse.
  • We still need to raise awareness among both companies and the public to help the metaverse become a “digital technology for good”.

My inter­est in the meta­verse is twofold. As an engi­neer, I am always curi­ous to dis­cov­er the new pos­si­bil­i­ties offered to human beings, soci­eties, and com­pa­nies by emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies. On the oth­er side, as a dig­i­tal man­ag­er, I am con­cerned with mov­ing towards a sus­tain­able trans­for­ma­tion and with increased vig­i­lance about the eth­i­cal and envi­ron­men­tal impacts of these inno­va­tions in the mak­ing – the meta­verse is one of those.

A “new Internet”

My def­i­n­i­tion of the meta­verse is that of a con­tin­u­um of expe­ri­ences cre­at­ed from the con­ver­gence of new and old tech­nolo­gies, a kind of evo­lu­tion of the Inter­net. After the clas­sic inter­net, then the inter­net of things, here is the inter­net of expe­ri­ences with this notion of a con­tin­u­um from which unknown oppor­tu­ni­ties will emerge. The Inter­net, in what­ev­er form, has enabled us to con­sume, learn, enter­tain our­selves and be much more effi­cient in our work­ing lives. Its impact on life is real, tangible. 

There is a real dif­fi­cul­ty in under­stand­ing the meta­verse because it cov­ers a such a wide range of var­ied real­i­ties and experiences.

But there is a real dif­fi­cul­ty in under­stand­ing the meta­verse, because it cov­ers a wide range of real­i­ties and expe­ri­ences, all of which are very var­ied. Indeed, it can be expe­ri­enced through extend­ed real­i­ty or not. To move in these vir­tu­al spaces, one can use a vir­tu­al real­i­ty head­set, but one can also do with­out one. You may be using dig­i­tal cur­ren­cies, but you don’t have to. And it can also work with the 3G, 4G or 5G net­works depend­ing on the options. All these tech­no­log­i­cal choic­es will be made at a very ear­ly stage, once the use case is estab­lished – all of which will have com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent eth­i­cal and envi­ron­men­tal impacts. 

Ecology and the metaverse

My view of the meta­verse, and of the dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion in gen­er­al, is that it is of cru­cial inter­est to eco-design the ser­vices we imag­ine for the future. What does this mean? That we must con­sid­er the con­se­quences of these dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tions very ear­ly on in the devel­op­ment of new appli­ca­tions. And to do this, we must ask our­selves the ques­tion of the envi­ron­men­tal, social, and eth­i­cal bal­ance of the user expe­ri­ence that we want to put in place in rela­tion to their eco­nom­ic val­ue, in rela­tion to their finan­cial prof­itabil­i­ty. What is the net dif­fer­en­tial when all these dimen­sions are tak­en into account? Is the bal­ance sheet pos­i­tive or not? Should we shape a dehu­man­is­ing world with eth­i­cal risks caused by the lack of pro­tec­tion of per­son­al data, fake news, vio­lence between avatars, etc.? Should we allow the use of online data – syn­ony­mous with increased ener­gy con­sump­tion – to con­tin­ue relentlessly?

If the bal­ance sheet is neg­a­tive, then the project is not desir­able. On the oth­er hand, why say no to an objec­tive that makes a real pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tion? At Accen­ture, we recent­ly car­ried out a study enti­tled Digital4Climate with Ago­ria in Bel­gium, and we showed that dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy in the smart build­ing, smart man­u­fac­tur­ing or smart mobil­i­ty sec­tors could have a pos­i­tive impact on the car­bon bal­ance. Digi­ti­sa­tion could result in low­er green­house gas emis­sions by a ratio of one to five, i.e. one emis­sion gen­er­at­ed against five emis­sions avoid­ed. I believe that we can achieve this same ratio with the meta­verse in cer­tain well-cho­sen use cas­es, by inte­grat­ing eco-design. 

Some time ago, I con­duct­ed an aware­ness ses­sion on the impacts of dig­i­tal beyond the meta­verse for a group of CIOs from a large com­pa­ny with a world­wide pres­ence. Many of them were not aware, for exam­ple, that 2 kg of com­put­er requires 800 kg of mate­ri­als, espe­cial­ly to col­lect met­als, some of which are rare. The elec­tric­i­ty con­sump­tion of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy must also be con­trolled, at a time when oth­er sec­tors, such as trans­port, are going elec­tric. And I’m only talk­ing about envi­ron­men­tal issues here, but we know that there are also issues of inclu­sion and acces­si­bil­i­ty to dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy, not to men­tion the pro­tec­tion of per­son­al data and the trans­paren­cy of algorithms. 

A message for everyone 

I think that this aware­ness-rais­ing work is still large­ly to be done at the lev­el of large French com­pa­nies and the pub­lic. But how can this mes­sage be ampli­fied? First­ly, I think that there is an over­all move­ment of large com­pa­nies which, for the most part, have set them­selves very clear envi­ron­men­tal, social and gov­er­nance objec­tives. And these com­mit­ments will be mon­i­tored by finan­cial ana­lysts who love to hold the lead­ers of large com­pa­nies to their promis­es, espe­cial­ly when they are not kept. 

Sec­ond­ly, if there is pres­sure from finance and busi­ness lead­ers, there is also pres­sure from con­sumers. There are more and more pub­lic fig­ures in the media who are mak­ing us aware of the link between our envi­ron­men­tal impact and our use of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy. Third­ly, and this is some­thing I see every day at Accen­ture, the can­di­dates who come to take part in our recruit­ment process­es are increas­ing­ly aware of the company’s actions in rela­tion to the Paris Agree­ment, the reduc­tion of plas­tic or the pro­tec­tion of bio­di­ver­si­ty, etc. This is a real require­ment that we must meet. This is a real require­ment that must be tak­en into account.

Final­ly, there is the gov­er­nance aspect. There are now com­pa­nies that include sus­tain­able devel­op­ment in all their projects, but also at all lev­els of the company’s hier­ar­chy. In fact, respon­si­ble dig­i­tal or sus­tain­able trans­for­ma­tion is becom­ing the piv­ot of the entire pro­duc­tion chain. At Accen­ture, for exam­ple, we have a “sus­tain­abil­i­ty man­ag­er” who is present in all the company’s strate­gic sectors. 

It is on this con­di­tion that the meta­verse can become the good pupil of dig­i­tal. To give an image that will speak to every­one, the meta­verse could be a child of today who enters pri­ma­ry school. More sen­si­tive and much bet­ter edu­cat­ed than we are regard­ing envi­ron­men­tal, social and eth­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty, the meta­verse can like­wise show us the way if, from the out­set, it is fed eco-design and envi­ron­men­tal and eth­i­cal respon­si­bil­i­ty. And then, the gam­ble will be won, on the sole con­di­tion that we do not give in to the hype.

Contributors

Carole Davies-Filleur

Carole Davies-Filleur

Executive Director, Head of Sustainability & Technology at Accenture

Carole Davies-Filleur has been helping large French companies with their digital transformation for over 25 years. For the past 3 years, she has been proposing to her clients to combine digital and sustainable transformation, whether it is to put technology at the service of sustainability or to make technology more responsible. Her functions give her a global, European and local vision of environmental, social and ethical issues. She is a member of the global Responsible Digital Innovation team, is responsible for the European coordination of its activities, and is in charge of sustainability and technology activities for France and the Benelux. Carole represents Accenture in different organisations, such as the European Green Digital Coalition or the Institute for Responsible Digital, in order to contribute to the reflections on technologies for sustainable transformation.