Emerging Technologies

Getting meta about the metaverse

The metaverse could help companies cut emissions by reducing the need for business travel.

The metaverse could help companies cut emissions by reducing the need for business travel. Image: Unsplash/stephan sorkin

Heather Clancy
Editorial Director, GreenBiz
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The Metaverse

  • The metaverse is about much more than entertainment – there are some very real ‘enterprise metaverse’ applications that could affect corporate sustainability strategies, according to PwC.
  • These include virtual meetings, which can reduce the need for business travel, and digital twins of real-world developments, which can forecast their environmental impact.
  • The metaverse could also show the potential effects of climate change in a much more impactful way, by showing people flooded areas or deforestation.

It’s been about 18 months since Mark Zuckerberg deep-sixed the Facebook corporate moniker to rebrand the company as Meta, an homage to its development work on the "metaverse" and a move that sent many diving down the internet search rabbit hole for definitions — searches on the term spiked 7,200 percent.

For those who haven’t taken that plunge, I’ll keep it simple: Metaverse is the umbrella term describing a virtual world made possible by technologies such as 3-D software, artificial intelligence, sensors, goggles and headsets that immerse us humans in an alternate, virtual reality. Sci-fi buffs will know the word was dreamed up by author Neal Stephenson in his novel "Snow Crash," published in 1992. So this isn’t something completely new. Consulting firm McKinsey estimates the amount of money invested in these capabilities during 2022 at more than $120 billion (that figure includes M&A activity among gaming companies, which technically falls into this space).

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But the metaverse is about much more than entertainment. There are some very real "enterprise metaverse" applications that could affect corporate ESG and sustainability strategies, several of which are laid out in this recent report from services firm PwC. Here are three of the more obvious ones:

  • Virtual meetings that feel real. These platforms could enable new approaches for corporate meetings, especially those related to training, that were previously conducted face to face. This could reduce business travel (reducing carbon emissions) and also allow more individuals including those with disabilities to participate (inspiring more inclusion).
  • What would happen if … ? Ever hear of "digital twins"? These systems can model real-world assets and use artificial intelligence and analytics to forecast the impact of materials, product development or process changes. Conceptually, this helps identify opportunities for efficiency or for replacing approaches or ingredients that stand in the way of environmental or circularity goals.
  • Trying before buying. The metaverse includes virtual storefronts where consumers can engage with clothing or goods, a practice that could potentially cut down on transportation emissions or waste associated with physical returns.

"This is the tip of the iceberg; it all starts with learning what this is about," said Roberto Hernandez, chief innovation officer at PwC's Customer Transformation Practice and PwC's global metaverse leader. "It’s important for organizations to make an investment in increasing their metaverse IQ. To understand what you can do from a future of the workforce angle … You can start with something small, something that allows you to understand the opportunities."

More than 700 companies including Caterpillar, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer are doing exactly that in collaboration with Gemba, which develops training courses, including those delivered by virtual reality software used with Meta’s virtual reality headsets. (Not all of Gemba’s clients are using the VR options yet.) In late January, the 10-year-old, London-based venture disclosed $18 million in a Series A funding round. The lead investor was New York’s Parkway Venture Capital.

"Gemba is set to change the way global organizations train their workforces across all critical learning and development areas — from interactive, on-the-job skills training and safety all the way to leadership training," said Gregg Hill, co-founder and general partner at Parkway, in a statement.

Gemba, originally known as the Leadership Network, gets its name from the Japanese word "gemba," which means "actual place." The concept is part of lean manufacturing theory, which encourages managers to visit production facilities and factory floors in order to identify opportunities for waste reduction and process improvement.

The company began exploring how to deliver training via the metaverse about six years ago, after Gemba CEO Nathan Robinson had a chance encounter with a VR expert and began dreaming about how the technology could evolve his company’s leadership training. A growing number of corporate clients are using the platform to bring concepts such as how factory digitalization can contribute to new manufacturing or management processes to life — essentially, they "walk" the factory floor without actually going there in person. The individuals wear headsets that immerse them in a 3-D environment that simulates the scenarios being discussed, bringing theory to life.

Robinson said the approach addresses several concerns that are becoming central to corporations, including the urgent need for companies across all industries to address the underused skill sets of their workforce, the hunger to bite into the expense and emissions associated with business travel, and to help line managers become more adept at removing waste from their operations — whether that "waste" comes in the form of physical resources or time. "The actual answer to what will result in true sustainability is in the processes at the front end of manufacturing," Robinson told me.

A case study involving Irish automotive company Aptiva suggests the metaverse approach can dramatically reduce training time (from two days to four hours, for its situation), slashing the emissions associated with business travel at the same time. Gemba suggests that its style of training can reduce the impact of this activity by slightly more than 1 ton of CO2 equivalent per person, per session.

The individuals engaged in this training aren’t the typical gaming consumer — many are in their mid-50s, used to walking factory floors in and out of hard hats, he said. Despite that, many have readily embraced the headsets. "Adoption has been pretty easy," according to Robinson.

One more thought to leave you with: Aside from training content, the metaverse could be a real ally when it comes to communicating the potential impacts of climate change. Imagine asking someone to "walk" through a neighborhood or corporate campus flooded by rising seas or bringing them to "visit" a biome stripped of biodiversity because of deforestation. Name your scenario, and you may be able to recreate it in the metaverse — to prove your point more realistically. "It sounds counterintuitive that we are talking about getting more real feedback in virtual settings," Hernandez said. "But when you incorporate the visual element, you increase the awareness."

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