Davos Agenda

The metaverse has the potential to be truly inclusive. Here's how to achieve it

Inclusivity in the metaverse should be the starting point, not an afterthought.

Inclusivity in the metaverse should be the starting point, not an afterthought. Image: Freepik.com

Silvia Wiesner
Consultant, Leadership Advisory, Egon Zehnder
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  • The metaverse has the power to be more inclusive than the offline world.
  • A comprehensive approach is needed to address inclusion at every touchpoint.
  • Inter-organizational initiatives and individual ownership will be key to jointly building the metaverse.

The metaverse has been hailed as the next frontier of virtual reality and the internet, offering an escape from physical constraints and the chance to explore new identities and horizons. However, a recent survey by Wunderman Thompson, New Realities: Into the Metaverse and Beyond, found that almost 62% of people believe that virtual worlds lack inclusivity. Moreover, 82% of those who have heard of the metaverse believe that companies should make special efforts to ensure digital worlds are accessible to everyone.

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Representation is key for people's identities and the representation of others in virtual spaces. For instance, one in five daily active users of Roblox updates their avatar on any given day. Even in a world where one can have anything they desire and let their imagination run wild, 29% of users come to the metaverse for escapism, but 87% of their in-real-life identity correlates with their online identity. This emphasizes the dual importance of reality and imagination, accuracy and fantasy.

Prioritizing inclusivity in the metaverse

Inclusivity is not only a moral obligation, but a business case linked to driving innovation, improving decision-making, expanding market reach, attracting top talent, and ultimately leading to improved business performance and success. Therefore, it is critical to prioritize inclusivity in the design and development of the metaverse.

A comprehensive approach is needed to achieve this, with collective and individual action from multiple stakeholders. Strategic levers for inclusivity in the metaverse have been identified, with collective action being crucial for the responsible development of new technology. Initiatives like the World Economic Forum's Defining and Building the Metaverse must focus on shaping structures, facilitating collaboration and co-creation, advancing consensus among major stakeholders, and driving transparency to raise the bar for others.

However, multilateral initiatives, standards, and regulations cannot single-handedly address the issue at hand. It is essential for individuals to take accountability and initiate deliberate actions, starting with a shift in perspective. This approach must transform from resolving problems to averting problems altogether and from hindsight to foresight. It is also crucial to ensure inclusivity at every level, including the product's creation, intended audience, creation process, creators' diversity, and accessibility.

According to a recent KPMG study, avatars are the most critical lever for people to feel included virtually. Therefore, there is a need to create a multitude of options for self-expression via more representative avatars. Although companies like Meta have made efforts to offer a vast range of avatar options, including assistive devices like cochlear implants and wheelchairs, this is not yet the norm, especially regarding non-binary options or hair textures. Most avatar generators begin with a stereotypical "ideal" body and provide limited room for customization.

Taking a comprehensive approach to inclusivity

Moreover, representation goes beyond appearance and includes other forms of expression, such as voice, sound, and facial expressions. With advancements such as headsets that facilitate natural eye contact between avatars and real-time transmission of facial expressions into virtual reality, there is an opportunity for more inclusive and authentic representation.

However, concerns still require attention in the development of virtual identities. One such concern is the issue of trolling and targeting, which raises the question of whether individuals will be willing to abandon their real-world identity and go into hiding. Another concern is the potential appropriation of cultures, which can contribute to modern social problems such as "identity tourism”. Finally, there is a growing concern about the discrepancy in the valuation of avatars, highlighted in the case of CryptoPunks NFT sales, where avatars that are feminine or have darker skin tones tend to be valued less than male and White avatars.

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How is the World Economic Forum contributing to the metaverse?

To create a more inclusive metaverse, addressing the current need for more diversity in leadership positions is essential. A McKinsey report highlights that 90% of leadership roles in organizations shaping metaverse standards are held by men. Therefore, intentional efforts are needed to ensure diversity in leadership through diversity goals and metrics, enabling programmes, mentorships, and sponsorships.

Additionally, when creating digital avatars and experiences representing communities outside our own, consulting with diverse individuals and hiring representative agencies is essential. Brands like Dove have already taken steps towards inclusivity, partnering with a female-led Roblox studio and the Center for Appearance Research experts for their Real Virtual Beauty campaign.

Moreover, it is crucial to develop accessible platforms that remove barriers and cater to users with disabilities such as deaf or blind users, motor impairments, sensory processing disorders, and language limitations. Improving access for people with disabilities benefits everyone, as seen in the example of the ideal weight of a headset through the lens of elderly users. Interoperability is another key factor that enables users to engage across different platforms, enhancing the future value of the metaverse.

Ultimately, inclusivity should be the starting point, not an afterthought. Brands (see Rexona Metathon and Sunsilk City in Roblox) are already experimenting with inclusive metaverse initiatives, and others should follow suit. The industry must ensure that inclusivity is a priority to build an empathic and inclusive metaverse for all. Testing and refining these efforts are crucial for a truly inclusive metaverse.

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