There are many companies angling to make money in the metaverse at the moment, but far fewer trying to use its technology for public good. The World Economic Forum hopes to change that with the Global Collaboration Village, which will be introduced at Davos this year ahead of a full rollout. The virtual village has been designed to function—and look—like the real Swiss town, except that here the people convening in co-working spaces, attending conferences in government buildings, and browsing museums will be doing so as avatars.
WEF executive chairman Klaus Schwab, who has spent decades cultivating in-person interactions between world leaders, hopes the village will serve as a consistent meeting ground for Davos’ stakeholders, transforming the conference from a cloistered one-week gathering to a year-round project. “This could revolutionize global collaboration,” Schwab told TIME in the weeks before the January gathering.
The village is being built using Microsoft Mesh, the computing giant’s still-in-the-works immersive upgrade of its collaboration software Teams. Schwab has already enlisted dozens of partners to populate the village, including Meta and the IMF. The goal is for many of these partners to have virtual buildings in which they can showcase projects. The village will be accessed either through virtual reality—there will be Oculus headsets available in Davos—or via your phone or laptop.
The World Economic Forum hopes that the village will be especially useful for projects that benefit from immersiveness. Ocean environmentalists, for instance, could create simulations of the sea’s depths to show how soundscapes can help restore coral reefs, or how mangroves could play a role in combatting rising sea levels. “We’re trying to do things that can only happen in the metaverse—because if it’s better done in person or on paper, then it doesn’t make sense,” Kelly Ommundsen, the WEF’s head of the Global Collaboration Village, said in an interview.
While the village will be rolled out at Davos, its impact could be much larger in the other 51 weeks of the year. After the conference, Schwab says, the WEF itself will start to hold many of its meetings in the village. Schwab is interested in how virtual meetings with 3D avatars might build more rapport, trust, and ideation potential between people across the world, compared with the nonimmersive Zoom meetings everyone has grown used to in recent years.
Schwab is aware that there are many people resistant to the idea of working in virtual spaces, and that there will be a learning curve for some early participants. But he’s confident that meeting in the metaverse is only going to become more common, especially as the technology continues to improve, so he sees the project as a vital part of the WEF’s initiative to expand its partnership base and to hear from a wider swath of people invested in improving the world in specific ways. “We need new ways of international cooperation, which will allow us to involve many more people into our discussions,” he said. “Here, we can bring people together—and technology is only the means to achieve it.”