I’ve been to Härnosänd and seen the future of urban planning – through a VR Headset. And it will soon be coming your way.

Edited on 27/11/2023

A person wearing Vr glasses, standing on a wood board in front of a screen

Me, in Härnosänd, trying to walk a thin board that my brain kept telling me was suspended 200 meters high in air – and refusing to take a step!

A person standing on a wood board in front of a screen.

The METACITY Action Planning Network has gotten 10 cities thinking about the future of urban planning and how can new digital technologies, such as the metaverse or Artificial Intelligence (AI), contribute to shape it. As the Lead Expert of the network, I have travelled to one of the Partner Cities – Härnosänd in Sweden - and discovered that virtual reality can be both magnificent and scary.

When I accepted the role of Lead Expert for the METACITY network, I was as convinced as all the city partners that the fast development we are witnessing in digital transformation would radically change the way cities are planned, developed, and even lived in. But metaverse? Isn’t that science-fiction?

Then the city visits started and the very first one was to Härnosänd, a small town in the north of Sweden with about 17K inhabitants. Small, yes, but we all know that Swedes don’t mess around when it comes to technology adoption, so the expectations were high - and I must tell were fully fulfilled. The municipality urban planning already has access to a state-of-the-art Digital Twin that replicates the whole city in a screen and allows to visualize projected new buildings, streets and other planned work and that it is as useful as it sounds. See it, play with it a while and think “how is it still possible to measure the impact of new buildings without it”? Impressive, but it’s not, or not just, the future we want to design with METACITY which planned actions will start being implemented only 3 years’ from now and will produce impacts only around 2030. It’s not the medium-term future, it’s much more the present even if not yet for all – or even for most – cities.

So, I asked for a glimpse of the real future and they were so kind as to show me. I was taken to the Virtual Reality company of the Municipality where the future is now being designed and I had the chance to test the tools that are being used for implementing the city’s main new projects. A new elderly centre is now being constructed, and I could put on a Virtual Reality (VR) headset and visit it. I walked around the outside garden (actually I was just walking around the room, but the simulation was pretty convincing), entered through the main entrance and then into some of the rooms – just like the new staff that will work in the centre and that is already being trained on their future jobs using these very same simulation tools for the operation of the future facilities. A second major project on the cards for Härnosänd is the construction of a new hotel on the city’s riverfront – in what is now a green park area – and that can address one of the city’s main challenges which is the lack of suitable hospitality offers.  The project is not without a certain degree of local controversy – as all major projects are – due mostly to its size and its location. But being given the opportunity to visit it virtually – again with the “magic” VR headset and the right software running – was certainly enlightening to me in terms of understanding its future impact and coherence in the landscape and it can certainly be the same for local citizens which will be invited to come and see for themselves as part of the on-going public discussion on the project.

So, is this the future of urban planning? Well yes, or partly, or maybe no, not just that, as there must be much more to it to come within the next couple of years. “Walking” virtually around and inside Härnosänd future developments was certainly impressive, and felt almost like real, but the premises of the metaverse are well beyond that. Not just feeling close to reality, but feeling a different, alternative reality. And that was what I experienced next, when close to the end of the visit the guys at the VR company decided to give me a stronger taste of things to come. So they laid a wooden plank on the room floor and charged a professional VR game on their servers that, once you place the headset on, and with the help of the right sound effect and of the wind blowing from a maliciously placed fan, puts you right there, out of a lift and in the verge of walking the thin plank some 200 meters above floor level. And yes, the elderly care building and the hotel were impressive enough, but your brain was always aware that this was not really reality. But in this plank game, and while part of my brain knew quite well that the plank was standing in the room floor only 5 cm high, the other part was screaming “sorry, but that is not what I am seeing and feeling” and in self-preservation refused to allow my feet to move. It was not only impressive, it was real, and I am not ashamed to say that this part of my brain took the best part over the logical side, and that I - a logical, rationale man, as I like to think – was unable to do a single step over a plank some centimeters above the room floor. This ‘alternative reality’, with its professionally designed graphics and the (still) expensive processing and simulation equipment, is the future that the metaverse brings, now available only to some but soon to be available to everyone from everywhere at anytime. An alternative reality as real as real life, where you can attend meetings, use public services or visualize new construction projects as if they were real – which they are, in a certain way, as your brain will tell you.

The city of Härnosänd now plans to merge its Digital Twin with this full immersive virtual reality experience, in a new lab to be opened in the city’s public library and open to everyone that wants to experience the city future, and will use the METACITY planning phase to develop this concept. Other cities in the network are also looking at similar concepts, as they are to Digital Twins, to enhanced physical infrastructure that can support these new developments or – and equally important – to the legal and ethics possible consequences of this ‘brave new world’ and what it may imply for Urban Planners. Because, believe me, it is enthusiastic, but it can also be scary. Try the plank and see for yourself!

Submitted by Eurico Neves on 27/11/2023
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Eurico Neves

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