Could the metaverse help the real world?
Virtual worlds have been popularized for their ability to take us to concerts and parties or inside our favorite video games and movies. But some people have taken a completely different approach to the burgeoning “metaverse,” using it as a tool for tangible change on a global scale.
One of the biggest movers in that arena is Brian Christensen, CEO of Blockcities, a platform running on blockchain technology that allows users to bring their virtual reality into, well, reality.
How? They’re shooting for the (virtual) stars…
Using a virtual planet to test ideas for the real one
…and landing back on (virtual) Earth.
“We designed a digital twin of the planet—a ‘Virtual Earth,’” Christensen says. “It’s the same structure. The cities and countries that exist here also exist on this platform.”
The Virtual Earth features a hexagonal overlay of “tiles,” each denominating areas across the planet. That’s where non-fungible tokens (NFTs) come into play.
“Each of the tiles on our Virtual Earth is geographically linked to the corresponding regions on our planet and can be ‘unlocked’ with a purchase of an NFT,” Christensen says. “These ‘security tokens’ are representative of ownership.”
Owning a tile grants abilities for that actual region. Owners of Virtual Land can submit an asset for tokenization and rent real-life properties.
“The Virtual Earth exists as a gateway to our main platform, where all of those transactions actually take place,” Christensen says. “It allows us to control what areas we’re operating in. Long-term, we’re looking into making Blockcities a tool for city planning and greenfield development. We want you to take your plans and be able to augment them into what they’ll look like in physical form.”
Voting on the changes we want to make in the world
To enact those real-world processes, the company uses voting. “On the blockchain, we have the opportunity to make individual votes anonymous, but have the result be blockchain-verified,” Christensen says.
Different types of voting scenarios can be facilitated on the Blockcities program.
“There’s the public vote, where people can choose between option A or B,” Christensen says. “That can be used in several different settings—we’re envisioning it particularly for developers who are looking to get feedback on designs before going vertical on construction projects. We’re also able to hold private votes for smaller groups, like HOAs.”
Blockcities also allow for asset-specific voting, where individuals with equity in particular assets have votes weighted according to their percentage ownership in the asset. Even with all of these options, the “game-changer,” according to Christensen, is Blockcities’ actionable voting process.
“If you want to bring about real-world improvements—put your money where your mouth is—we’re offering you a safe way to do it,” he says. “Whoever owns the NFT, or the tile, for a specific area can propose anything for a vote.”
"THE VIRTUAL EARTH IS JUST AN OUTLET FOR THE MAIN PLATFORM WE'VE BUILT"
When Christensen says “anything,” he really means anything.
“Let’s say you wanted a juice bar at the bottom of your apartment complex, or there are potholes on your street that need to be fixed. Whatever it is, you propose that something happens, buy a bunch of votes, and invite your friends to do the same.”
You only need to own a tile to propose a vote, not to vote itself. And votes aren’t limited to one per person, either.
“Voting tokens are different from the security token it takes to own a city or region,” Christensen says. “Anyone can buy as many votes as they want for a given proposal, regardless of their ownership in the Virtual Earth.”
There’s a catch, though—each successive vote costs more than the vote before.
“Your original vote is one token, but then your second is two tokens. Three votes is nine tokens,” Christensen says. “The more votes you buy, the more confidence you show in the idea.”
Funding the community projects we want to bring to fruition
This vote-purchasing process is structured for exponential growth—the money collected is the budget for the project.
Funds from the votes are placed into an escrow and then used to bid on professionals who can complete the task in the real world. Finalized funds take the accepted bid into production, and the money is dispersed as it is completed.
Actionable voting is something that the real-world lacks, Christensen says. With Blockcities, he says decisions can be made—and the follow-through tracked—easier than ever.
“We can build multiple milestones into the process,” he says. “This means that setup is not just sending all the funds at once. From the escrow, we can break payments into installments to make sure that pothole is actually filled, or that the juice bar is actually producing juice. Our voting systems aren’t just secure ways to share group opinions, they guarantee a follow-through. We program that money to flow where it needs to go—to make your voice turn up in the real world as much as it does on our virtual one.”
The votes don’t have to be on political or community-oriented issues, though. That strikes at the core of what makes Blockcities special: it’s totally customizable.
“You can get user feedback this way and jumpstart brainstorming phases for any kind of industry,” he says. “If you can upload proof that corporate licensed professionals exist to bid on the jobs, you’re set to start a vote.”
This guarantee makes Christensen believe blockchain voting is the solution to problems that have plagued communities for centuries.
“One of the things that I think would be absolutely amazing is applying Blockcities’ voting to taxes and budgeting. We’ve got this big pot of money funded by taxes that I don’t think is being used wisely. But with our voting programs, we can subsidize those efforts in a way that would help people know where every dollar was going—to help build trust again between our communities and our governments.”
Christensen says that Salt Lake City could especially benefit from something like Blockcities’ voting systems.
“A good example is Operation Rio Grande, the clean-up effort the city did about two years ago,” he says. “The local government put millions of dollars into the project, and those funds ended up with the police force. They paid for people to be in jail. That’s it. If we had put that money into an escrow account and allowed for it to flow in a particular way, that same amount of money could have purchased two tiny homes for every single homeless person in the state of Utah. It would have eradicated the issue completely. Instead, we spent a bunch of money in the wrong direction.”
Christensen says the Blockcities’ voting systems can rebuild trust.
“We’ve seen the misappropriation of funds, but that doesn’t need to be the case,” he says. “We should be able to take the initiative and program outcomes where people can feel good about putting money into a bucket because they know that it’s going to get spent the way it should.”
Owning virtual cities
All this empowerment for change comes with a twist. In the current version of the Blockcities’ program, anyone can purchase the security tiles. This means that it’s not just government officials or community representatives that have the ability to propose votes.
Case in point: Jeff Crane, an NFT-enthusiast and Utahn, owns Park City on Blockcities’ Virtual Earth.
“Now that Park City is filled, no one else can buy it,” Christensen says. “The Virtual Earth we’ve created exists, regardless of who’s on board and who’s not. The purchase of a tile doesn’t add or subtract anything from the grid, it just unlocks the functionality from the main program.”
Christensen hopes to get the rest of the cities in the United States unlocked before moving through the rest of the world.
“We’re going to sell cities at home first and then start branching into new markets,” he says.
That starting point hasn’t diminished interest from foreign governments, though.
“Countries and municipalities [using] the US dollar are looking to pivot right now,” he says. “They’re trying to implement some technologies that can help their economy get a leg up on the global playing field, and often, that means accepting bitcoin as an alternative.”
El Salvador and the islands of Nevis and Saint Kitts fit that bill.
“I’ve had the chance to meet with their governments, and they all very much understand that blockchain is the future and how Blockcities can help,” Christensen says.
"THE ONLY WAY WE'RE GOING TO BE ABLE TO TACKLE ANY REAL WORLD PROBLEMS—IS BY LEVERAGING THE POWER OF PEOPLE COMING TOGETHER."
Christensen’s goal was to get more countries and large municipalities to sign on to Blockcities. With those successes, he’s ready to aim even higher.
“Our program has been a much easier pitch than I initially expected. To be honest, the roadblocks we thought we’d face with foreign leadership just haven’t materialized. They’re just excited to get started and be a part of all this.”
This isn’t a recent idea for Christensen or anyone else on his team—the idea is almost old enough to get a driver’s license.
“Conceptually, this is something that originated in November of 2007,” Christensen says. “But back then, we didn’t have the technologies or the funding to take it anywhere. It wasn’t until 2017 that we started the intense process of building what became Blockcities, and we’ve kept our heads down since then. We didn’t want to be too vocal until we had something to present.”
When the technology caught up, Christensen says the legislation was still lagging.
“With tokenized assets, you can’t just skirt around security laws,” he says. “There are a lot of companies and projects that have been playing in the gray area and managed to do well for themselves, but that wasn’t going to be us. Eventually, there will be clear language on what is and is not considered a security, and we decided to build on the side of caution to make sure we’d be sustainable long-term.”
Now, in 2022, Christensen is confident in the work they’ve put in—enough to finally take the project public.
“There are a lot of companies in blockchain, particularly in the real estate tokenization space, that are already doing it right,” he says. “And we recognize that the pieces of Blockcities aren’t necessarily brand-new ideas—people have been doing parts of this for years. What’s different for us, though, is bringing everything together. We’re combining all these elements into one experience, one platform, and that’s the thing that’s never been done.”
In December 2021, Christensen and the Blockcities team held contests on social media, asking their followers to share and repost content. The selected winner received credit for a tile on the Virtual Earth.
“Otherwise, we’re still pretty closed off,” he says. “The beta launch is coming soon, and that’s when more people will be able to get involved.”
Planning for a diversified future
The Virtual Earth isn’t the end of Blockcities’ work—it’s their launchpad into the world of blockchain.
“The Virtual Earth is just an outlet for the main platform we’ve built,” Christensen says. “We want to be an onboard ramp into other metaverses. I think we’ve demonstrated our ability to do that through our main technology’s integration with the Virtual Earth. We’re well on our way to being a starting point for other users.”
What else could Blockcities’ tech apply to? Christensen says the limit doesn’t exist.
“This isn’t something I spun up with the intention of accommodating traditional assets,” he says. “While your standard apartment complex or single-family home construction could be facilitated through the platform, it was built with alternative forms of assets in mind—renewable energy or agriculture, things that represent the future. That’s the asset type we’re really looking for on our platform.”
That angle is what’s exciting Blockcities’ investors, too.
“Our tool enables building the ‘future’ in its various forms,” Christensen says. “But it’s not just real estate, environmental activism, or asset-trading. Our technology can be applied to anything, in every sector.”
And as the world struggles to find solutions, Christensen says his team will be ready to step up.
“I know that the only way we’re going to be able to tackle any real problems—the only way to offer actionable solutions—is by leveraging the power of people coming together,” he says. “It’s only through collaboration that we get long-term answers.”
Getting those long-term answers also has personal consequences.
“When I had my girls, things changed for me,” Christensen says. “I saw how confusing and difficult the world was and realized we really do have the tools to simplify things and solve issues that we’ve been arguing about for decades.”
That’s why, to Christensen, an innovation like Blockcities was inevitable.
“At some point in the near future, voting like we’ve structured will be done more and more in the blockchain, especially as technology catches up to our ideas,” he says. “As we adopt this technology, new kinds of transactions will be brought to the blockchain, too. We’re excited to be around for it.”