Barbados took a historic step into the digital economy on Monday with Government establishing what is said to be the world’s first metaverse or digital embassy.
In an early reaction, an expert in digital economics welcomed the development but suggested Government wake up from its slumber on a range of policies and laws on data privacy and cybersecurity.
After months of research and planning, the foreign ministry said, the embassy, which is to be formally in place by early next year, will allow Barbados to recognise digital sovereign land. Bridgetown said it will also use its pioneering expertise to help other governments set up their own digital diplomatic presence.
On Sunday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade signed an agreement with Decentraland, one of the world-leading blockchain metaverse platforms, in an effort to outline the baseline development elements for its metaverse embassy.
The metaverse can be referred to as a 3D mixed or sci-fi concept that combines the real world with the digital world, in which people live, work and play.
Details of the metaverse embassy are yet to be made public, but it is understood the concept will provide for the identifying and purchasing of land, architecting of the virtual embassies and the development of facilities to provide services such as e-visas and teleportation.
Government is said to also be finalising agreements with Somnium Space, Superworld and other metaverse platforms.
This comes mere weeks after the concept of metaverse was thrust into the limelight when co-founder of the social media site, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, announced at the end of October that he had changed the tech giant’s name to Meta, while indicating that the company would focus on the metaverse.
A foreign ministry statement to Barbados TODAY announcing Bridgetown’s approval of a metaverse embassy said this virtual embassy will be at the centre of activities to advance the growth of stronger bilateral relationships with governments globally.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Senator Jerome Walcott said: “The Government of Barbados is very pleased to announce the launch of its metaverse embassy initiative.
“This platform will be an important forum where Barbados will work with our traditional partners and new allies to deepen engagement in the diplomatic arena, and the investment, business, tourism and cultural sectors, and people-to-people interaction. Barbados looks forward to welcoming the world in its metaverse embassy.”
Government will continue to establish and maintain physical embassies and will use the metaverse embassy as an opportunity to “pioneer the evolution of global diplomacy beyond the physical world”, according to the statement.
Walcott said: “We welcome the world’s diplomatic missions to join us in establishing their embassies in the metaverse. Barbados is proud to lend our technological assistance and know-how to governments waiting to establish their own metaverse embassy.”
The metaverse embassy is being championed by Barbados’ Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Gabriel Abed, who is also a world-renowned leader in the area of central bank digital currency and blockchain technology.
E-consular services will be a core feature alongside a virtual teleporter, which will be built in Barbados’ metaverse embassy, connecting all meta worlds as a gesture of diplomatic unification between technology platforms, he said.
“We believe it is critical to build teleporters as a common access point to all of the metaverses to foster meta-diplomacy,” said Abed.
The development has been welcomed by economist Jeremy Stephen, a specialist in cryptocurrencies and the digital economy. He said the e-embassy can open up the country and its residents to “a larger set of business opportunities and a new type of tourism”.
But he quickly warned of the need for Government to pay careful attention to data protection.
Stephen told Barbados TODAY once it was fully rolled out, it should benefit a range of industries including that of tourism, culture and entertainment, the global business sector, real estate agriculture and banking.
He said: “It opens us up to a much larger set of business opportunities and a new type of tourism that very well will start to become the norm in about 10 to 15 years – virtual tourism, where people would want to experience your environment without actually having physically to be there.
“It lends itself to a new form of advertising, which is more experiential. So the metaverse allows not just for that virtual experience but also a way to have a little more of an interactive, commercial and financial experience where you can actually do business.
“Let’s say you wanted to purchase books from Barbados… you could walk into the Barbados embassy and be pointed to the best place where they can buy or experience the books. Let’s say a [local author] decides to do film stories from their book, this potential tourist can become even more immerse through a body of film. So it allows us in a more increasingly affordable manner to engage tourists. It allows the average Bajan to begin to serve a wider market in areas that we take for granted right now.”
Stephen said he saw it as “an expansion of an economy”, explaining that any experience on the island currently could be replicated and tried, providing a “one-stop-shop” for the world to “begin to experience what it means to be on the island”.
“I would hope it then branches off into different types of businesses – the ability to purchase digital real estate, allowing the average Bajan to really emerge themselves a bit more in blockchain technology down the line and being able to own digital assets,” he told Barbados TODAY.
“It allows the cultural industries in Barbados to begin to interact with a wider market base not just for marketing but performing. If we have another pandemic, God forbid, it doesn’t rob the artiste down the line from being able to, through the embassy, do worldwide performances, and then do their own performances on any metaverse.”
But the economist warned of data protection as a “fundamental” challenge that must be quickly addressed if the island is to fully benefit from its presence in the metaverse.
Stephen said: “The issue that we have right now is that there are some key parts of legislation when it comes to data privacy and security and cybersecurity that the Barbados Government has been sleeping on. They have been slowly introducing certain tenets of it, but it is not nearly enough to handle the whole idea of having a digital or metaverse embassy.”
He said that the legislation should allow the country to meet the varying data privacy concerns around the world.
“It is those issues fundamentally that makes me think we may not necessarily be the first because if we do it first we will probably cause ourselves some embarrassment if there is not the legislative will to sufficiently deal with data privacy concerns and to deal with cybersecurity concerns in a legislative manner,” he explained.
Ambassador Abed said the metaverse embassy demonstrates Barbados’ leadership in pivoting diplomacy and international relations into the technology age.
He said: “The metaverse embassy is the first phase of a multi-phased approach towards delivering digital solutions that evolve the way we interact with the world around us. This will be critical as Barbados fosters stronger relationships with technologically advanced nations.”