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Metroverse: The Urban Economy Navigator


Metroverse is an urban economy navigator built at the Growth Lab at Harvard University. It is based on over a decade of research on how economies grow and diversify and offers brand new insights on a city's growth prospects by placing its existing technological capabilities and knowhow at the heart of how diversification unfolds. Metroverse was built using a user-centered design process to help city leaders, policymakers and researchers grapple with 21st-century urbanization challenges.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

Metroverse is an urban economy navigator built at the Growth Lab at Harvard University. It is based on over a decade of research on how economies grow and diversify and offers a detailed look into the specialization patterns of cities. As a dynamic resource, the tool provides industrial data, analysis and comparison features for over 1000 cities to help answer questions such as:

  • What is the economic composition of my city?
  • How does my city compare to cities around the globe?
  • Which cities look most like mine?
  • What are the technological capabilities that underpin my city’s current economy?
  • Which growth and diversification paths does that suggest for the future?

As city leaders, job seekers, investors and researchers grapple with 21st century urbanization challenges, the answer to these questions are fundamental to understanding the potential of a city.

Metroverse delivers new insights on these questions by placing a city’s technological capabilities and knowhow at the heart of its growth prospects, where the range and nature of existing capabilities strongly influences how future diversification unfolds. Metroverse makes visible what a city is good at today to help understand what it can become tomorrow. Metroverse is a prototype tool with updates and improvements planned including the addition of more cities worldwide, city rankings and industrial profiles.

Innovation Description

What Makes Your Project Innovative?

Growth happens at the city-level. Yet data are often only available at the country level that lacks comparability to other cities. Furthermore, economic research has moved away from one-size-fits-all policies to recognize the localized nature of growth challenges and opportunities. But city-based research has not kept pace, leaving city leadership to operate without the ability to diagnose their specific growth and inclusion challenges, and without comparisons of peer cities that face similar challenges. City leaders struggle to apply data to determine “What’s possible for my city?”

Metroverse presents a pioneering advance in urban analysis. For the first time, cities can visualize their capabilities and growth challenges and prospects alongside cutting-edge research on how to drive prosperity. Metroverse provides city-specific data visualizations, powerful comparators and actionable insights, in a user-friendly narrative format, to unleash new understandings on urban prosperity.

What is the current status of your innovation?

Since its launch in 2021, the Metroverse prototype has seen over 30,000 users across 160 countries. This early traction and our success growing the Atlas of Economic Complexity inspires our development strategy and informs our vision for the possibilities of Metroverse. Over a 2-year period, the Growth Lab will pursue new research questions, with the aim of translating our relevant findings into new functionalities in Metroverse. Some of these include:

  • What is the economic complexity of my city versus others?
  • How has my city’s economy changed over time?
  • What does City X do that I don’t already do?
  • How does my city rank among other cities on various metrics?

We also seek to test our prototype features with external user groups composed of senior-level leaders from around the world. In turn, this will allow us to develop targeted learning resources to accompany the tool.

Innovation Development

Collaborations & Partnerships

To build the Metroverse prototype, the Growth Lab worked in coordination with Mastercard City Possible, the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative and the Inter-American Development Bank to convene a 15-person Pilot User Group composed of city leaders across the world. By engaging with this group throughout the development process, we were able to gather valuable insights that influenced how we designed the tool, helping to ensure that it is useful for a diverse set users.

Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries

Metroverse was developed primarily for senior leaders in cities, policymakers and researchers. As city leaders and researchers grapple with 21st-century urbanization challenges, Metroverse is intended to provide a user-friendly tool for understanding current and potential economies and knowledge bases of cities and thus develop tailored policy approaches.

Innovation Reflections

Results, Outcomes & Impacts

Since its launch in 2021, the Metroverse prototype has seen over 35,000 users across 160 countries. Between December 2021 to March 2022, the number of new users increased by 60% compared to the previous 3-month period.

For example, a group of policy researchers has applied Metroverse to their project in South Africa, South Africa, where they worked to improve the prosperity of cities. They stated that having multiple options to customize and interact with data visualizations led to new research questions and insights into their research. In another example, we heard from a professor who used the Metroverse in her class and stated that the tool helped her to teach students how to pull different data together to reach a conclusion about cities.

We continue engaging with end-users through presentations, demo sessions, and interviews. This enables us to collect feedback and use cases to evaluate our processes and learn for future development.

Challenges and Failures

Our outreach to end-users highlighted some aspects of Metroverse that require improvement.

  • First, we found that having learning materials for a new tool is as important as any feature in the tool. Our interviews revealed that current Metroverse users need detailed introductions on the research concepts and specific visualizations.
  • Second, our observations and learnings from the users suggested that the tool needs an onboarding page that summarizes what the tool offers. For example, a couple of users expressed their confusion that they did not what to do when they opened the tool, and needed basic information about a city, such as its population and GDP, before exploring its economy in greater detail.

In sum, we learned that we need to develop a holistic approach to onboarding and teaching the users about our tool, and this needs to be simultaneous with the early design decisions.

Conditions for Success

To succeed beyond its prototype format, Metroverse will require:

  • Funding for the research and development teams
  • Further engagement with end users
  • Leadership, guidance and support from researchers


It is unlikely that Metroverse would be replicated. Instead, we aim to expand upon the platform. The Growth Lab's Atlas of Economic Complexity is a close relative of Metroverse, sharing many of the same research themes and paradigms, only at the country level, rather than the city level.

Lessons Learned

Since the launch of Metroverse in 2021, we have identified two important lessons.

  • First, our user interviews showed that the Pilot User Group and persona studies significantly improved the user experience of the tool by helping to align hypothetical profiles with the actual end-user profiles.
  • Second, we found that the iterative design process, through wireframing and prototyping, has been effective in distilling scientific, multidisciplinary research into user experience design. For example, our data visualization prototypes helped to facilitate conversations with the research team, acting as a “translator” between two different teams and helping us to find common ground for discussion and design decision-making.

Taken together, these efforts helped unravel the complexity of the research and design the platform following a user-centered design process. Our design process brought together researchers, designers, and various end-users, who collectively guided the process.

Anything Else?

Metroverse’s research and data are scientific and combine complex facets from disciplines such as economics, policy studies, and urban development. Such complexity means that analysis and insights, however useful, can be poorly understood by a broad audience. We adopted methods in our product strategy to design a narrative platform that translates research and data into a user-friendly storytelling structure with interactive data visualizations. Doing so, we faced 2 problems:

  • How could we distill scientific, multidisciplinary research and data into usable insights suitable for policymakers and urban officials
  • How do we design a user experience that effectively communicated these insights to a diverse set of users?

To address these problems we embarked on an iterative and collaborative process that included product discovery, user research, and design initiatives resulting in a narrative visualization platform that distilled Metroverse’s underlying research into a user journey

Project Pitch


  • Developing Proposals - turning ideas into business cases that can be assessed and acted on
  • Implementation - making the innovation happen
  • Evaluation - understanding whether the innovative initiative has delivered what was needed
  • Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways

Innovation provided by:


Date Published:

5 January 2023

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