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Designing a Metaverse for Social Good

Author, professor and entrepreneur Loretta Chen tells us about harnessing Web3 to empower minority communities.

By SGN | 15 July 2022

Loretta Chen is the co-founder of Smobler Studios, a metaverse design agency.

Loretta is a bona fide queen of career reinvention. On top of co-founding metaverse design agency Smobler Studios, her many career paths have established her as a prominent figure in the worlds of arts, media, business, advocacy, and academia.

But through her many pursuits – whether she’s directing plays and musicals, running for Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), authoring a book on trailblazing women in Singapore, or providing leadership courses to underserved youth in Asia – Loretta has sought to create platforms for minorities and amplify the stories of the unheard.

“I’m always thinking about how to use my work to create more opportunities for diversity, equity inclusion – even before these terms were buzzwords,” she says.

Her latest venture is no different. Exploring the possibilities of virtual spaces and interactions, her design agency Smobler Studios aims to harness Web3 technology to support meaningful brands and non-profits and use the metaverse as a platform for social good.

The journey from physical to virtual

In a strange way, Smobler Studios is a resurrection of one of Loretta’s past professional lives but transposed entirely to the digital realm. For well over a decade, she oversaw creative direction and business development at The Activation Group in Singapore, a creative agency that designed event and retail spaces for the likes of LVMH, Nike and WWF.

In 2014, she left agency life behind and started afresh in Honolulu, Hawaii, drawn to the gentler pace of life and the magnificent natural landscapes. It was here that she met her husband Lee and became a professor at two campuses of the University of Hawaii, lecturing in subjects such as performing arts, peacebuilding, and entrepreneurship for the incarcerated.

During the pandemic in 2020, however, she was approached by Ruel Sarmiento – a former designer at The Activation Group now based in Canada – to collaborate on a proposal for the Game Maker Fund by Ethereum-based metaverse platform The Sandbox.

Loretta with Smobler Studios’ co-founder, Ruel Sarmiento.

Intrigued by the community-building potential of the metaverse, Loretta thought the best strategy was to tap on their experience in creating immersive physical spaces that draw traffic and spark interest. “Instead of doing a straightforward game like everybody else,” she recalls, “we wanted to play to our strengths in telling brand stories but translating that into the virtual world.”

The pair conceptualised a sprawling, colourful exposition space called Cobbleland that brings together brands, communities and non-profits and gives young entrepreneurs of minority groups a platform to launch their brands and promote their businesses.

After successfully becoming one of the early recipients of the Game Maker Fund, Cobbleland started gaining attention and receiving several design inquiries. Loretta and Ruel then co-founded Smobler Studios and set off on a journey into the nascent metaverse.

Loretta in conversation with Sebastien Borget, co-founder and COO of The Sandbox.

Designing a metaverse for social good

Building metaverse worlds, Loretta says, means engaging with clients and audiences on a global scale, as well as having the creative freedom to defy laws of time and space and conjure up fantastical, out-of-the-box designs.

With their first client, Tools of Rock, Smobler Studios launched the first metaverse concert venue, which spawned sold-out NFT collections and promises new interactive experiences for music fans around the world.

The studio is currently designing a metaverse campus for Aventis Graduate School, the first of its kind in Asia. Commencing in 2023, the virtual school offers an earn-and-learn model for financial assistance whereby corporations sponsor NFT digital badges that students earn upon completing courses, which can then be traded, sold and exchanged.

“There is an opportunity to democratise education for up to 100 million students in ASEAN who are keen on executive education but may not be able to afford it,” Loretta shares.

Loretta was a mentor and speaker at South by Southwest (SXSW) 2022.

Tech is more diverse than ever

While the tech industry has had a longstanding issue with diversity and inclusion, Loretta sees a global reset taking place, making way for more empathy and acceptance.

“There’s never been a better time to be different in the tech world,” she says. “It has become incumbent upon most organisations to give space for someone like me to have a seat at the table and access to opportunities that would have previously been denied me.”

Although she concedes that most investors she speaks with are still male, Loretta notices that the faces of the tech world in general have changed. They belong to a younger generation that embraces cultural differences, and the metaverse is fundamentally an open and accepting world that will attract progressive changemakers.

Smobler Studios is also adding to the diversity mix. Headquartered in Singapore, it has an expanding global team that includes artists from Brazil, Bhutan, Canada, the Philippines, the UK, and the US.

Loretta also makes it a point to use Cobbleland as a platform for women entrepreneurs such as Nichol Ng of The Food Bank, which launched an NFT collection to raise funds for 10,000 beneficiaries. “We don’t support them just because they’re women, but because they’re exceptional business leaders who happen to be women.”

At a luncheon in New York with Singaporean women in Web3, organised by Edwina Yeo of Supermomos.

You can’t take the Singapore out of me

After more than seven years in Hawaii, Singapore remains deeply rooted in Loretta’s heart.

“Singapore has shaped the way I think and work. My follow-through, my drive for productivity, my pursuit of excellence – these are very Singaporean traits that I take with me to every project I pursue,” she says. “You can take the girl out of Singapore, but you can’t take Singapore out of the girl.”

Apart from keeping in touch with friends and family, Loretta also stays connected to Singapore through her work. “I still tell Singapore stories the best. Being abroad has made me work more with Singapore brands and institutions and hold on more strongly to my Singaporean roots.

Loretta gathering with family in Singapore to celebrate her mother’s and nephew’s birthdays.

“Singapore is a renowned digital and crypto hub, so the Singapore brand is very attractive and lots of players in the Web3 space desire that Singapore association. Despite its global nature, the metaverse has ironically strengthened my connection to Singapore.”

About Loretta

Loretta is the co-founder of Smobler Studios, a metaverse architecture and Web3 design agency based in Singapore. She is also an author, speaker and professor at two campuses of the University of Hawaii.

Connect with her here.

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