Why the UN has chosen Minecraft to help it develop public spaces

Why the UN has chosen Minecraft to help it develop public spaces

The Block by Block programme is enabling residents to improve public spaces around the world

Richard Humphreys |

Residents in cities around the world are taking part in Block by Block, a new programme created by the United Nations and videogame developer Mojang, which uses the power of Minecraft and designs sourced from local residents to improve public spaces around the world.

The need to improve public spaces is becoming increasingly important as, for the first time in history, the majority of the planet’s population now lives in urban areas. Within a generation, that number will balloon to more than two-thirds of all people. Public space – from parks to markets and even streets themselves – is a key indicator of the health and sustainability of cities.

“Well-designed cities count 30-40% of their land as shared public space, while improvised communities in developing cities can dip under 5%,” said Pontus Westerberg, UN-Habitat (the United Nations agency for human settlements and sustainable urban development) digital projects officer and program manager for Block by Block, in an article for Microsoft. “Done correctly, cities can be drivers of innovation and great contributors to economic growth. But done badly, cities cause social disparity and huge environmental problems. That’s true in the slums of Nairobi or Kathmandu but also in the sprawling cities of North America.”

In order to understand Block by Block, it’s important to understand Minecraft. Vu Bui, chief operating officer of Mojang and president of the Block by Block board, explained the game at a recent workshop in Hanoi: “Minecraft is essentially 3D digital Lego in that it’s a game about placing and removing blocks. Everything is on a one-by-one-by-one 3D grid and you can play by placing blocks, exploring worlds and mining more materials — hence the name. It’s what’s called a ‘sandbox game’ and it’s an open world in which you can do just about anything.”

Minecraft, which was released in 2009, is now the world’s most popular PC game and one of the most popular games, of any sort, on the planet. One hundred million paying users play in community-designed events and build things with others in ‘creative mode’.

But Minecraft is much more than a game. It is a cultural phenomenon that is as widely recognised on the streets of Hanoi as in Houston. Beyond the Lego comparison, Minecraft is, in fact, one of the storied, plastic construction toy’s most popular lines. It can also be found on backpacks, T-shirts, hats, keychains (the list goes on) and it is soon to be a major Hollywood movie.

And this is why the platform is at the crux of the Block by Block programme. “There are many people who are shut out of having a voice in how their public spaces are developed,” said Thomas Melin, head of the External Relations division at UN-Habitat. “By and large, cities are designed by middle-aged male politicians who travel everywhere by car. Yet, half of the inhabitants in some of these places are youth. More than half are women. Most don’t have vehicles.” Even when developers make the effort to work with local stakeholders, key groups are still excluded: the elderly, women, youth, disabled and many others.

“One of most exciting parts is that Minecraft can bring millions of people into a debate about public space and make it more of a mainstream conversation. We want people to ask their parents and politicians, ‘Why isn’t public space working in my city?’”

The goals of Block by Block were relatively straightforward. Working with Minecraft collectives, UN-Habitat builds Minecraft models of public spaces that are slated for redevelopment. The models are then used in workshops in which participants are trained in the use of Minecraft and then asked to re-design the public space models in groups. On the final day of the workshop, the groups come together with other stakeholders to prioritise the top ideas. The community-developed Minecraft models are then used to inspire the final designs of the public spaces and, ultimately, the construction work.

The first Block by Block projects were in Nairobi. After a trial project at Silanga sports field, they moved on to Dandora, a once well-planned area that had degenerated to near slum status and is known for its high crime rate and as the location of the largest garbage dump in East Africa.

Block by Block teamed up with a variety of local organisations to revitalise Dandora’s public spaces, initially focusing on creating a model street that would influence other improvements in the neighbourhood. Proposals built in Minecraft in the Block by Block workshop led to upgrading a main street, clearing ditches, planting trees and now building gateways along the corridor.

“Designing in Minecraft allowed people in Dandora to explore the merits of various design alternatives and visualise their ideas,” said Westerberg. “The process also encouraged people to develop a broader understanding of the urban environment, speak in public with greater confidence and improve community relations.” For many participants, it was the first time they had publicly expressed opinions about local issues.

Melin added: “Minecraft is a tool that is increasing community engagement in public space projects by enabling participants to express themselves in a visual way, develop skills, network with other people from the community and provide new ways to influence the policy agenda.”

Hanoi was the kickoff project for 2017 and a chance for the board to re-convene and plan for the upcoming year while getting to witness the first Block by Block in Vietnam. The project goal was to design secure and friendly public spaces in the burgeoning, working-class neighbourhood of Kim Chung, especially as many of the local girls must travel many miles to reach the school and need to have a safe zone around the buildings.

Prior to the workshop, the schoolgirl participants did “safety walks” to score the surrounding areas in various categories including “can see and be seen,” “can hear and be heard” and “able to get away.”

Problem areas that emerged included: inadequate lighting, dark corners where criminals can hide and piles of garbage in the streets. They judged the tunnel under the five-lane highway to be particularly challenging.

“I hate the tunnel and never like to walk through it by myself, but I have to do it at least twice per day when I go to school,” said 15-year-old Nguyen Ngoc Anh. “We have lots of ideas how to make it nicer so that people will learn to treat it better and then it can be a safer place for everyone.”

The teams of girls presented not only their findings but interactive 3D models built in Minecraft. By improving the security, the girls will have a chance at more inclusion and participation in their education. But there was another level to the experience. By presenting these findings to local government officials, UN-Habitat officials, architects and others, the girls are building their confidence in using technology, expressing their ideas and learning that their views matter.

Bui, who is half-Vietnamese and lived in Vietnam for two years as a kid, gave a speech to the group in Vietnamese, much to the joy of the students. “Maybe they won’t all become urban planners, architects or activists,” he said after his speech. “But all will hopefully see the value of their education and feel empowered that they have something to offer in terms of a career.”

Prior to Block by Block, Westerberg had long searched for a way to use technology to engage youth in the development process. “We found a language that kids enjoy and understand which is important because they are the majority in many places and will grow up to be the adults in the city,” he said. “Minecraft is not just a game. It is a co-creation tool to build better cities and better communities with more equal societies.”

Sometimes Block by Block funds the construction of the projects. Sometimes they fund the workshop and the municipality funds the construction. But the ultimate goal for every project is for the methodology to go viral. They want it to get to the point where Block by Block need not be involved at all.

“That’s when we’ll start to see real scale and growth,” said Westerberg. “People are recognising the value of participation and value of Minecraft in this process. It’s already gaining momentum. We can accomplish more by educating people than by trying to fund it all ourselves.”

He said, “Now, in Nairobi, the local government is going to upgrade 60 public spaces. At first they didn’t even think about public spaces. It took us two years to get the line in the budget for public spaces, and it was still at zero. Now, after all the Block by Block workshops, they see the impact and are going to fund all of these new developments themselves.”

This is an edited version of an article published on microsoft.com. View the piece in full here.



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