Minecraft for Urban Design

 
 
Rato Machhendranath Temple created in Minecraft.

Rato Machhendranath Temple created in Minecraft.

Words by Nikki Stefanoff
Photos sourced from UN-Habitat & Google Maps
What would MPavilion look like if it was co-designed by kids using Minecraft? Learn about our event MPavilion x Block by Block here.

Using Minecraft to assist in citizen-led design may seem farfetched, but it’s the surprising collaboration between the UN and Swedish games studio, Mojang, that’s changing the lives of those in our poorest cities.


If you have a teenager or pre-teen in your life, then the multicoloured, 3D world of Minecraft will be all too familiar. If not, just know that this virtual world-building video game – as much about engineering know-how as it is a game of survival, sometimes fraught with zombies – has been a global phenomenon since its 2011 launch and is only increasing in popularity.

Helped along by Microsoft, who bought Mojang, the Swedish games studio and creators of Minecraft, along with the game’s intellectual rights in 2014 for over US$2 billion, the world of Minecraft is now comparable to other blockbusters such as Harry Potter and LEGO with a motion picture due for release in 2019 and Minecon, the Minecraft annual convention. And yet far away from the teenage bedrooms of the Western world and into the slums of Africa, the streets of Kosovo, and the most dangerous and rundown areas of Johannesburg, this computer game is being used to better the lives of city residents. The project is called Block by Block, a collaboration between UN-Habitat, the UN’s agency for socially and environmental sustainable cities, and Mojang.

The collaboration began back in 2012 when UN-Habitat launched the Global Public Space Program (GPSP) to tackle issues surrounding public spaces in cities. After identifying a lack of community involvement in city planning, they had the idea to talk to Mojang. The thinking being that the lure of Minecraft is the freedom it gives the player to create, plan and build whatever they like. So, using Minecraft to help in the planning and building of public spaces seemed like it could work.

“They weren’t the biggest video game company in the world when we first approached them,” laughs Pontus Westerberg, who runs the Block by Block program for UN-Habitat. “The idea came to us after talking about how, when working within the GPSP, we were finding it hard to engage with those hard-to-reach groups – women, slum dwellers and especially youth. Community engagement is really important and so we asked ourselves ‘How can we find a new way to engage young people in community participation?’ We found Minecraft and it seemed like a perfect fit.”

Vu Bui, COO of Mojang, agrees that the partnership is a natural collaboration and was thrilled when UN-Habitat first approached them. “We thought it sounded like an amazing idea. We didn’t think at the time that it was going to happen though, as the UN is not known for working with fledgling video game companies and we didn’t know how the relationship could even work,” he says. “Thomas Melin at UN-Habitat could be described as quite visionary and innovative for even considering joining a [then] small Swedish video game studio with a large, political organisation like the UN.”

 
In response to the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, which destroyed the Rato Machhendranath Temple, UN-Habitat ran a Block by Block workshop to reimagine the space using Minecraft.

In response to the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, which destroyed the Rato Machhendranath Temple, UN-Habitat ran a Block by Block workshop to reimagine the space using Minecraft.

 

UN-Habitat’s projects are broad and can cover everything from governance to planning to finance, slum upgrading and housing. The work they do with Block by Block, however, is solely focused on improving public spaces. “When we think about cities, stable cities, it’s the public spaces that are really important. In fact, when you think about cities, it’s really the public spaces you think of,” says Westerberg. “The stuff between the buildings is where life happens. That’s where people meet, that’s where people interact and there are lots of cities around the world really lacking in public space.”

With so many cities in need of support, UN-Habitat have strong global connections with local and national governments to assist in choosing which projects to take on. They also open an annual call for proposals, the latest being December 2016, when they selected five projects. Key criteria for Block by Block is not only identifying a new public space, but projects must have the potential to have a transformative effect on the broader neighbourhood or city as a whole.

Once a space has been identified, UN-Habitat begin working with local government, the local community and a team of Minecraft experts who help facilitate training in how to navigate the game. But how challenging is it to run digital workshops in cities and countries where technology isn’t so common place? “[Minecraft] is not that complicated once you sit down and use it,” says Westerberg. “We do run training and workshops, which, depending on the complexity of the site and where we are located, can be either four or five sessions. I have to say that one of the most amazing things about Minecraft is just how quickly people pick it up and are able to start building. Within a couple of days they are able to sketch up their ideas in 3D, which is really cool.”

The program kicks off with a Minecraft expert building the public space, as it exists, in Minecraft. The community are then invited to collaborate and redesign the public space so that it meets their needs. When the program started it was with a view to get more young people involved in the consultation process, but, generally, the whole community gets excited. “Some projects we still focus on the youth, some we mix – which is nice. We have three or four people on a computer working collaboratively and it can be great to mix young and old people,” says Westerberg. “What happens is that the younger people, around 19 or 20-years-old, feel more comfortable testing and trying things out while the older community members can be more hesitant. The older people then have to find ways to communicate their ideas to the younger people, which is great as it changes the power dynamic.” This shift in dynamic continues throughout the Block by Block process and culminates in the young participants having to explain their ideas to professional stakeholders, city authorities and UN-Habitat’s partners and shareholders at the end of the workshop. All the designs are submitted with the aim to incorporate and build them into the public space itself. The power of the workshop is apparent to Westerberg and his team and goes further than simply helping a community build a public space. “At the start of the process [the youth] are very shy and find it hard to express their ideas and to think spatially,” says Westerberg. “You see the change at the end of the process when they can explain their ideas to architects, planners and local authorities. It’s a great leveller. We wrote a paper on the work we did in Nepal and one of the things that came out strongly was the confidence [the young participants] had gained. They said they felt that their confidence grew as it was the first time they had presented in front of a group of adults and the first time professionals had listened to them. That was very powerful.”

 

“The stuff between the buildings is where life happens. That’s where people meet, that’s where people interact and there are lots of cities around the world really lacking in public space.”

 

Mojang also love to get involved in the workshops and try to always have their annual meetings in locations where active workshops are running. “Block by Block is important to us as a company,” says Bui. “Attending workshops helps ground us in the details of how they work, who participates, what the areas we are attempting to help are like, and what the impact of our work is.”

The aim of the Block by Block program is that every project developed through Minecraft will be implemented. “We have between 40–50 projects on the go at the moment,” says Westerberg. “They take a while to get up and running, each one takes between one and three years to complete so we have about 15 completed so far. Both the teams at UN-Habitat and Mojang have big plans for Block by Block and, more specifically, the way Minecraft can be used as a methodology for public community participation in urban public space projects. “Our goal for Block by Block is to make it more widely accessible and our partnership with UN-Habitat is key,” says Bui. “They have developed and iterated on the methodology and have the most knowledge about cities and local governments and how they work in different countries. What we want to see, as this program and partnership progresses, is not only more projects but also more reach in terms of what the projects can do: How can we enable the voice of people in communities who usually don’t have a say in the spaces around them?” UN-Habitat are in full agreement: “I hope that in the next few years this model will be increasingly used independently of us, which is already happening,” says Westerberg. “We want this to be a methodology that is part of the toolbox local authorities use when it comes to community engagement. I’ve now done a lot of these projects where people are co-creating on urban design projects and it really works.”

Westerberg thinks that it’s crucial that urban development projects connect with citizens and is proud that the Block by Block program has helped to develop a new way to move past simply talking. “I think citizen-led design can be used in various ways. You can do mapping, talk to people on the street, have public meetings or have specific processes just involving women or engaged youth,” he says. “The benefit is different in different places in the world. In slums, for example, there is a problem with people being able to read maps, et cetera, so it’s fantastic to show them how to sketch in 3D. In the larger and richer cities, you have a problem with people not turning up to community meetings, particularly younger people, so you can use Minecraft to get people in who might not have otherwise thought about participating in these processes.”

The possibilities available from this creative and intricate, yet simple to use, computer game are wide-reaching and life-changing. So, next time you see a focused teen hunched over a games console, resist the urge to tell them to put down the control and force them out the door into the ‘real world’. Instead, take solace in the fact that they could be building skills that could, one day, change the world.

 

“Block by Block is important to us as a company. Attending workshops helps ground us in the details of how they work, who participates, what the areas we are attempting to help are like, and what the impact of our work is.”

 

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Nikki Stefanoff is editor of Matters Journal. After spending 13 years editing and writing for newspapers and magazines in London, Nikki now uses her journalism background and love of a good chat to find powerful and meaningful stories to tell.