As a native of Stockholm, Melin heard about the trial projects with Minecraft back in his hometown. During his next visit to Sweden, he made an appointment at Mojang to chat about some ideas. By the summer of 2012, Bui and Winters were on a flight to Nairobi to meet with Melin and U.N.-Habitat’s new hire, Westerberg, who would oversee the development of a Minecraft-based public space program with global ambitions soon to be known as Block by Block.
“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,” said Melin. “We want people to ask their parents and politicians, ‘Why isn’t public space working in my city?’”
Westerberg, whose background is in digital communications for non-governmental organizations, took on more and more responsibilities around Block by Block, until it became his whole job. Also Swedish by birth, he lived in Zimbabwe for a few years during his youth and first recognized the depth of inequality when other kids on his soccer team had to play with borrowed shoes, or none at all. He said, “We knew that we couldn’t just host some workshops and pat ourselves on the back. From the start, we focused on the program’s methodology so that it would be able to build its own momentum and eventually take on a life of its own.”
The goals were relatively straightforward. Working with Minecraft collectives, U.N.-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 prioritize 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.
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.
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 organizations to revitalize Dandora’s public spaces, initially focusing on creating a “model street” that would influence other improvements in the neighborhood. 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 visualize 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.”
U.N.-Habitat and Mojang set out the grand goal of 300 Block by Block projects in the coming years. However, they found that they didn’t have the human resources or capital to hit that target within their desired timeline.
Then, Mojang was acquired by Microsoft in 2014. After careful consideration and planning, Microsoft and Mojang re-launched the Block by Block Foundation as an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2016.
“As a nonprofit, Block by Block can now accept donations, and we can focus on the growth of that charity and making sure it gets everything it needs to succeed. Like all organizations, it must continue to evolve,” said David Boker, a senior director on the Minecraft team who celebrated 20 years with Microsoft while in Hanoi.
U.N.-Habitat signed a long-term agreement with the foundation in August 2016, ensuring sustainable funding for Block by Block for years to come. The board now meets three times a year to approve public space projects, which will be funded by the foundation.
In 2016, Block by Block held community participation workshops using Minecraft in Indonesia, Madagascar, India, Kosovo, Mexico, Nepal, the U.S., Ecuador and Lebanon. There are currently more than 650 applications for Block by Block projects around the world.
The Block by Block project at the public market in Mitrovica, Kosovo, was designated as the site for the first board meeting in the field. The bridge over the river in Mitrovica in Northern Kosovo is a symbol of traditional ethnic division between the Serbian and Albanian communities. The project aimed to revitalize the city market neighborhoods around the bridge, one of few areas in the city where the two communities meet.
Using Minecraft to devise urban design improvements for the city market and both river banks helped local stakeholders and citizens to think of Mitrovica as one city.
“It not only democratized the development process but really gave people ownership over the space,” said Winters, who was on-site for the project. “There are a lot of new residents in the area, and Block by Block gave them a path to come together in a positive way. They even created one of the first skate parks in Kosovo.”
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 neighborhood 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.”
As for the workshop itself, the 45 girls divided into seven teams and Christelle Lahoud, a Lebanese architect and urban planner who works for U.N.-Habitat, ran the day’s events.
“I have no specific background in Minecraft but was still able to teach everyone how to use it in an hour or so,” said Lahoud. “Then they were able to start creating their designs.”
They sat four to six at a desktop computer, as they built out their designs in Minecraft atop a model of the neighborhood around their school. Phan Thi Ngoc Huyen, also 15, said, “It was really fun and exciting to have an idea and then be able to make it to show to adults.”
The true significance of the day became clear as 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, U.N.-Habitat officials, architects and others, the girls are building their confidence in using technology, expressing their ideas and learning that their views matter.
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.”
Deirdre Quarnstrom, director of Minecraft Education, who is also on the board, said, “In the workshops we saw valuable ideas for better lighting and safer walkways. The students were able to communicate specific safety improvements to city planners through their Minecraft designs. I see the same increase in student voice and shifting power dynamic when I visit classrooms using Minecraft as part of their curriculum as well.”
Quarnstrom agreed that the workshops and other game-based learning offer numerous indirect impacts too. “Participation also builds confidence in youth and in girls who are often left out of planning and design conversations. They see that they have the potential to make a difference. And this confidence encourages girls to use technology and express their ideas.”
“Minecraft inspires people to be creative,” said Winters. “For some, they have never been able to express that side of themselves before. You can take a complex idea, and easily create a virtual world.” Phan Thi Ngoc Huyen added, “Games are usually fantasy. It was nice to use a game for the real world.”
The ideas that the girls presented to the board, other NGOs and Vietnamese politicians ranged from play areas to a women-only coffee shop to a shelter with a camera that does facial identification at the door. There were plans for unbreakable streetlights in the tunnel, a tree house shelter (why not?) and a free phone to call for help. Other general improvements included street benches, trash cans, improved signage, lighted walkways, security fences along a stream, murals in the tunnel, flower beds and cutting back overgrown hedges. They even talked about converting abandoned structures into public restrooms.
Dr. Nguyen Quay of U.N.-Habitat Vietnam said, “It was great to see how this engages young minds in creative thinking.” But the girls still expect to see their plans come to fruition. They even came up with a group slogan: “Just take action.”
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 recognizing 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 of the Block by Block workshops, they see the impact and are going to fund all of these new developments themselves.”
The inspiration goes both ways, Bui mused. “We grew into this. Our community brought us into all of these experiences. We continue to listen to the community and are busy figuring out other cool things we can do with Minecraft.”
When asked what is the most common thing that they see across all of the Block by Block projects, Winters responded immediately. “People are shocked and always say, ‘Who knew kids would have such good ideas?’”
Bui smiled. “And we always answer, ‘We did.’”