Millions of people around the world play Minecraft or use its textured cubes to unleash their creativity, sometimes recreating entire cities. But UN-Habitat has taken Minecraft to a whole new level to involve young people in renovating their world.
A couple of years ago, the Lotus Gardens in Mumbai, India looked like this:
Now the space looks like this:
The transformation is the result of a unique partnership between UN-Habitat — the United Nations Program for Sustainable Cities and Minecraft creator Mojang to redesign run-down public spaces in developing countries.
“We use Minecraft for community participation within a broader global program on public space,” said Pontius Westerberg, UN-Habitat‘s Transparency Affairs and Digital Projects Officer in Kenya. “Public space is really important for the well-functioning of cities; and we’re working globally, mainly in the Global South, on improving and building new public spaces.”
While UN-Habitat does not engage Minecraft players for its renovation projects, Westerberg told TECHtonics in a Skype interview that “Minecraft is a really good tool for that” because it “doesn’t require very much prior computer or IT knowledge.”
Recalling a project in Haiti, he said UN-Habitat worked with people who “barely, if at all, used computers.”
“And after a couple of hours with Minecraft, they can really start expressing themselves,” he said. “It’s a fantastically easy medium to pick up.”
Westerberg said he was amazed at how quickly the people he collaborates get the hang of Minecraft — sometimes in a couple of days. “And that is kind of enough to really get some really good ideas about how to improve public spaces,” he said.
A project typically starts when city authorities come forward with a request to rehabilitate a public site. UN-Habitat then works with city authorities and local communities and partners to implement the project.
In the process, UN-Habitat looks for people who “would like to express their ideas about how the site should be redesigned or redeveloped,” said Westerberg. And the main focus is to work with people who are part of the community that is being developed.
“Depending on the site, it will be the urban poor, in a sense,” he explained.
Westerberg stressed the need to involve the community in the design and maintenance of public spaces.
“You basically get much better outcomes when the people who live and work around the space are involved from the beginning,” he explained. “And it is basically a democratic issue. It’s about community participation.”
But inviting young people to meetings to get their opinions on redesign or urban planning can be a challenge. Young people, said Westerberg, often don’t show up for the meetings or are too shy to speak up when they do attend.
To work around this problem, UN-Habitat collects all the necessary information, maps and pictures about the space that is to be redesigned and then sends it to FyreUK — a group Westerberg described as a Minecraft collective, of sorts.
“They will basically design the space as it currently looks, but in Minecraft,” he said. “And then we run community participation workshops with young people, where they are … asked to redesign the space in Minecraft.”
Depending on the size of a given project, community workshops could involve up to 60 people, as was the case in a Lima, Peru project. But Westerberg said smaller groups are more manageable.
“Usually what happens is that we don’t have good enough Internet connection to do it on a server,” he said. “So in most places … we have basically had a local copy of the Minecraft map, put it on computers — usually we have two-to-three people sitting around this computer and then they’ll kind of work together in a group in that way.”
That’s how the dilapidated town square in Katmandu Valley’s Kirtipur in Nepal was renovated. This is what it looked like before the renovation:
When the idea started, UN-Habitat worked with young people and local groups to run a community participation process to redesign the town square.
That was in December 2013. The work was completed a few months ago.
UN-Habitat is now working on a new project in Nepal — renovating a run-down park on the edge of Kirtipur — with community participation. Its collaboration with Mojang, which was recently bought by Microsoft, is expected to continue — at least for the time being, said Westergerg.
If you want to help or to learn more about these projects, visit blockbyblock.org.