How a technology initially designed to entertain is now changing urban landscapes
A popular game for kids and teens has turned out to be the inspiration behind smart city policies around the world. Thanks to a UN collaboration with a computer software company, citizens of all ages and backgrounds in places like Mexico, Haiti, Kenya and Gaza are literally playing an important role in redesigning public space.
Block by Block started as an initiative to get citizens more involved in the planning of public spaces through Mojang’s Minecraft computer game. Directly supporting the SDG11 (inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities), it gave tools to community members so they would develop plans that architects and governments could turn into reality. Since then, it has spread to a range of countries, from Vietnam to Haiti, Mexico and Somalia.
Known as a “digital Lego”, Minecraft was adapted to real-life cities, where people can suggest improvements and start building models for their communities.
In Kenya, the program started in 2017 as a way to bring refugees and locals closer together. The idea was to develop their design skills using the game and organize visits to physical sites that needed improvement. Even people with poor computer skills could learn quickly, due to the recreational nature of the project. Then, they would discuss the project and come up with ideas, many of them economically feasible and environmentally friendly. Some of the participants suggested tree-planting in order to provide more comfort and shade to the community and solar lights for clean energy – both projects duly implemented.
In Vietnam, the project has taken a strong gender approach. Girls were the main affected group, as they commute several miles every day to go to school, facing many safety challenges. Dark corners and dangerous passages were some of the problems they faced, and the solution came in the form of improved signage, lighted walkways and safe spaces like women-only coffee shops and shelters.
In addition to fostering collaboration, the Block by Block initiative also serves an important social function: that of developing computer skills in endangered communities and empowering minorities like women and refugees. Regardless of age, gender or ethnicity, digital technology is inclusive and for all; it leaves no one behind.