Using Minecraft to engage the public and plan better public spaces

Using the popular computer game, residents of Mumbai’s poorest and most neglected neighbourhood participated in an exercise designed to clean up and revamp a small and dilapidated community gathering space.

It’s not often that residents of Mumbai’s notorious “M-Ward” are asked about their dreams.

Nearly a million of the city’s poorest and most neglected people reside in M-Ward, including many slum dwellers who were forcibly resettled from other areas. They live in a sea of rundown grey government housing blocks on the city’s eastern fringe, abutting a swath of makeshift shanties near a municipal dump.

Even in a city of extreme deprivations, M-Ward stands in a league of its own. Residents struggle for the most basic services, including clean water, proper drainage and electricity.

A study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences found that some parts of the area didn’t have a single toilet, forcing widespread open defecation. In addition, M-Ward has the lowest human index indicators in the city: child malnutrition levels, for example, are on par with Sub-Saharan Africa — a shocking reality for an area in India’s richest municipality.

They normally have a hard time identifying where they are on a map, but with Minecraft, they almost immediately know where they are.

Pontus Westerberg, coordinator, Block  by Block programme, UN Habitat

But in April 2016, residents of an M-Ward neighbourhood called Gautam Nagar — women, children, and the elderly, all of whom are usually planned for rather than with — were asked to participate in a rare activity: They were asked to design their dream gardens and playgrounds.

And to do it, they were handed laptops loaded with the video game Minecraft. The game, popular with children, allows players to design buildings and public spaces in an entirely virtual world. For the residents of Gautum Nagar, Minecraft proved to be just what they needed to imagine change in their community and show what it could look like.

Visualising change

Using Minecraft as a participatory design tool is part of UN-Habitat’s innovative Block by Block programme. Trupti Vaitla, CEO of Mumbai Environmental Social Network (MESN), an organisation that has been working on open space issues in M-Ward, came across the initiative after struggling through a first attempt at revitalising an open space in a different area of M-Ward.

The aim was to clean up and revamp a small and dilapidated gathering spot — the sole public space for a staggering 200,000 residents. Vaitla and her team knew that for long-term success, they needed the community to be involved in every stage. That was easier said than done.

“They couldn’t visualise what they wanted,” Vaitla says of the M-Ward residents. “They usually stay within a short radius of their homes and have limited exposure to the rest of the city. That limits their ideas. … We usually ended up drafting the designs for them.”

On the next project, this time in Gautum Nagar, Vaitla decided to bring in the Block by Block team and see if Minecraft could help overcome some of the obstacles. The game proved to be an important engagement mechanism to upend top-down planning and put the controls in the hands of women and some of the city’s poorest children.

For UN-Habitat’s Public Space Programme, which runs Block by Block, incorporating Minecraft into its trainings began serendipitously. In 2012, Mojang, the Swedish company that founded Minecraft, was approached by the Swedish Building Industry to help them get kids in poorer areas to participate in the design process.

That connection happened because someone at the Swedish Building Industry had seen his kid playing Minecraft. The project was successful enough to make it on Swedish news, where the former head of UN-Habitat’s Public Space Programme saw its potential to engage poor communities across the globe.

“That’s really how it all started,” says Pontus Westerberg, who coordinates the Block by Block initiative for UN-Habitat. The organisation quickly saw the potential of Minecraft to engage underserved communities and formulated a workshop model that it has taken to dozens of cities across the Global South, from Manila to Mexico City to Johannesburg.

The key to Minecraft’s usefulness as an urban planning tool are the pixelated 3-D cubes that are the game’s trademark building blocks. In the game, they are easy to manipulate into virtual replicas of actual urban spaces that users will easily recognise. Trees, benches and other features can be easily created, moved or erased, allowing users to imagine the things they want to see in the real spaces outside their homes.

“It’s more Legos than SimCity,” says Westerberg. “I think of it more of a design tool than a game.”

Minecraft is different from traditional community participation tools the UN uses, such as maps or 2-D drawings, which can be hard for communities with low literacy rates to engage with.

But with a few days of training and help from children, who pick up Minecraft quickly, the interactive visuals offer a new way to engage. “They normally have a hard time identifying where they are on a map,” says Westerberg, “but with Minecraft, they almost immediately know where they are.”

The game aspect also gets young people to show up to planning sessions. In addition, Westerberg found that other traditionally hard-to-engage groups, such as women, began to  speak out about what they wanted for their parks and playgrounds.

Their newfound confidence came as they engaged with other residents and the game to better understand the spaces around them and their potential.

“The main thing is consensus-building,” says Westerberg. “It’s about ownership of the projects.” The designs are usually not ground breaking; they focus on basics such as street lights, playgrounds and outdoor furniture. “What’s important,” he adds, “is giving people a voice in the architecture and design process.”

‘Power of the game’

Back in Gautum Nagar, the community leaders began to go door to door in the area asking for neighbours to join in Block by Block’s standard three-day workshop.

MESN had been prepping the community for nearly a year and a half with programs that helped increase a connection to their open spaces, as well as many “clean campaigns” to instill value in spaces that had become dumping grounds for trash and hotbeds of nefarious activities. On the day of the workshop, 40 residents joined — some with apprehension for having to give over so much time.

“Mobilising people to attend was challenging,” says Vaitla. “They are time-poor with many daily chores to do, and they have to earn money. Even I started to question it after seeing how difficult it was to convince women, children, and old people.” Vaitla’s team eventually started enticing residents with free lunches and fun activities, developing it into an exciting outing.

On Day One of the workshop, facilitators discussed principles of urban planning, provided training in Minecraft, and conducted visits to the “target space”, a sliver of neglected land between the high rises. After that, they broke into small groups of three to four people and huddled around the laptops. “That’s when I looked around and saw so many blank faces,” says Vaitla. “I was scared.”

The next day, half the participants didn’t show up.

“It was one of our most challenging projects,” admits Westerberg, The community had some of the lowest literacy and education rates they’d encountered in any of the Block by Block projects.

But Westerberg says what happened next also “showed the power of the game.” Soon, the kids who attended started understanding Minecraft and calling their parents. By the evening, the room was full again.

The young people were helping the women and old people, who knew little or nothing of computers. They were clicking away at the keyboard, virtually turning the space into centres of their favourite activities. They moved around benches to find shade, added playgrounds for kids, and experimented with gym structures. Together, they were designing what they wanted to see of the space that had become so neglected.

“I felt joy that they had the power and could write their own story,” says Vaitla. “They felt so empowered.”

On the last day, five groups presented their solutions to key stakeholders — government officials, local leaders, civic organisations and other community members. The designs were “all sensible”, Vaitla says, with trees, walkways, an exercise area, and a green patch. “They were practical,” Vaitla adds. “They were thinking how they could maintain it.”

Today, the open space of Gautam Nagar is fully operational, and 90 percent of the community’s designs were used. Nearly a year on, Vaitla says the space is clean and maintained — often the biggest challenge and a testament to the power of community input in its creation.

Massive potential

With the success of the first wave of Block by Block projects, UN-Habitat has another 30 in the pipeline. They plan to try out some new ways Minecraft could be used, including an upcoming project with street vendors in Mumbai.

“We think it’s so great that we use it in all our programmes now,” Westerberg.

While gaming is becoming more popular as an urban planning tool, there’s a risk that relying too much on virtual processes can lose touch with the tangible realities of how people actually use public spaces. Ethan Kent, senior vice president at the Project for Public Spaces says that “gaming can make accessible, malleable, and fun the parts of citymaking that may appear too technical.” Yet he warns that games like Minecraft “threaten to perpetuate a more technical and form-driven focus on city-building.”

Kent says integrating virtual planning with “larger, real-world, community-based placemaking processes” have a greater likelihood of developing solutions that meet the social reality on the ground.

For now, Block by Block has provided a way for communities to become more integrated players in the design process. It has developed a platform for teenagers and mothers to stand up and articulate what it is they need in their communities and how those pieces can really fit into the space that exists.

“It’s just amazing,” says Westerberg.

This story was published with permission from Citiscope, a non-profit news outlet that covers innovations in cities. More at Citiscope.org.

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