Earlier this spring, 45 schoolgirls in matching uniforms crowded into the computer room at the custard-colored North Thanglong Economic & Technical college on the outskirts of Hanoi, Vietnam. Beyond intermittent ripples of laughter and excitement, the 15- and 16-year-olds stayed focused throughout the day on the hard work at hand: playing Minecraft.

Together they built 3D models that reimagined the darker corners of their neighborhood as a safer, more functional and more beautiful place for them and their families to inhabit. But this wasn’t just an exercise in imagination. The girls were taking part in the newest project from Block by Block, a program from the United Nations and Mojang, the makers of Minecraft, that uses the power of Minecraft and designs sourced from local residents to improve public spaces around the world.

Thoughtful, inclusive approaches to urban development like this are becoming more critical as the world’s population increasingly moves to cities. Through a combination of birth rate and rural immigration, Hanoi has nearly doubled its population since the year 2000. And it’s not alone. Cities around the globe are swelling by a total of some 200,000 people per day.

For the first time in history, the majority of the planet’s population now lives in urban areas. Within a generation, that number will balloon to more than two-thirds of all people. Public space — from parks to markets and even streets themselves — is a key indicator of the health and sustainability of cities.

Pontus Westerberg, UN-Habitat
Pontus Westerberg, UN-Habitat

“Well-designed cities count 30 to 40 percent of their land as shared public space, while improvised communities in developing cities can dip under 5 percent,” said Pontus Westerberg, U.N.-Habitat (the United Nations agency for human settlements and sustainable urban development) digital projects officer and program manager for Block by Block.

“Done correctly, cities can be drivers of innovation and great contributors to economic growth,” Westerberg noted while observing the workshop in Hanoi. “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.”

In order to understand Block by Block, one must understand Minecraft. Vu Bui, chief operating officer of Mojang and president of the Block by Block board, who was also at the workshop in Hanoi, explained, “Minecraft is essentially 3D digital Lego in that it’s a game about placing and removing blocks. Everything is on a one-by-one-by-one 3D grid and you can play by placing blocks, exploring worlds and mining more materials — hence the name. It’s what’s called a ‘sandbox game’ and it’s an open world in which you can do just about anything.”

And by anything, he means: anything.

Vu Bui, Mojang

“One of the first epic builds I saw was the Starship Enterprise in a one-to-one scale replica. People build amazing, elaborate worlds like Westeros [from ‘Game of Thrones’] and even the country of Denmark — right down to having residents add detail to their own homes.”

Minecraft, which was released in 2009, is now the world’s most popular PC game and one of the most popular games, of any sort, on the planet. One hundred million paying users play in community-designed events and build things with others in “creative mode.”

Minecraft is much more than a game. It is a cultural phenomenon that is as widely recognized on the streets of Hanoi as in Houston. Beyond the Lego comparison, Minecraft is, in fact, one of the storied, plastic construction toy’s most popular lines. It can also be found on backpacks, T-shirts, hats, keychains (the list goes on) and it is soon to be a major Hollywood movie.

It is also a design platform with such ease of use that it has transmuted into a form of communication. Bui said, “Minecraft is a purely visual language. You can walk through your designs, fly above them, and people, no matter their native tongue, can all understand immediately, with no additional explanation. There is nothing between you, your idea and the person you are showing it to.” It doesn’t cost anything to place or break a block. It’s an unlimited pencil, with an unlimited eraser and you are able to sketch as much as you are able to think. The only cost is time.

It is educational. Code Builder for Minecraft: Education Edition is a new feature that allows educators and students to explore, create and play in an immersive Minecraft world — all by writing code.

But there is even more to Minecraft: Among the core community, there’s a sense that it is something that changes peoples lives, if not the world. Lydia Winters, Minecraft’s brand director who runs the merchandise and publishing program and was also a Block by Block founder, counts herself among these people.

When Minecraft was created, Winters was an elementary school teacher in St. Petersburg, Florida. She had not actively played video games since “Oregon Trail” and had never been on an international flight. She started her own YouTube show, The Misadventures of MinecraftChick, about learning to play Minecraft. Winters’ videos earned a global following and a few short years (and smart moves) later she found herself living in Stockholm and guiding a brand with merchandise that occupies shelves alongside the likes of Marvel and Star Wars.

“And it’s not just me,” Winters said. “I talk to so many people in the community whose lives have been changed by Minecraft. It gives people a creative voice to express themselves. We know it can change lives because we have experienced it ourselves.” Bui is also a member of this group as he was a photographer and videographer in Los Angeles when Minecraft was founded.

Lydia Winters, Mojang
Lydia Winters, Mojang

This global community includes those who work in education and social good, like the creative hub Studio Be in Amman, Jordan. The studio teaches youth to use Minecraft to make public service announcements that speak to the local community’s needs, to tackle social issues and to design solutions for child centers in refugee camps. “We live in a part of the world where instability is the norm, and much of our youth have few outlets to express themselves or pursue their passions,” explained Rania Abukhader, chief creative officer and founder of Studio Be. “With Minecraft, we are able to promote practical creativity, self-expression, innovation, teamwork, persistence, adaptability and entrepreneurial skills.”

Minecraft can offer unprecedented opportunity, no matter one’s age. James Delaney is a 20-year-old architecture student at Cambridge University who runs a global Minecraft build team of over 60 people called BlockWorks. “Since I started playing the game in 2012, Minecraft has helped me connect with other talented creators from around the word and rapidly form a sustainable business whilst hopefully inspiring and educating other Minecrafters through our work,” he said from campus.

And it can also impact people’s most personal relationships. Keith Stuart, U.K.-based journalist and author of the major bestseller A Boy Made of Blocks said, “I started playing Minecraft with my autistic son in 2013, and I often describe the moment as a light switching on for him. He immediately responded to this incredible place where he could build, explore and be creative in a safe environment. He would chat to us about it all the time — it was the first thing he ever really talked about with passion. The game really did change our lives."

Block by Block uses the power of Minecraft and designs sourced from local residents to improve public spaces around the world.

Those who believe in the transcendental power of Minecraft are eager to share it with others and show that it can be so much more than “just a game.” Since her first days as MinecraftChick, Winters wanted “to share that positive impact at scale and prove out the promise of Minecraft.”

That leap started in 2011, when Swedish Building Services Project Manager Jörgen Hallström was working to develop sustainable urban environments in immigrant housing projects near Stockholm. Sweden has a long history of democratic municipal planning processes — stakeholder participation is even encoded in the law. Hallström argued that “It takes additional time but strengthens ownership of the community and our democracy.”

Thomas Melin, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency
Thomas Melin, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency

Hallström was finding it difficult to engage the local youth in the planning process, even though they were the ones who would be using many of the public spaces. That changed when Hallström’s 11-year-old son suggested that Minecraft would be a good way for kids to submit their ideas about the spaces. “It didn't just get them involved but got them excited about creating and sharing their ideas,” said Hallström.

Hallström contacted Markus Persson, AKA Notch, the founder of Minecraft, and, with his blessing secured, set out on a handful of trial projects around Stockholm. Minecraft gamers pre-built 3D models of the neighborhoods and, during a guided workshop, youth and other local stakeholders added their ideas as to how to best develop the public spaces. They found that even those who had never played Minecraft or had limited computer experience could learn to create designs with very little time investment.

Meanwhile in Nairobi, Kenya, Thomas Melin was 30 years into his life’s work of looking for ways to help growing cities improve public spaces and become more inclusive. An architect and urban planner then serving as head for the External Relations Division at U.N.-Habitat, he was responsible for the design, establishment and development of the U.N.-Habitat’s Global Public Space Programme to “improve the quality of public spaces worldwide.”

He explained, “There are many people who are shut out of having a voice in how their public spaces are developed. By and large, cities are designed by middle-aged male politicians who travel everywhere by car. Yet, half of the inhabitants in some of these places are youth. More than half are women. Most don’t have vehicles.” Even when developers make the effort to work with local stakeholders, key groups are still excluded: the elderly, women, youth, disabled and many others.

Minecraft model of a street in Kim Chung neighborhood, Hanoi

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.

Bui, who is half-Vietnamese and lived in Vietnam for two years as a kid, gave a speech to the group in Vietnamese, much to the joy of the students. “Maybe they won’t all become urban planners, architects or activists,” he said after his speech. “But all will hopefully see the value of their education and feel empowered that they have something to offer in terms of a career.”

Bustling streets of Hanoi
Bustling streets of Hanoi

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.

Block by Block board members
Block by Block board members

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.’”