I recently had the opportunity to talk with Pontus Westerberg, program officer at UN-Habitat, about the non-profit Block by Block program that leverages the best-selling video game Minecraft for public space planning by engaging local community members. The global accomplishments of Block by Block are impressive by the numbers:
- 30: Block by Block has catalyzed the revitalization of urban neighborhoods in more than 30 countries.
- 1,000: More than 1,000 people, including children, women, elders, refugees, and disabled community members, have participated in collaborative Block by Block workshops worldwide.
- 25,000: More than 25,000 children and teenagers have participated in Block by Block competitions to crowdsource ideas for transforming public spaces throughout Mexico.
- $6 million: The Block by Block Foundation has contributed more than $6M to UN-Habitat to help make the UN Sustainable Development Goals a reality.
Innovation comes in many forms, and Block by Block is a shift from the typical business model used to design public spaces. Looking beyond the numbers, though, I want to extract lessons learned from Block by Block for business leaders who are seeking to drive innovation and change.
Drive innovation by building diverse teams.
Re-consider your design team membership. Block by Block invites local people who are not typically involved in urban planning, e.g., youth, women, and girls, to participate in public space workshops. By incorporating different perspectives from typical users in the community via facilitated group discussions, the results have tended to be creative, innovative, and targeted to local needs and concerns.
Apply a familiar technology (or an easy-to-learn new one) in a radically different context to quickly engage your audience.
Block by Block has adopted Minecraft, a user-friendly and fun way to start building, in contrast to formal architectural design tools, which can be complicated to learn. Regarding Minecraft, Westerberg says, “It’s a very simple 3D modeling tool that anyone can learn within a couple of hours.”
Find an incentive that is relevant and motivates your target audience.
Fostering engagement may be as simple as finding the answer to the age-old question, “What’s in it for me?” The UN has found that for some audiences, just getting to play Minecraft is incentive enough to join the workshops. What incentive could be a parallel in your organization?
People own what they help create.
Just like corporate improvements, local public spaces require ongoing maintenance and require the local community to participate in longer-term ownership and upkeep. A foundational element of change management to minimize resistance is to proactively engage employees during change planning, which helps improve buy-in through a sense of ownership.
Gain consensus through rapid iterations and leverage face-to-face events.
In its workshops, the Block by Block team drives consensus by displaying suggested ideas dynamically in order of popularity and facilitating group discussions to bring clarity about the features that residents would most like to see in a public space. This approach ensures that all participants have a voice in the conversation. Westerberg says, “This model works surprisingly well, and it’s interesting to see that most people, when confronted with a design problem, are actually pretty reasonable.”
Reuse best practices and leverage experts to maintain credibility.
To set the parameters for designing each new space, the Block by Block team first shares best practices for urban design and shows local workshop participants examples of well-designed public spaces. At the end of the process, UN-Habitat professional architects create a final design based on the workshop output, which is then taken back to community participants for ultimate approval and implementation. These experts ensure the legitimacy of the agency’s public space design projects. Similarly, in corporate ideation or innovation efforts, establishing broad parameters and including expert review of final concepts provides credibility and better manages expectations.
Build an ecosystem.
Block by Block is the result of collaboration involving many different organizations, each with unique resources and perspectives (e.g., UN-Habitat, Mojang, Microsoft, Ericsson, local government, citizens, and more). Building alliances in a collaborative model that yields a win for all parties is a key part of driving successful open innovation.
For more information on the UN’s Block by Block program, check out APQC's case study on this innovative global program: UN-Habitat and the Future of Public Spaces: Embracing Innovative Technologies to Drive Community Engagement.