Minecraft meets the planning process.
I’ve seen the future. And it’s Croydon!
Perhaps a little more context is required.
I’ve seen what I hope is the future of the town and country planning system. And I’ve seen it in a scheme based in Croydon.
Design Future London Schools Challenge is a recently launched initiative by the Greater London Authority aimed at young people. It asks participants to use the video game Minecraft to propose potential changes to Croydon town centre. The main aim is to get young people interested in the built environment. Which is good. But I think Design Future London could also be a peek into the future of the planning system.
Tower Bridge, Minecraft edition. Is this the future of consultation? © GLA
How does it work? Well. Participants are asked to identify problems in the north end quarter of Croydon. They get access to lots of background information on the area to help them, including a virtual 3D model they can explore. And then they get to suggest improvements to, well, anything they like. New buildings. Parks. Homes. The participants can build their ideas using Minecraft. And the designs can be slotted into a digital version of the wider area. Neat.
If you don’t know what Minecraft is, where have you been? Certainly not around any kids aged 7-12 recently. Minecraft is a computer game where players can build structures, earthworks and machines using blocks. Think of it like a digital world where people can quickly and very (very) easily build 3D models using a huge variety of Lego-like square blocks.
Gamification “is the strategic attempt to enhance systems, services, organizations, and activities by creating similar experiences to those experienced when playing games in order to motivate and engage users
The idea is that Minecraft, with its simple user-friendly interface, provides a platform that is highly accessible. You don’t need any training to produce complex models. And once built rather than trying to explain or present the proposed solution to them, you just let others explore the model.
So, Design Future London is all very interesting in itself. But the question that has got me excited is this: could this be the GLA exploring the gamification of the planning process?
Gamification “is the strategic attempt to enhance systems, services, organizations, and activities by creating similar experiences to those experienced when playing games in order to motivate and engage users”. Basically, making things a bit like a computer game. I won’t pretend to like the term gamification by the way. In fact, I find most of the language involved pretty difficult to navigate. Probably because, truth be told, I don’t know much about computer games. But I do think there is a very powerful idea here.
Why? Well, in computer games people take on board loads of complicated information very quickly. They balance risk and reward. And can develop highly complicated strategies, including cooperating (or not) with other players. So just like real life then.
But the key point is that in computer games an algorithm is in the background, helping the player. Structuring the experience, to use the gamification jargon. For example, in the computer world information comes as and when it is needed, driven by what the player is doing. In the Minecraft version of Croydon for example, you can wander up to non-playing characters who give you relevant information about Croydon. And the emphasis is on the relevant. If the computer algorithm doesn’t think ‘xyz’ is relevant, the non-playing character simply won’t appear. Likewise, the computer algorithm is also structuring what the players can do. Providing easily accessible tools via interactive menus which change depending on context.
The result, according to the research, is that players in computer games can understand more information, are more engaged and make better choices, when compared with analogous real-world situations. This includes in the context of planning, where there is a whole field of academic study into human-computer interaction in an urban planning context. There is even a United Nations-backed project which uses Minecraft to effectively engage local people in the development process. Although being called Block by Block it is probably a bit close to Brick by Brick to dwell on in the context of Croydon.
So, where could the gamification of planning lead? Think about trying to engage with a draft local development plan say, for an area you are unfamiliar with. Currently what is the process. First stop – the engagement website. They are ok. But still difficult to navigate effectively. And often these websites simply link you back to pages of text, with links to supporting papers. Presented in this way it is not hard to see why the level of public engagement with draft local plans is so low.
the local development plan could be presented in a 3D Minecraft-like environment
But imagine the future. The local development plan could be presented in a 3D Minecraft-like environment in which you could casually walk up to an avatar who would explain the choices made on this or that bit of land. Where you then explore the impact of any proposal for yourself. You could focus on the stress on the local physical infrastructure if that was your thing. Watching a 1:30 year storm ruining your shoes if you happen to be standing in the wrong place, and therefore understanding the SUDS strategy. Not being simply being told about it, usually impenetrably, in a pdf. (Although this would ruin one of my favourite work jokes: Why is drainage design so dry?)
My point is by ‘exploring’ the draft local development plan the ‘player’ would have a much better basis on which to evaluate the information. Ultimately, they would be better informed and much more engaged. And this could apply to individual planning applications, big or small.
So could gamification be the future of planning? The dream is there. Effectively engaging various stakeholders (local residents, community organisations, and government bodies) to collaborate and co-create a vision for the future. Block by block.
 https://www.london.gov.uk/media-centre/mayors-press-releases/mayor-teams-best-selling-video-game-minecraft-inspire-young-designers-future  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamification  https://www.urbanet.info/gamification-in-urban-planning-participation-through-minecraft/