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How Minecraft is helping the United Nations improve the world

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Four years after first teaming up with the creators of Minecraft in hopes of using the game to help reshape urban slums, an official from the United Nations says the program is a surprisingly effective tool.

"The main thing for me is that it changes the relationship between professionals, like architects and urban planners, and ordinary people," said Pontus Westerberg, of the United Nations Human Settlements Program. "It gives power back to ordinary people."

The United Nations Human Settlements Program was established in 1978 with the idea of promoting socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities. To do this, UN-Habitat officials say it's important that all countries have a national urban plan. Something, Westerberg said, that is "really rare." That plan needs to include space for public space as a first priority, he said.

Public space is so important because without it a city can't function correctly. Public space promotes social inclusion and diversity, improves urban safety, provides space for democracy, improves health, creates a positive environment and provides more space to businesses and markets.

In tackling their public space program, UN-Habitat officials struggled to get the community actively involved in the redesign work.

"We started thinking about Minecraft," Westerberg said. "One of the world's most popular video games."

When the UN reached out to Mojang, creators of Minecraft, two years ago, the developers were immediately really excited, he said.

The two groups formed the Block by Block website and set to work teaming up with a UK Minecraft team to have them recreate real world public spaces destined for a redesign, in Minecraft, block by block.

The end result isn't picture perfect, but it's pretty realistic and it definitely does the job, Westerberg said.

Once the site has been created in Minecraft the virtual creation is brought to workshops with the community where participants can try their hand at redesigning the site in game, walk around within the redesigns and discuss the impact it might have.

After a redesign is approved by the community, that Minecraft map is brought back to an architect who takes it and turns it into a plan.

Westerberg highlighted to the audience at this year's Games for Change Festival two examples of how well the system works.

The program was used to help a project in Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya's capital of Nairobi, an area that has 200,000 to 300,000 people living in small area with very little public space.

"One of the only proper public spaces is the Silange sports fields," he said. "We had been working for 1 1/2 to 2 years with different groups to resolve their disagreements over the use of the area."

At the heart of the conflict was a group of 14 to 22-year-olds who looked after the football field and a group of elderly women who used part of the space as a marketplace.

The design conceived by the architect and groups would have had a new access road put in running to the marketplace. But the road would have cut off a sliver of the field.

"The football players refused to accept this," Westerberg said. "We brought in Minecraft and they were able to physically walk in the model and stand there and see they could have enough room for football and the road."

Part of the problem, Westerberg said, was that it's very hard for some people to decipher 2D architectural designs and imagine what they would look in a 3D world.

"When we introduced Minecraft in these workshops it was like a light had been lifted," he said. "You could see and feel a different atmosphere."

Westerberg also explained how the program was used to help create a new waterfront in Les Cayes, Haiti's third largest city.

"The idea was that we redesign the waterfront to create protection from flooding and public space," he said.

Again, Minecraft was used to stoke community involvement and to make it easier to visualize the potential changes to the project.

"Participants work together building and improving the models," he said. "And it engages young people, normally a hard to reach group."