Lately I’ve taken up a new hobby; building little street vignettes out of virtual LEGO® bricks, and using them to tell stories. I want to explore how using LEGO bricks can help us re-imagine safer streets in a fun, accessible, and shareable way.
Between 2011 and 2018 I worked for the LEGO Group, which took me on over 35 trips to Denmark. There I fell in love with Danish urbanism, cycling, infrastructure, and how their society prioritized peoples’ safety and comfort in creating walkable, bikeable spaces along with ample, reliable public transportation. This experience forever altered my perspective on how we could use space. It caused me to question everything about the status quo here in the US.
Every time I returned home, I’d lament that my neighborhood wasn’t more walkable, or that I didn’t feel safe riding a bicycle given how aggressively people drove. I forced myself to begin walking, then found a community of bicyclists and a friend set me up with my first pair of pannier bags. Soon it became a game to ride my bike to as many activities as possible — yoga, groceries, evenings out, picnics in the park. I found myself only driving to the office, a building on the outskirts of a Connecticut town that once housed the LEGO factory, nestled between tobacco farms and state prisons.
This disconnect — between the ideal I experienced in Denmark, and the dangerous, dilapidated, car-centric environment I lived with in Hartford — led me to get involved as an advocate. I attended public meetings about the upcoming interstate reconstruction project, Complete Streets Working Group meetings, evening meetups, and proposed low-cost interventions. But it wasn’t as simple as explaining how amazing things were in Denmark and watching people change what they built. Over time, I realized that changing the way a city is built is a long game played on many levels, from Federal budgets and highway standards to regional and municipal organizations’ priorities, performance metrics, and winning the court of public opinion.
To affect the change I want to see, I now know that I must contribute to the conversation in a way that helps people shift their perspectives. I need to find creative ways to help people experience what I did, and imagine a better way of living and moving, which leads me to this LEGO vignette project.
I hope these small scenes eventually find their way into the hearts and minds of everyday people and those designing the urban landscape and setting policy around the US. That’s no small task. It will take consistent effort over time.
Virtual LEGO? What’s that?
Twenty years ago, I became heavily involved in the user community for an early fan-created LEGO CAD system called LDraw. This led me to co-found and operate LDraw.org for several years, and co-author a 450-page technical book called Virtual LEGO before graduating college and beginning my career.
Fast forward to my time with LEGO IDEAS, where my front-line role allowed me to observe and interact with thousands of talented and passionate LEGO fans. Each of these people worked to earn their peers’ votes for their ideas to become the next crowdsourced LEGO set. To do this, they had to create compelling LEGO models and photograph or render them so they grabbed attention, and write pitches that told compelling stories. One of the most rewarding experiences was watching these people develop their skills over time. Many went from total newbies to incredible visual artists in a span of a year or two. I was so lucky to watch their evolution.
LEGO as an engagement tool
Meanwhile, I saw LEGO Architecture Studio deployed in a lab setting at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. This inspired me to set up a collaboration between the iQuilt Plan, an urban design non-profit, the LEGO Group, and a local LEGO fan club called ConnLUG. For three months, we built downtown Hartford, Connecticut out of LEGO bricks with the help of local architects, LEGO colleagues, and club members.
Now, I’ve put my moderator cap aside, and it’s my turn to hop back in the learner’s seat. It has been many years since I’ve designed and built LEGO creations on my own. Ironically, my work a LEGO didn’t include the very same process I watched thousands of fans go through over and over again, and I’m excited to be on the other side of the fence.
Over the past few months, I’ve been growing my storytelling skills and finding ways to use the unique magic of LEGO to engage people around the idea of building urban space for people vs. cars. I’m developing a practice of telling street stories in LEGO bricks. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with how much there is to learn, from LEGO building techniques to advanced rendering tools, how to lay out a compelling vignette, captioning, character development, and so on.
To learn, I’m engaging the same community where I was once a leader twenty years ago. I feel rusty, and I have to ask for help a lot. Now I look up to the very people whose work I used to moderate on LEGO IDEAS. Eventually, I want to create images as skillfully as they do. That will take time, but I know it’s within reach. I’ve learned to master complex skills before, like flying an airplane on instruments. What was overwhelming at first becomes second nature with consistent and deliberate practice.
I hope you enjoy the humble beginning of this series of LEGO vignettes. I’m committed to helping people think differently about how we design streets for people walking, riding, using transit, and getting around without a car. I hope you stay for the journey — one best taken on two feet or two wheels.
Tim Courtney is a guy on a bike in Palo Alto, California. Despite the amazing weather, he misses Copenhagen’s complete bicycle network and hygge. He’s former Experience Manager for LEGO® IDEAS and specializes in community business, corporate innovation, and product development. You can learn more about Tim, hire him to speak or consult, and follow his LEGO street vignettes on Twitter @MinifigStreets.