Nighthawkes - a la Lego

Play for tomorrow

Reporting from the head offices of LEGO, the company that wants to encourage the child in all of us. E&T finds it has some serious ambitions for the little bricks.

Helle Winding is opposite me. She is a director at Lego, is about two centimetres tall and is standing on the table next to my laptop as I write this article.

This is what Lego does in the way of business cards: a small plastic figure - a Lego person, looking a bit like the real one - with the name brightly written across the chest, along with phone numbers and email. Great idea, but it makes a nasty bulge in my wallet when I try to cram it in with the more conventional business cards.

Lego, the company (often capitalised as LEGO to set it apart from the product, Lego), insists it is not childish: they just want to encourage the child in all of us. The word Lego, as its many fans know, is a contraction of Leg Godt, or play well. The motive behind bringing out the inner child is a serious one: look how many great inventions were conceived in the spirit of play. Wasn't there something childlike about all the great geniuses? The same refusal to think along narrow lines, the intellectual open-mindedness. So, for starters, the company encourages a culture of playfulness - 'off-beatness' - within its own walls. 

I was given a tour of the Lego facilities in Denmark recently - or rather a tour of one of its numerous low-rise modern buildings, sprawled out across the town of Billund, population 5,000. The Legoland amusement park is also here, though is currently closed for the winter.

This modern, unprepossessing town wears its fame lightly. When I arrived, I found a library and went in to ask where the headquarters of Lego - Europe's largest toy company - were. The librarian did not know. The HQ turned out to be 200m away. To be fair, it was cunningly hidden behind a screen of trees. 

Once inside, I found the offices to be all bright colours, with half-completed toys even adorning the conference tables. Some staff have the air of children's TV show presenters: bright, stripy sweaters; excitable facial expressions when explaining simple concepts; well-versed in children's culture. They sit and work on Jacobsen chairs: one senior executive is a podgy, cuddly bearded bloke wearing a sweater - the Danes don't go in for hierarchy markers.

There are large, transparent bowls of Lego bricks placed around, inviting you to seize a handful, as if they were boiled sweets: in fact, the urge to pick up a few bricks and build something is almost overwhelming.

Lego in education

In a large space where designers work at desks, I am introduced to an expert in robotics innovation projects, director Lars Nyengaard. Every year, the company oversees a Lego league where 14,000 teams of schoolchildren from around the world compete to build the best robots. Judging by the chaotic videos posted on the Internet, it is popular.

The similarity of building Lego robots in teams and the job of an engineer is emphasised: it's about strategy, design, people management.

Working on a project - strategising, implementing a goal, moving on to next target - teaches young people to take a proactive approach to learning, and indeed hints at a template for effectively structuring their lives. 

In traditional teaching, there is a right and a wrong. With Lego, everybody's robot - designed to complete a particular task - is different. This teaches the pupils that it's not about right and wrong, but about grades of success.

I ask the Lego people about games that teachers can play with pupils at summer camps. One Lego designer, originally from California, explains how he taught children about accounting and realistic constraints: using the camp currency, he sold spare Lego parts to young designers, who had to dip into their finite budgets.The lesson was learnt rapidly: you may be able to construct a solution, but will you need to exercise efficiency when resorces dwindle?

The designer recalls encouraging the kids to find things out for themselves, and allowing them to become completely absorbed in their activities, thereby losing a sense of time. "The children didn't bother me for a whole week," he says. "That's rare."

By the end of their time at the camp, pupils were designing complex activities - gondolas on wires dropping Lego figurines with parachutes and triggering the arrival of vehicles to catch the parachuting figures and carry them to Lego elevator, which then lifted the figurines up to the start...

Lego on the Moon

It's easy to ridicule Lego's adult pretensions to put robots on the Moon. But representatives from the company have close links with engineers at NASA and the European Space Agency. As one says, the principles of building a small car with the Lego robotics kit - just one possibility - are the same as building a Mars Rover, only more complicated.

Scandinavia has long championed the notion of a cradle-to-grave welfare state. It's almost as if Lego is trying to promote the idea of cradle-to-grave creativity.

I am taken to meet another American, Lewis Pinault, senior director of new projects. We talk about the Danes' phlegmatic egalitarianism, and about the freedom to explore that this nationality give their children. And we discuss Lego Universe, which is to be launched later this year. He admits it's slightly hush-hush, but refers me to a pre-launch website.

He also hints at a figurine world equivalent of the immersive online 'Second Life' community. 'Second Life' initially began as an escapist virtual reality, where virtual avatars move about and chat. Increasingly, though, analysts see environments such as 'Second Life' becoming places where real-world activities take place - like shopping, for instance: your avatar will walk around, window-shopping in a virtual shopping mall, then your virtual purchase is billed to your real account and shipped to you as an actual product.

Similarly, Lego world may come across at first as a place where young people just play. But my prediction is that, with the humble brick as its centre, it will be a place where virtual people - children, teenagers and adults - convene and build communities together.

They will also be able to road-test Lego constructions: walking around them, seeing that they are to scale and aesthetically pleasing. There will be scope for electrical, mechanical and complex construction products, using virtual versions of the real elements Lego offers in its kits: motors, bevel gears, pneumatics, transmission kits and such like.

Teams will spontaneously coalesce, form and split. Projects will be undertaken and uploaded to customers in the real world - including Lego's imagined clients in space. Real engineers will be there, working with each other, acting as mentors and team leaders.

The future for Lego seems ready-made - now go and play with it.

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