Niantic, the maker of Pokémon Go, is teaming up with the Knight Foundation in a multiyear commitment promoting civic engagement in communities. That means the two entities will pitch in time, money, and plenty of Pokémon to get citizens outside, exploring their towns in city-organized events.
“We’re techno-optimists at the Knight Foundation,” says foundation VP Sam Gill. “We were excited to see someone who had seemingly cracked the code of how to use this device we’re all carrying around to go out and interact with each other.”
The partnership’s first event will launch on May 7 in Charlotte, North Carolina, as part of Knight’s Open Streets events. At these gatherings, which take place in towns around the country, the city closes off a street to cars so that people can walk and bike through urban areas in a sort of exploratory jaunt. Pokémon Go will provide a virtual layer atop this walk for those who want to play, but the map was designed by the community: The City of Charlotte chose 16 existing PokéStops and two Gyms to highlight along this route, promoting spaces like a rose garden and veterans’ park, while players enjoy the more frequent appearance of some Pokémon for those trying to catch ’em all.
“They’re really interesting features of the community,” says John Hanke, CEO of Niantic, “that hopefully educate people as they discover their civic pride.”
It might sound like Hanke is taking more than a little poetic license with a game that fundamentally involves tossing a ball at a cartoon animal to capture it, but in fact, Pokémon Go has already driven countless people to parks and other public spaces in search of digital beasts. After a PokéStop lure pulled me two blocks off a small town Main Street to discover a lovingly restored, century-old building detailed within the game, I called Pokémon Go a love letter to our cities.
Niantic only wants to expand those experiences, with a new option that allows the community to add its own historic, and cultural, PokéStops.
“That’s a small thing, to discover a nook or cranny of your city . . . but that small thing magnified by lots and lots of people is really significant,” says Hanke. “So we’re going to keep working on our side to cause that to happen more often.”
Historic areas are detailed in the app. [Image: Niantic, Inc./Pokémon/Nintendo]Hanke wasn’t born with a love for historical architecture and public spaces. Over the course of a decade working at companies in Silicon Valley, and developing platforms like Google Maps and Google Earth, he drove a 2.5-hour commute every day from the East Bay to Mountain View and nearby cities. One day he sat down and did the math, and realized that he’d literally wasted a year in his car on his way to work, not enjoying a moment of it. Then, during a “bike the drive” day, Hanke decided to ride in to Google’s San Francisco office instead.
“I biked from my house, caught the ferry from San Francisco, and was like, ‘this is incredible!’ he recounts. “It was such an eye-opener to me. A glimpse that this could be my life, if I did something to make it happen.” It inspired his work at Google, where he led the creation of the historical map platform Field Trip, and then, the Pokémon Go precursor, Ingress.
“I developed this idea, that maybe we could use technology to help people reclaim public space,” says Hanke. “Not from anyone, but from dereliction, from neglect.”
Niantic spun off from Google, launched Pokémon Go, and became an instant sensation. And as a result, Hanke met who he calls the “rock stars” of civic engagement at the Knight Foundation–the very people doing the sort of work that Hanke’s career had backed its way into.
Neither Gill nor Hanke claim to know how effective this partnership will be at first–how many of those 65 million monthly users will translate into people showing up to local community events, or even what sorts of events they will organize outside of Open Streets. (Gill and Hanke clarified that future events will definitely work in other community spaces like parks.)
But those details are a lesser concern for each party. Indeed, Pokémon Go has already proven that it can get people off the couch and into their cities–even teaching them about landmarks and historic spots. What they hope to do now is push toward that next step of social, augmented reality, and learn what a world in which we’re all plugged in, all the time, could mean for urban spaces and civic engagement.
“I think about it as a prototype to the future of cities, period,” says Gill. “I think cities are either going to use technology to get people out into space together, or it’s going to drive people apart.”