If you had the chance to reinvent your city, how would it look like and what values would you infuse into its vision? The Capital of Children, Lego’s vision for Billund, imagines its small hometown as a new type of space revolving around playful interaction and innovation through play, for adults and children alike.

Billund is a small town of 6194 inhabitants (Statistics Denmark, 2014) located in Jutland, Denmark. It is part of the Triangle Region (Trekantomradet), Denmark’s industrial focal point (more industrial jobs than Copenhagen, Aarhus and Odense together) (Bjarke Ingels Group et al., 2015) and an important national traffic hub (intersection of E20 and E45 highways connecting Jutland with Copenhagen). In 2007, the six most important municipalities of the region (Billund, Vejle, Frederica, Vejen, Kolding and Middelfart) went through an administrative restructuring process, forming a much larger and stronger Billund municipality (Bjarke Ingels Group et al., 2015), more suited to develop the strategic location of the area.

Billund’s history and development are intimately intertwined with the development of the LEGO Group, the world’s most powerful brand in 2015 (Forbes, 2015a) and the 95th most valuable brand in the world (Forbes, 2015b). The company was founded in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen as a general wood manufacturer and slowly specialised into toy making, producing its first iconic LEGO plastic brick as early as 1949. In 1964, LEGO built an airport in the city which transformed the small village into the current development region. Now, the municipality-owned airport is the second largest airport in Denmark, with 90 international destinations and 3 million annual passengers (Billund Airport, 2016). LEGO A/S (4000 jobs) and Billund Airport A/S (1900 jobs) represent the most important employers in the area (Bjarke Ingels Group et al., 2015).

In 1968, LEGO also opened its first LEGOLAND and put Billund on the map for family tourism attractions (625,000 visitors in the first year and 50 million up to date) (Bjarke Ingels Group et al., 2015), followed by another important family attraction, Lalandia, an indoor swimming pool and spa centre opened in 2009. As a consequence, the city has the highest percentage of workers within the entertainment-experience industry in Denmark (27%): 22% in traditional experience-oriented business such as amusement parks, hotels, nightlife gastronomy, sports and free time, and only 5% in creative industries (eStatistik, 2012).

Billund has twice as many jobs as there are residents of working age (6500 jobs and 3250 working age citizens in 2010) which results in almost half of the workforce commuting from outside the municipality, the highest average in the country (Trekantområdet, 2015). It also has a very international population. The triangle region has one of the highest concentrations of international employees in Denmark (127/1000 inhabitants) composed of 57 different nationalities (Trekantområdet, 2015).

In spatial terms, while Billund is still a small town population-wise, it has a sprawling area of 10.5 km2 (as large as inner Copenhagen), mainly composed of single-family homes and row houses (84% of housing stock) placed in remote areas accessible only by car (Bjarke Ingels Group et al., 2015).

The city as an R&D department

Innovation is embedded in most of LEGO’s activities and products, starting from traditional R&D facilities in Billund, attracting start-ups and other complementary business around their campus, embedding research into public programmes like schools and libraries, and tapping in their user-base to collect new product ideas. Innovation is promoted through marketing and CSR and they are in turn used to help the further development of innovation.

As we will further describe in the chapter dedicated to social responsibility, LEGO Foundation plays an important part in developing LEGO products into tools for learning. Its Idea Conference, an invitation-based annual event, brings together innovators in education and play from across the world (LEGO A/S, 2016b). Its First LEGO League is bringing groups of children and their professors to Billund every year to develop robotics and their school programme comprised of 15 Education Innovation Studios in Billund connects international academia with their case studies, children learning to think differently through play.

Corporate Landscapes Billund First LEGO League

First LEGO League

All across the world, users are engaged to constantly remodel the LEGO line of products and propose new ideas or reprogram and create new software for their MINDESTOR robots.

Playfull lab for playfull products

While expanding its research space outside their institutional boundaries, LEGO also invests in its internal R&D unit. Billund is the home of LEGO Product and Marketing Development division and their Design Studio, a 2000 m2 space with a design following new trends in creative office space (Groves and Knight, 2013) similar to Silicon Valley. Its Idea House, Ole Kirk Kristiansen’s first LEGO factory, is now used as a creative meeting space (Groves and Knight, 2013) for all development departments of the brand and their Concept Factory produces small batches of bricks used by the internal R&D department.

Corporate Landscapes Lego Billund Product and Marketing Development Design Studio

’fun’, ’unity’, ’creativity & innovation’, ’imagination’ and ’sustainability’ characterise the new LEGO Product and Marketing Development Design Studio

In the near future, the company will further expand its research units in Billund with the opening of a new Sustainable Materials Centre which will facilitate the company’s move from oil-based plastics towards more sustainable alternatives (LEGO A/S, 2016a). The investment will represent the first part of a planned expansion of LEGO’s HQ and the building of a new centrally-located corporate campus (Bjarke Ingels Group et al., 2015).

LEGO is slowly moving towards open innovation. The first steps of this process can be seen in the way it manages its school programmes, but the next step is creating “a playground for companies” in Billund through the development of its Play User Lab, an open laboratory that will share knowledge, experience and research as well as provide opportunities for testing theories in practice and development work for SMEs (Capital of Children A/S, 2016d). The programme is run by the Capital of Children Foundation in cooperation with the Design School Kolding and the Design to innovate (D2i) cooperation organisation. The purpose behind Play User Lab, a niche business accelerator, is to foster the growth of other companies and networking structures around LEGO, helping the company to tap into external know-how and innovation as other tech companies already do today.

Reinventing play in the city

LEGO conducts its local and global CSR programmes through its LEGO Foundation (owned by KIRBI A/S, the holding and investment company of the Kirk Kristiansen family) which owns 25% of LEGO A/S from which it obtains its revenue and funding (LEGO Foundation, 2016b).

The main motivation for LEGO’s global CSR strategy comes from the company’s contemporary focus on redefining its product line as tools for education and learning through play (LEGO Foundation, 2016a) and consequently, the entire corporate responsibility is also used as a tool for product development as well as marketing and communication.

At a local level, the LEGO Foundation plays a lead role in implementing the local development strategy as part of Capital of Children Foundation which will transform the entire city into a learning and play environment for children and adults alike, thus transposing and expanding LEGO’s experience with toys into the urban environment of the city and potentially opening up new types of markets for the company in the process (Capital of Children A/S, 2016b). Besides this, another important motivation for investing in Billund comes from LEGO’s need to enhance the quality of life and provide higher quality social infrastructure for its highly-trained and expanding workforce which is currently commuting from outside the municipality, from cities like Aarhus, which provide a more lively and creative urban environment (Bjarke Ingels Group et al., 2015).

While the LEGO Foundation represents an innovative way of bridging business development with CSR, the Kristiansen family is also engaged in more traditional methods of social responsibility through their Ole Kirks Fond and the Edith & Godtfred Kirk Christiansen’s Fond (KIRKBI A/S, 2016a).

Besides its direct involvement in the Capital of Children, the LEGO Foundation works separately on other initiatives to promote education through play. One of the most important programmes is the LEGO Education Innovation Studio, a customised solution for teaching children between the ages of six and nineteen subjects like science/technology, physics, mathematics and languages in a creative, practical and playful way (LEGO A/S, 2016a). Since 2012, LEGO Foundation has donated the studio packages (teaching material provided by LEGO Education, storage modules, course programme, networking activities and annual mini-conferences) to 15 local education institutions (10 elementary schools, an after-school care centre, a 10th-class centre, an agricultural college, an independent vocational school and two schools) (Capital of Children A/S, 2016a).

Another interesting programme which takes place in Billund is the “First LEGO League”, an annual international competition where teams of children are involved in researching real-world problems such as food safety, recycling, and energy as well as learning to design and compete with self-built robots using LEGO’s MINDSTORMS proprietary technology (First LEGO League, 2016).

In 2013, the LEGO Foundation, in collaboration with Billund Municipality, inaugurated the International School of Billund (ISB) for children between the ages of three and sixteen. The new private school combines an international baccalaureate with the Danish school system and LEGO’s research into creativity and play, with the aim of stimulating children to “become ambitious lifelong learners by placing play and creativity at the heart of everything they do” (International School Billund, 2016a). The school’s programme is subsidised through state funding, admission fees and LEGO and works both as an international school catered to LEGO’s own employees (about a quarter of parents work for the LEGO Group (International School Billund, 2016b) and the rest work in other international Danish companies from the region) but also as a test lab for the company’s development targets. Its programme combines traditional learning with special classes on design taught by LEGO employees and the pilot implementation of LEGO’s Education Innovation Studio (see Subsidised social programmes section). Furthermore, the school environment acts as a research collaboration platform (International School of Billund 1a, 2016) between LEGO and other international research institutions like Tufts University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard Graduate School of Education (partner in Harvard’s Project Zero researching aspects of human learning through play).

Corporate Landscapes LEGO International School of Billund

The entrance to the International School of Billund

LEGO’s understanding of what public learning and education functions could provide to the company has made them expand outside school programmes, as well, and in 2016, the Capital of Children Foundation will inaugurate the redesigned Billund public library which transforms the 40-year-old building into an inspirational environment for play, learning and creativity, with themed interiors that will make the institution more attractive for children and adults alike (Capital of Children A/S, 2016b). The design of the space was realised by the same firm that helped to redesign LEGO’s own Product and Marketing Development Design Studio in 2012 (Rosan Bosch and Rune Fjord) from which it draws its inspiration.

Corporate Landscapes Redesigned Billund Public Library

The redesigned Billund Public Library

The school programme and the library represent only pilot projects, part of the wider vision of Capital of Children, which aims at putting its mark on all public amenities and public spaces of the city, transforming them into playful new experiences which foster learning and promote the LEGO brand by association.

(Re)building the company brick by brick

From its inception, LEGO has been a very innovative company. Starting as a general wood workshop in the 1930s, it quickly specialised in toy making and was the first Danish toy company to move into plastics in the 1940s. But the most important innovation in terms of product and product definition came in 1954 when Godtfred Kristiansen developed the now signature characteristic of LEGO’s products, its “system of play” (Robertson, 2013). From then on, individual construction sets were no longer seen as separate products but part of a comprehensive toy system where each brick could be used in combination with bricks from other sets offering children infinite possibilities of remixing their products. What is more important, 70 years after the production of the first modular brick, the new LEGO parts still fit with all the sets ever designed by the company.

After revolutionising mass production, the company entered into the experience business in 1968 and once again revolutionised the way its products were perceived with the opening of the first LEGOLAND in Billund. Built from 42 million LEGO bricks, the theme park brought a new dimension to the experience of LEGO products, creating an almost 1:1 scale environment out of the adventures which were before stuck in LEGO boxes and in children’s imagination. The new attraction was a real success story with 50 million visitors up to date and led to the construction of another six theme parks across the world and of twelve new LEGOLAND Discovery Centres, a scaled-down indoor version of the parks.

Corporate Landscapes the First Legoland opened in Billund in 1968

The First Legoland opened in Billund in 1968

In the 1990s, the company witnessed yet another period of extreme diversification in the non-toy segment. This decision was mainly forced on by the expiration of LEGO’s patent for the brick which attracted cheaper competition but also due to the changing nature of play (Foss, 2014). This new and risky market included the extension of LEGO licenses to a variety of children’s items including clothing, children’s room decor, books, jewellery, movies and video games. The brand started to define its sets similar to fashion products, with new lines coming out every 18 months (Neats, 2014). While the initial sales were high, they quickly plummeted which lead to the company almost reaching bankruptcy in 2002 (Ringen, 2015).

Starting from 2004, LEGO Group slowly returned to its core values and its “system of play” and while it is still active in developing non-toy products, its approach is more coherently organised around defining a holistic experience around their products but also marketing them as learning and education tools. Its new products mix the digital with the physical in video games and board games but they also try to define play as a learning experience for every age (Oliver et al., 2007), which is clearly seen in their line of MINDSTORM modular and programmable robots. Furthermore, building on user creativity, LEGO managed to transform its customers into prosumers (Robertson and Breen, 2013) by successfully tapping into their user experiences and crowdsourcing their ideas about new products with online platforms like Cuusoo.

Contemporary LEGO is a brand that combines mass production, experience economy, user-centric design and prosumerism and manages to generate an ever-expanding universe which captures its customers’ imagination.

Billund, a theme park for corporate tourism

As mentioned before, the contemporary LEGO is an experience-driven company which makes the physical environment or its augmented version, its prime means of communicating with its customers. While LEGO has outsourced its theme parks in the early 2000s and owns only 29.9% of Merlin Entertainment (KIRKBI A/S, 2016b), the company that manages them, LEGO still manifests a strong influence on their environments through copyright and distribution rights.

The LEGOLAND in Billund has slowly expanded and it now incorporates a cinema, a 5-star hotel and a holiday village where families can rent small houses and experience the landscape around Billund while being in close vicinity to LEGO’s theme park. The park is also scheduled for a further expansion, as part of the Capital of Children vision (Bjarke Ingels Group et al., 2015). It will incorporate a new “ecoduct”-like structure which will connect its suburban remote location with the new city centre where LEGO has planned a new open campus where visitors, workers and locals can meet, and LEGO House, the company’s starchitecture brand experience facility, designed by BIG and scheduled for completion in 2017.

LEGO House, as the whole Capital of Children Vision, represents an important step forward in redefining the experience of LEGO and blending it into the urban environment. The new building, comprised of 21 large scale LEGO bricks, will replace the old Billund City Hall in the main square of the city and will create a new mix of public functions, a LEGO play experience space, a new company museum, office space and a gallery, all freely open to the public (LEGO A/S, 2016).

Corporate Landscapes Lego House Billund

The new Lego House designed by BIG

LEGO House, the new town centre densification project, the new city-wide pedestrian infrastructure (Billund Playline) and the existing investment into school programmes, learning and open-innovation R&D as well as its existing LEGOLAND will transform the city of Billund into an inhabited theme park and research centre for the brand and its collaborators, blurring the lines between customers and employees, between children and their parents and between the brand and the city.

Creating a new type of capital

LEGO Group participates in the governance of the city in two ways: through public-private partnerships, the most emblematic of which is the Capital of Children Foundation, and informally through the historical connection between the Kristiansen family, which still lives in the city, and local stockholders.

The Capital of Children Foundation, in charge of developing and implanting the future vision of the city is a joint venture established in 2012 between the LEGO Foundation and the Billund Municipality, each party owning half of the assets in the company (Capital of Children A/S, 2016c). As a consequence, its Board of Directors is composed of the CEO and the Chairman of the Board of LEGO Foundation and the Mayor and the Municipal Director of Billund Municipality. Its advisory board is composed of members of KIRKBI A/S, the holding and investment company of the Kirk Kristiansen family, as well as members of Realdania, a philanthropic organisation composed of representatives of all of the large Danish real estate developers. In addition to the joint activities in the Capital of Children, both Billund Municipality and the LEGO Foundation also work separately on projects that support the shared vision.

Corporate Landscapes News Studio for Billund Capital of Children

News studio for Billund’s Capital of Children vision

As mentioned before, Billund is a very fragmented and car-oriented city resembling suburban areas, without a clearly defined urban centre and without quality public spaces which are now mainly used as parking lots (Bjarke Ingels Group et al., 2015). It is also one of the main family holiday attractions in Denmark and an increasingly important business hub with a very international workforce and population working for LEGO, its subcontractors and other entertainment businesses.

In order to tackle these contradictions and develop a high-quality urban environment for residents, visitors and employees, the Capital of Children Foundation has commissioned BIG and Urban.Agency to realise the Capital of Children Strategy in 2015. The document aims to create a globally-oriented but locally-embodied urban environment with creativity, play and learning as the main drivers of Billund’s future.

The strategy (Bjarke Ingels Group et al., 2015) is mainly focused on the development of the urban core as a safe, vibrant and walkable mixed-use town centre, combining life, play, learning and work. It proposes new types of shared public spaces, development of diverse housing typologies and densification (providing a more urban feel) as well as new outdoor and indoor learning and play environments and a more intimate connection with surrounding nature and biodiversity through landscape design and learning programmes. The strategy also looks at diversifying the local business community, providing new start-up working spaces, open-innovation environments and straightening the collaboration between existing local stakeholders.

In spatial terms, the strategy divides the city centre into seven smaller development zones:

The City Centre Area: a lively mixed-use centre brought to life by the new LEGO House and new retail, workspaces and higher density housing;

The Lego Campus Area: developed as an open low-rise campus, it will link the northern tourist attractions and the city centre and create open public spaces where workers, tourists and locals can meet;

The Train Station and Play Valley Area: the new train station will become a new infrastructural hub surrounded by the Billund Play Valley, an area for start-ups and business in the field of play;

The Legoland Area: development of a better connection between the LEGOLAND Theme park, the main Billund tourist attraction, and the city centre;

The Conference, Hotel and Aerotropolis Area: an area dedicated to hotels and large conference venues which will diversify Billund’s visitor typology. It will house traditional conferences and toy fairs as well as concerts and cultural events. The Aerotropolis will bring together businesses, hotels and entertainment, capitalising on the proximity to the airport;

The Creek Neighbourhood Area: the redevelopment of the current horse track into a new central neighbourhood;

Institutions Area: will house Billund International School, the retirement home and a new cultural centre and will represent the “political” centre of the “capital”.

These seven zones, situated in close proximity to each other, will be connected through a “Playline” – a colourful, playful and active infrastructure for children, pedestrians and cyclists as well as future driverless pods. This new shared space will also act as a connection between these zones and the surrounding suburban city. The areas will revolve around a central park with the forest area and the creek forming the heart of the future city centre.

The project is divided into several phases, starting from the city centre (0-5 years) where the LEGO House (LEGO’s future brand experience centre) and the surrounding public space will be finished in 2017, the current Billund Cultural Centre will be upgraded and a Makers Lab will be added. The future development of Lego Campus, densification of the city centre with programmes including co-working spaces, the Play User Lab start-up accelerator, and Lego Sustainable Materials Research Centre will further add to the new identity and liveliness of the area.

Corporate Landscapes Billund Capital of Children BIG

A glimpse into the future Capital of Children vision designed by BIG

An interesting point that needs to be stressed regarding the strategy is how it aligns with LEGO’s own development goals and with how the brand has shifted its focus from selling a product, the LEGO “system of play”, towards selling a more and more complex experience focused on play as a method for learning and creativity for all ages. After its implementation, the Capital of Children will thus not only represent a truly urban environment but also a way for LEGO to expand its brand experience from its current enclosed theme parks towards a whole urban environment, transforming Billund into a large scale brand experience scape.

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