Are smart cities utopian or dystopian visions?
Are smart cities utopian or dystopian visions?
( Source: Public Domain / Pexels)

SMART CITIES Is Toyota’s Woven City project a utopian or dystopian conception?

Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Florian Richert

In Susono, Japan, Toyota has committed itself to build from scratch one of the largest smart city projects in the world, known as the Woven City. While the technology behind the initiative is impressive, it’s the human-centered aspects of the project that will likely determine its success or failure.

At the beginning of 2020, Toyota, the 10th-largest corporation in the world and Japan’s largest automaker, made a commitment to building a smart city on a 175-acre site in Susono (Shizuoka Prefecture) at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji, to be called the “Woven City.” Designed for an initial 2,000 inhabitants, the city will ultimately cost in the billions of U.S. dollars (trillions of Japanese yen) and feature autonomous vehicles (AVs), smart homes, smart buildings, smart infrastructure, and intelligent on-demand services. In many ways, the vision of connected, autonomous, shared, and electric (CASE) automobiles is being extrapolated and expanded upon at a city-wide level. The Woven City will incorporate advances in artificial intelligence (AI), mobility, robotics, material sciences, and sustainable energy. Work is scheduled to begin on the first phase of the Woven City in 2021.

In-house development

The Woven City is a project developed in-house by Toyota at the company’s Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which has its main offices in California’s Silicon Valley near the campus of Stanford University and satellite offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts near the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and in Ann Arbor, Michigan near the University of Michigan. The Woven City site in Japan is a former Toyota factory that’s been shut down. In its place, a panoply of buildings for working, living, and leisure activities will both serve citizens and draw resources from the surrounding environment sustainably, so there will be zero emissions, little to no waste, universal Internet and cloud connectivity, and health and safety benefits for all residents.

The grid plan of the Woven City will consist of three types of streets that will alternate both horizontally and vertically. The first street type will be for large, fast-moving vehicles, such as shared-mobility minibuses, cars, and/or delivery vehicles. The second street type will be promenades used strictly by low-speed personal mobility devices, bicyclists, and pedestrians. The third type of street will not have vehicle traffic at all, but will instead will feature green parkland, with walking trails where city residents can stroll, gather and recreate.

Between the streets, large and small multi-story buildings with intelligent infrastructure and carbon-neutral energy utilization will serve as offices, laboratories, apartment housing, gyms, schools, recreational facilities, and cultural venues. Autonomous robots will serve workplaces and homes to deliver items via a network of elevators and tunnels. Most of the city’s buildings will be constructed from locally sourced wood assembled and fitted together using traditional Japanese joinery techniques. Greenery will abound, both in the city’s landscaping, as well as on the tops and sides of most multi-story structures. Courtyards and squares will allow for parks and community activities, including outdoor markets formed by clusters of Toyota e-Palette AVs functioning as food and retail stands. Energy for buildings will come from roof-mounted solar panels as well as underground hydrogen fuel cells. Outside, flying drones and more e-Palette AVs will provide additional services and shared-mobility transportation to city residents.

The buildings and overall plan of the Woven City are being designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, who has won fame for his many previous projects, including Google’s London and Mountain View, California offices; 2 World Trade Center in New York City; and the Lego House in Billund, Denmark.

While the video for the Woven City makes life there seem like a utopian paradise, it’s less than clear what all the occupants would do for a living and where they would work. Would they all have workplaces within the city itself?

New city, new life?

How would the economics of such a city function? In the case of the Woven City, all infrastructure, transportation, and services are being paid for by Toyota; all of the city’s structures would come pre-built and (presumably) would be provided free of charge to city residents. But in the real world, this is not the model for how a modern city works. In the real world, the sizes of people’s homes and their lifestyles vary based largely on what they can afford. Whether tax revenues in any real-world metropolis could support the costs of building and maintaining the Woven City is questionable. Also, as the scale of the city grows from an initial 2,000 inhabitants to many thousands more, it remains to be seen if Toyota’s utopian vision could scale along with the population. Although Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda goes to great lengths to stress that despite the Big Data collection from the city’s Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices doing everything from making people’s dinner to tracking their lifestyle habits, that this information and the AI-driven leveraging of it would not be used for nefarious “Big Brother”-like purposes. For sure, in the “real-world,” the temptation to profit from and use this data in questionable ways (as companies like Google and Facebook are accused regularly of doing) might prove to be too great.

A researcher of urban anthropology could point to Dubai as a similar locale where no expense has been spared to bring ultra-modern infrastructure, conveniences, and high-tech luxury to a population that may or may not have desired such elements in the first place. But researchers may also point out that in spite of the stratospheric sums that have been spent in Dubai, the city is not by any stretch considered a mecca of culture on the world stage, nor could it necessarily even be considered a success from an urban planning perspective. Disillusioned residents of the city have complained that despite the plethora of hotels, condominiums, malls, yacht marinas, and indoor ski slopes, “street life” in much of the glittering metropolis is nonexistent. A marked lack of convenience stores, street-level parking, restaurants, retail shops, food stands, and public transportation (other than two metro lines which mostly just follow a pair of the municipality’s main thoroughfares) mean that Dubai in many ways remains a city only the ultrawealthy can enjoy (and even that is sometimes questionable). A conspicuous lack of egalitarian gathering places—except perhaps in the streets and marketplaces of the antiquated sections of the city—leave much of Dubai with an “all-dressed-up-with-no-place-to-go” feeling.

Desired luxury or limited new life?

The conveniences and services smart cities like the Woven City can provide are time and resource savers that many people around the world would consider desirable luxuries. But very little, if any, of these amenities go beyond scratching the surface of providing basic assistance or dressing up processes that in the past may have been more manual, piecemeal, disjointed, and/or social. One example of these could be the automatic and robotic preparation of food that in the past might have been concocted slowly in steps over a period of hours or even days. Another example might be the purchasing of goods or services via computers at unmanned retail vehicles or store outlet spaces instead of from human sales staff. When one considers what would have to be given up or sacrificed in order to live in a place like the Woven City (which will offer a limited number of home types, jobs, leisure activities, and entertainment options), the restrictions of such a life become clearer, and certain “trade-offs” become apparent.

Indeed, it’s not the quality or the sophistication of the technology and infrastructure of a municipality that is the hallmark of whether an urban setting is a great place to live, but how people use and take advantage of such elements. In other words, the value of life in such a locale may not be determined by the destination people arrive at, but by the journeys they take once they get there. And this ultimately may be the key to why Toyota is investing so much money and so many resources in the Woven City — because the measure of its success almost certainly will not be determinable by running computer simulations. By contrast, the success will come from people experiencing those parts of life most likely not measurable via an IoT device: the ability to connect with others, to reflect, to be inspired, and to feel an inner satisfaction of the soul.