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The metropolis of the future in the Land of the Rising Sun

From Japan, the prototype of a smart city powered by renewable energy.

by Amanda Saint
01 October 2020
6 min read
byAmanda Saint
01 October 2020
6 min read

At the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show this past January, global mobility company Toyota announced its plans to build a prototype city of the future at the base of Mount Fuji. Named the Woven City, the plan is to have the city be a living, ongoing experiment where residents and researchers test and develop cutting-edge new technologies in a real-world environment.

With its living laboratory, the company hopes to enable scientists, engineers and inventors to advance their research into technologies such as smart homes, personal mobility, robotics and artificial intelligence within the environments for which they are planned.

The living laboratory

When Toyota decided to close a factory sitting on a 175-acre site in Higashi-Fuji, the company realised this would be the perfect location to create a real-world test environment for future technologies they plan on developing. It could also attract outside scientists to advance their research in the Woven City. Toyota is keen on involving other future technologists and has issued an open invitation for commercial and academic partners, interested scientists and researchers from around the world to apply to live and work in this innovative city.

The research projects in the city will focus on 14 key areas for which organisations and individual scientists and researchers can apply: bringing community together, personal mobility, mobility as a service, autonomy, robotics, smart homes, connectivity through AI, multi-generational assisted living, optimizing nature and promoting health, sustainability and carbon capture, hydrogen-powered infrastructure, academic research and incubation, industry collaboration, smart construction and manufacturing. 

"We welcome all those inspired to improve the way we live in the future to take advantage of this unique research ecosystem and join us in our quest to create an ever-better way of life and mobility for all," said Akio Toyoda, president of the Toyota Motor Corporation. The plan for the city is to initially become home for 2,000 residents —a mix of Toyota employees and their families, retired couples, scientists, researchers and industry and academic partners. As the city grows and develops, it's envisaged that more people will be able to move in and live there.

Urban planning

Toyota has commissioned Danish architectural firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) to design the city for them. BIG have already been involved in many high-profile projects, including the Lego House in Denmark, 2 World Trade Center in New York, and Google's California headquarters —Mountain View, and their London headquarters. Known for its holistic approach to creating sustainable architecture based on analysis of how contemporary life constantly evolves and changes, BIG has won numerous environmental and innovation awards for its projects. But this is the first time they will design and build a whole city.

Bjarke Ingels, the company's founder and creative director, explains the team's approach: "a swarm of different technologies are beginning to radically change how we inhabit and navigate our cities. Connected, autonomous, emission-free and shared mobility solutions are bound to unleash a world of opportunities for new forms of urban life. With the breadth of technologies and industries we have been able to access and collaborate with the Toyota ecosystem of companies, we believe we have a unique opportunity to explore new forms of urbanity with the Woven City that could pave new paths for other cities to explore." The plan is to build the city on a grid of pathways separated into three distinct types of traffic. One will be for faster vehicles, all of which will be autonomous and emission free; the second will be for low-speed personal mobility vehicles and pedestrians; and the third will consist of park-like promenades for pedestrians only. There will also be small neighborhood parks, a large central park and a plaza for social events.

Energy and virtual world

Billed as the city where "people, buildings and vehicles are connected through data and sensors," the Woven City will be 100% powered by hydrogen fuel cells and solar energy. The buildings will be constructed primarily of wood and will combine traditional Japanese joinery methods with robotic production to minimise carbon footprint. The goal is to ensure that the city's homes, laboratories, retail units and leisure areas are as sustainable as possible. Power for the buildings will come from rooftop solar photovoltaic panels, and courtyards will be enhanced with hydroponic and native plants.

The buildings will be a mix of residential, retail and research spaces so that work, leisure and play are all combined in one place. The smart homes within these buildings will all have a view of Mount Fuji and will be fully connected using sensor-based AI that will be equipped to carry out such tasks as testing people's health, automatically restocking fridges, vacuuming floors and taking out the trash. Underneath the city will be a hydrogen fuel cell network, its water filtration systems and a network for the autonomous delivery of goods in an effort to ensure the city's streets don't become clogged with traffic or road works.

Construction is due to start in early 2021, but in the meantime, the entire city is being built in the virtual world. Toyota believes that this twin digital city will enable them to get it right when building in the real world begins. According to a Toyota statement: "creating a digital twin will allow us to test our theories before we build. This, in turn, will create a one-of-a-kind digital operating system for our city —one that perhaps others will be able to use. With people, buildings and vehicles all connected and communicating with each other through data and sensors, we will be able to test AI technology in both the virtual and the physical world, thereby maximizing its potential." So as Toyota and BIG prepare to build this Woven City of the future, researchers, scientists and organisations around the world can apply to be a part of it. The goal: to develop a blueprint for successful future cities that will be built the world over.