smart cities

The real-life, city-sized lab

How can we make cities work for people? Japanese carmaker Toyota is starting from scratch with a hydrogen-powered smart city near Mount Fuji

Home Life Sustainability smart cities The real-life, city-sized lab

When the Japanese carmaker Toyota announced back in January that it plans to build a hydrogen-powered smart city near Mount Fuji, it clearly had no idea of the global pandemic that lay just around the corner.

But if the project does go ahead to the original timetable – with ground-breaking due to start in 2021 – it could yet prove the perfect testing ground for a city that can cope not just with the standard pressures of urban life, such as congestion and pollution, but also the requirements of dealing with a modern health emergency, from wider pavements to citizen health monitoring.

Any such ideas are currently conjecture, but it's likely that they would be within the capabilities of the team behind Toyota's Woven City.

Developing future technologies

Designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, it is set on a 175-acre (71-hectare) site in the foothills of Mount Fuji. Residents and researchers will coexist as they assess and test the Internet of Things (IoT) and a variety of new technologies including autonomous vehicles, robotics, personal mobility, hydrogen power, smart homes and artificial intelligence. In a real-life, city-sized lab.

“Building a complete city from the ground up, even on a small scale like this, is a unique opportunity to develop future technologies, including a digital operating system for the city's infrastructure,” declared Akio Toyoda, president, Toyota Motor Corporation.

The connected smart city is the vision of the future. Data is collected from sensors and used, increasingly with the benefit of artificial intelligence (AI), to optimise our use of resources. Copenhagen has succeeded in building a smart train line, for example. It commissioned Hitachi to build a 24/7 metro line with AI and a fully autonomous fleet to reduce congestion on its roads. The system is able to detect when there are higher passenger numbers and automatically increase train frequency. Within two years, half of Copenhagen's bus users had switched to the new train.

Starting from scratch

But creating a smart train line is one thing; creating a smart city is quite another. The existing urban landscape has been shaped by old technology, for a start, and has a complex combination of both public and private operators providing services. “It's software that controls the assets that move,” Andrew Barr, Group CEO for Hitachi Rail, told Wired magazine. “And getting them to all work together means understanding all of the parameters that go into those systems, whether it's trains, passengers or anything else.”

The only way to create a fully smart city is to bring all stakeholders together and start from scratch. And for Toyota's Woven City, one of the central themes is the harmonious movement of vehicles and people to help create the kind of efficient use of space that encourages commerce, culture and social life, while also reducing congestion to boost health. To do this, Ingels' team has designed a network of roads dedicated to three transport speeds and needs. The first will be optimised for faster and larger autonomous vehicles, a second will be designed for e-scooters and other forms of micro-mobility and a third will take the form of a “linear park” that provides space for pedestrians to walk and enjoy outdoor space.

Radical changes

“A swarm of different technologies is beginning to radically change how we inhabit and navigate our cities,” explains Ingels. “Connected, autonomous, emission-free and shared mobility solutions are bound to unleash a world of opportunities for new forms of urban life.”

Toyota plans to invite commercial and academic partners, scientists and futurists from around the world to collaborate on its Woven City project. Given the pressures cities are facing right now, this city lab could be ideal to point us towards better – and healthier – urban living.