It’s the near future. A company has built a “prototype town” which will allow scientists and researchers to test an array of new technologies, including artificial intelligence, human mobility, robotics, materials science, sustainable energy, and autonomy in one controlled environment. Its employees (and the generally tech-curious) have been invited to move into this “living laboratory” as full-time test subjects, with an end-goal to determine the future of the auto industry, urban planning, and community. No, I’m not describing a plot of HBO’s series, Westworld. The community is the brainchild of Toyota Motor Corporation: it’s called Woven City, and it’s scheduled to break ground near Mt. Fuji, Japan, in 2021.
Toyota president Akio Toyoda announced the company’s intent to build Woven City at CES, the annual consumer tech conference, this week. The city, which will initially house 2,000 people, is being designed by Danish architect Bjarke Ingels and his team at Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). Bjarke Ingels Group has previously been commissioned to design other major architectural projects worldwide, such as 2 World Trade Center in New York, Google’s Mountain View and London headquarters, and more. Initial concept illustrations were also released as part of the announcement. The city’s look is somewhat similar to corporate campuses you might find in Silicon Valley: curated landscapes weave around minimalist, airy buildings (made of wood here), which are punctuated with native plants hanging from their walls, and contrasted by the metallic shine of their curved roofs, covered in solar panels.
So why is Toyota taking on this endeavor now? Toyoda describes Woven City as an opportunity for the company to test autonomous technology and smart city infrastructure. That means testing and expanding the company’s portfolio beyond cars, and dovetails with a larger push among car companies to diversify their businesses. (Take Ford Mobility, which the company says is “dedicated to solving the world’s most pressing mobility issues.” That headline doesn’t mention automobiles, does it?)
As for Woven City itself, it is one of many “techno-utopian” concepts to emerge over the past year. A much more cynical comparison would be to 19th-century company towns, which were built by coal companies to house employees in remote locations, and were certainly no utopia.
The 175-acre development—the site of a recently closed Toyota factory—will allow the company to build urban infrastructure from the ground up, literally. According to Ingels, the city’s hydrogen power storage and water filtration systems will be underground, along with a system that will autonomously deliver goods to the buildings above. According to Toyoda, Woven City will have an “infrastructure of the future that is connected . . . digital . . . and sustainable . . . powered by Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell technology.”
But testing ground for new technologies expands beyond the literal—Toyota, along with BIG, will prototype new ways for technological assistance to augment daily life, no matter where you might be in Woven City. Ingels highlights in-home robotics and sensor-based AI that will automatically restock the fridge, take out the trash, and check the health of the homeowner. No do-it-yourself-ers needed.
On the ground, daily living will be designed to be both more familiar and less: residents will still see green spaces, public parks, roads, cars, and pedestrian walkways, but they will be functionally different. For one, all those cars will be empty, because they will all be autonomous. They will also be emissions-free, according to Toyota (never mind that elsewhere in the world, Toyota is fighting against emissions standards). Toyota plans to put E-Palettes, the autonomous mobile vehicles the company developed in 2018, on the streets as well. Would you like to order—and eat—a pizza on your way from point A to point B? With these mobile-retailers, now you can.
BIG has also designed three types of roadways—one for fast-moving autonomous vehicles (“street trees create the necessary distinction between people and vehicles,” says Ingels); one promenade for mixed use by pedestrians and personal vehicles (bikes, etc); and a “linear park” with walkways for pedestrians only.
So what exactly makes all this tech unsettling? The creepy feeling comes from a sense of the development and its associated technologies acting like Big Brother. Sign up to move to Woven City, but do you know what exactly you’re signing up for?
Toyoda sees the site as a “unique opportunity” that will allow researchers, engineers, and scientists to test and iterate on developing technology in a controlled, “real-world environment.” He also sees it as an opportunity to collaborate with other business partners, and at CES, he encouraged interested parties to conduct their own research in Woven City once it is built.
This isn’t the first time that Toyota has invested in a collaborative research environment. Beyond labs where this type of technology is currently tested, like the Toyota Research Institute and Toyota Connected, the company also invested one million dollars in the University of Michigan’s M-City, a testing ground for autonomous vehicles near the University’s main campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
It’s unclear how exactly Toyota plans to pay for Woven City or how employees will be incentivized to move there (Toyota could not be reached for comment by press time). It is clear that Toyota is dreaming big; but whether or not these new technologies equate to utopian or dystopian science-fiction isn’t something I can predict. Maybe that’s something Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the creators of Westworld, can take on.