Issue 4 out now!

Toyota wants to give the term “company town” a new meaning – by building the city of the future.

By Cyrus Jarvis.

The year is 2025. You wake up to the smell of coffee being prepared by your automated smart home, as the sun rises from behind Mount Fuji. Outside, drones are flying and people are traveling in autonomous vehicles.

Although this sounds like an episode of Black Mirror, it is set to become the reality for the future 2,000 residents of ‘Woven City, an AI-powered town set to be built at the base of Mount Fuji, Japan, in 2021.

Toyota wants to give the term ‘company town’ a new meaning – at CES (an annual trade show organized by the Consumer Technology Association) earlier this year, its CEO announced that it was beginning work on a new project: a city powered by robotics and AI. It’s set to be the first of its kind, built entirely by the automaker on a 175-acre site. The 2,000 residents of the planned city will be surrounded by technology, from smart homes that will monitor their health, to an underground system of robotics that will deliver their letters and parcels. To minimize climate impact, buildings will be made out of wood (a much more sustainable, and possibly climate-positive material than concrete), and the whole ecosystem will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells, geothermal energy, and solar energy. However, although the company aims to make the town entirely carbon neutral, the main source of energy will be hydrogen fuel cells. Although they produce no harmful emissions and are supposed to be fossil-free, they produce hydrogen, a process that depends on fossil fuels.

Recently, Toyota has begun moving away from being an automobile company and started rebranding itself as a mobility company that focuses on technology to change the way we move and get around. A feature that will be seen all throughout the town is Toyota’s own e-Palette, a sort of driverless bus that can also double as a retail space, a repair shop, a medical clinic, or even a hotel room.

Left unsaid, however, was anything related to data and privacy.

If this all sounds a bit familiar – that’s because this has happened before. In 2017, Google first announced its plans to build a high-tech neighborhood on Toronto’s waterfront, which was met with backlash by local residents who accused the company of aggressively taking over public land, processes, services, and funds. Two years ago, Jim Balsillie, co-founder of Blackberry maker Research in Motion, called the project “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues. Fast forward to 2020 and the project has been dropped – much to the relief of Torontonians who were also afraid that Google would expand outside of their 12-acre plot, due to leaked documents showing they had the intention of doing so.

In Japan, however, there is a strong national robotics strategy in place, due to the country’s long history of technological openness and their aging population, which is becoming harder to manage each year. Japan is also better placed to accommodate such projects as there is generally less resistance to top-down government. Toyota’s Woven City could, therefore, provide valuable insight into what the future looks like for us, help scientists and urban planners answer important questions, and become instrumental in de-risking, developing, and demonstrating new urban technologies. The only catch is that residents will inevitably have to allow for more surveillance, control, and data gathered on the small details of their lives. There are lessons to be learned from Google’s controversial Sidewalk Toronto project, and depending on how Toyota manages its own Woven City project, this could either be a success or a disaster.