Smart city projects
Toyota's Woven City. Image credit: Toyota

Each decade gives rise to new promise of an evolution – in lifestyle, convenience, security, societal cohesion, entertainment, transportation, even language – all led by technology.

Yet, these optimistic promises of a better future fall into vague memory so easily as society gets on with what needs getting on with, until those technologies mature and the antithesis of disruption – cohesion – is realised bringing together viable and practical technologies and then making them available at palatable price points.

The reality in most cases is that developing a technology to the point where it’s ready for widespread adoption takes longer than originally proposed; or “non-essential” innovations get set aside as a “better” technology is developed. Nearly every time. There is however, as we start the new decade, one concept that’s brought disparate technologies both to maturity, and cohesion, and will, in this decade, surround us in daily society, driven by the need to fight the ever more urgent climate change challenges facing the population: the smart city.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International issue 2-2020. Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

It appears the solutions to the challenges of a sustainable habitat for the future are arising from the cultures that many argue led the way in terms of developing modern civilisation – the East.

The Consumer Electronics Show, hosted in Las Vegas, revealed not one, but two major developments that are built on matured technologies in a cohesive vision for the city of the future: one where smart, sustainable energy technologies can be interwoven with AI and IoT in every aspect of daily life – from the food you eat to the way you travel, work, entertain, or are entertained – with advanced sensors, communications, transportation and robotics.

Each represents a positioning of smart city technologies that beg the attention of the generations they will serve, but in a different package. Let’s explore them both.

Toyota’s Woven City

The masterplan of the city includes the designations for street usage into three types: for faster vehicles only; for a mix of lower speed, personal mobility and pedestrians;

and for a park-like promenade for pedestrians only. These three street types weave together to form an organic grid pattern to help accelerate the testing of autonomy.

The city is planned to be fully sustainable, with buildings made mostly of wood to minimize the carbon footprint, using traditional Japanese wood joinery, combined with robotic production methods. The rooftops will be covered in photovoltaic panels to generate solar power in addition to power generated by hydrogen fuel cells.

Toyota plans to weave in the outdoors throughout the city, with native vegetation and hydroponics.

Residences will be equipped with the latest in human support technologies, such as in-home robotics to assist with daily living. The homes will use sensor-based AI to check occupants’ health, take care of basic needs and enhance daily life, creating an opportunity to deploy connected technology with integrity and trust, securely and positively.

To move residents through the city, only fully-autonomous, zero-emission vehicles will be allowed on the main thoroughfares.

In and throughout Woven City, autonomous Toyota e-Palettes will be used for transportation and deliveries, as well as for changeable mobile retail.

Both neighbourhood parks and a large central park for recreation, as well as a central plaza for social gatherings, are designed to bring the community together. Toyota believes that encouraging human connection will be an equally important aspect of this experience.

Toyota plans to populate Woven City with Toyota Motor Corporation employees and their families, retired couples, retailers, visiting scientists, and industry partners. The plan is for 2,000 people to start with, adding more as the project evolves.

The 70-hectare development in the city of Susono will be designed by Danish architecture studio BIG. It will be the studio’s first project in Japan and is set to start on site in 2021.

“Homes in the Woven City will serve as test sites for new technology, such as in-home robotics to assist with daily life,” architect Bjarke Engels said.

“These smart homes will take advantage of full connectivity using sensor-based AI to do things automatically, like restocking your fridge, or taking out your trash – or even taking care of how healthy you are.” Power storage and water filtration facilities will be hidden beneath the ground. Above ground, meanwhile, BIG’s master plan features a plaza, parks and car-free promenades, with Engels stressing the importance of public spaces in his design.

“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, maximizing its potential,” he said on stage during the unveiling. “We want to turn artificial intelligence into intelligence amplified.” “This will be a truly unique opportunity to create an entire community or ‘city’ from the ground up and allow us to build an infrastructure of the future that is connected, digital and sustainable, powered by Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell technology,” Toyota’s president Akio Toyoda added.

Samsung ushers in ‘The Age of Experience’

Samsung Electronics is proposing what could be called a duelling partner to Toyota’s concept, one that may not require the construction of an entire city, but rather work with existing infrastructure — something some may argue will only take cities battling climate change halfway to ensuring net zero and decarbonisation goals are met.

Samsung Consumer Electronics president and CEO HS Kim heralded a decade of human-centric innovation that seamlessly combines hardware and software to create personalized experiences to transform how we care for ourselves and our family, how we can customize our homes to meet our individual needs, and how we can build safer, more sustainable intelligent cities.

By showcasing its latest advances in intelligent robotics, AI, 5G and edge computing, Samsung offered a glimpse into the not-so-distant future in which these technologies will come together to offer richer, more adaptive experiences for consumers.

“In the Age of Experience, we need to rethink the space we have to accommodate our diverse and evolving lifestyles,” said Kim.

“What makes Samsung’s approach unique is the fact that we have a very clear philosophy built around human-centred innovation. We build and create to solve problems and enhance people’s lives.”

At the core of Samsung’s human-centred vision is personalized care, enhancing the health and well-being of consumers by satisfying their individual needs.

During his opening remarks, Kim unveiled Samsung’s vision of robots as ‘life’ and introduced Ballie, a small, rolling robot that understands you, supports you, and reacts to your needs by being actively helpful around the house.

“Today, half of the world’s seven and a half billion people live in urban areas – and by 2050, that number is going to skyrocket to 70%,” Samsung’s Emily Becher said in a speech at CES.

“We’re fortunate to live at a time where innovation can help us address these challenges,” Becher, who heads Samsung Next Global, continued.

Samsung’s smart-city concept includes buildings that use sensors to save energy.

To reduce congestion, Samsung is moving to commercialise a connected-car system that uses 5G communications.

Samsung plans to bundle these products and services as an all-in-one package accessible from smartphones and other devices from the company. Some of these services have been launched in Las Vegas, as well as in Seoul.

Sebastian Seung, Executive Vice President and Chief Research Scientist at Samsung Electronics said “We believe AI is the future of personalised care. We see on-device AI as central to truly personalised experiences.

On-device AI puts you in control of your information and protects your privacy, while still delivering the power of personalisation.” If either of these two variations – a completely new intelligent, sustainable city, or one modernised to be not only smart but also intuitive – come true, it appears those promises of evolution in society may be delivered on after all.