Tokyo: To and Fro a Sentient City

Source: Greg Girard

The planet and its organic inhabitants, with the human-advanced techniques and processes for the expansion of life—and consequently its evolution—manifestly termed otherwise as ‘technology’, could to certain extents, have its ramifications explored by way of constructing it within a framework of cities.

Technology Towards an Expansion

While comprehensively each and every individual city would be viewed appropriately when and if in consideration as an innately specific universe enclosed by and of itself, in addition to its contextual differences—namely the distinct levels of socioeconomic development—within its boundaries, the function and form of a city’s dispersal of activities are inextricably influenced by the proficiencies as well as by the aptness of the network infrastructures that underlies the city. Transformed by the introduction of new infrastructures at the turn of the millennium such as the instigation of high-speed digital telecommunications, Mitchell argued that ‘its effects will be at least as revolutionary as those of the new network infrastructures of the past […] causing traditional building types and neighbourhood patterns to fragment, recombine, and form startling new arrangements.’

However, this vacuum isolation of a city-framework is rendered doubly redundant when considering that with the introduction and rapid advancement of the various kinds of technology—especially of the digital—the world is crescendoing towards one that is hegemonized progressively less by boundaries, limits, edges; instead, it is increasingly subjugated by connections, links, parallels and correspondences, items of which a release from the constraints and hindrances of tangibility is achievable for both the individual and the collective.The implications of the cyberspace are fed back to the physical spaces with an ever-decreasing lag, recursively expanding the possibilities for technology to operate in the realm of activity, the significant, the real and the present. With the proliferating assimilation of telecommunication networks as well as a greater range of control over our cities—its infrastructure, and in turn its inhabitants in relation to its environs—through digital controls with vehicles and transportation networks, the digital code controls the supply and flow of things with which we collectively deem essential. This trend that the planet is shaping towards, as Mitchell describes it, ‘is a world in which networks propagate the effects of our actions far beyond traditional boundaries’.

As connectivity, or the propagation of links, becomes the conventionally expected basis for a model of the ever-advancing world in our urban condition, collectively interrelating events and processes across space implies that in a directly proportional manner, simultaneity dominates succession. Instead of being seen as a structure of recurrences, time forms itself as an entity where the multiple, yet parallel spatially distributed processes pervade the cities, governed by links and connections that form the networks.

A Contemporary Smart City

A fraction of the ramification of technological advancements could be explored in the recognition that our world is gradually becoming ‘smarter’, a ‘smart world’. This is explicitly initiated within the framework of a city: a smart city. From smart meters to smart production, from smart surfaces to smart grids, from smart phones to smart citizens. ‘Smart’ has become the umbrella terminology to signify the advent of this technological shift, of which is propelled by the hope and promise of a more ideal world, almost as if utopian; safer, more convenient and more efficient forms of living.

A Buddhist Priest prays at a columbarium containing more than 2,000 LED-lit Buddha statues. Source: David Guttenfelder

One definition of a smart city describes it as ‘the result of knowledge-intensive and creative strategies aiming at enhancing the socio-economic, ecological, logistic and competitive performance of cities.’ This definition is grounded on a promising mix of human capital such as a skilled labour force, infrastructural capital such as high-tech communication facilities, social capital which, for instance, includes intense and open network linkages, and entrepreneurial capital including creative and risk-taking business activities.

Essentially, a smart city has the capability to disseminate information into its physical infrastructure to improve conveniences, recalling the now-perennial system of network infrastructures. A smart city is also recognizably defined by its capacity to facilitate mobility, functionally introducing forms of efficiencies in the operations of the collective, such as conserving energy. Such a smart city would have more options in being able to identify and dealing with issues within its own framework, mainly through deploying its resources effectively and in a relatively widespread manner.

Becoming Tokyo

Tokyo’s most salient attribute, perhaps thus far, could be argued to be the fact that it has been razed twice in the past 100 years—first by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, and a generation later by the United States of America’s bombing raids during the second world war. These tragedies, though today seemingly unattached, coerced the Japanese to immerse within its own long history and start reconstructing its entire city fabric.  Imaginably, such a task involved the reconfiguration of neighbourhoods, transportation systems, infrastructure, and even to a certain degree, its social dynamics.

Tokyo in ruins once again, World War Two. Source: Galerie Bilderwelt
Rebuilt twice, an existing condition. Source: Lee Chapman

As it stands today, it could clearly be assessed that Tokyo exerts a considerable amount of influence on the technological stage within the global context. Tokyo’s concept of a smart city has progressively reassembled of late, towards a dimension of social dynamics. While comparatively, other cities on its path towards a ‘smart city’ has an inclined agenda to converge on developing technological innovation to drive efficiency and convenience, Tokyo and the whole of Japan tends to focus more on driving social cohesion and addressing social issues such as the country’s aging population. For this reason, a national initiative known as the Society 5.0 has been launched, with the goal of achieving a data-driven, human-centric, next-generation society that uses technology such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. This vision would ensure that all inhabitants, regardless of their location, and including the elderly in rural areas, receive the benefits of innovation and technological advances.

Subtle portrayal of the Tokyo urban life. Source: Lukasz Palka

The Case for Tokyo: Society 5.0 and its Implications

Between cyberspace and physical space, Society 5.0 reaches a high degree of a converging integration; in the past information society, people would access the internet for a cloud service in cyberspace to retrieve and analyse. Whereas in Society 5.0, a large sum of information is from sensors in physical space—accumulated in cyberspace. This ‘big data’ is then further analysed by artificial intelligence, which are fed back to humans in physical space in various forms.

Arguably, Tokyo and its environs are in an era of drastic change. Life is becoming prosperous and convenient as the economy rises, demand for energy and food goods is growing, life spans are becoming longer, and an aging population is progressing. Furthermore, economic globalization is advancing, international competition is becoming increasingly serious, and issues such as wealth accumulation and regional inequality are growing. As a trade-off, social problems that must be solved in opposition to such economic development have become increasingly complex. Here, a variety of measures have become necessary such as the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, increased production and reduced loss of foodstuffs, mitigation of costs associated with the aging society, support of sustainable industrialization, redistribution of wealth, and correction of regional inequality, but achieving both economic development and solutions to social problems at the same time has proven to be difficult in the present social system. In the face of such major changes in the world, new technologies such as the Internet of Things, robotics, artificial intelligence, and big data, all of which can affect the course of a society, are continuing to progress. Japan seeks to make Society 5.0 a reality as a new society that incorporates these new technologies in all industries and social activities and achieves both economic development and solutions to social problems in parallel.

The faces of the society. Source: Oscar Boyd
Tokyo as it exists. Source: Yushin Kannoh

The Olympic Games as an Accelerator of Development

The Olympic Games—albeit in the previous year of 2020 postponed due to the Coronavirus pandemic—has an undeniably profound impact on Japan as a whole and Tokyo’s outlook on its future. The 1964 Games saw a period of mass investment in infrastructure, water and sanitation systems, in what has been described as the greatest urban transformation in history. Ten thousand new buildings emerged in the capital, as well as five five-star hotels, two new subway lines and a monorail from Haneda airport to the city centre in the five years leading up to the torch relay. The Olympics also marked the debut of Japan’s greatest contribution to high-speed travel: the Shinkansen bullet train.

The singularity aspect of Tokyo’s urban railway system is that it is owned and run by several private companies. Over the past two decades, vertical separation has been applied to local transport companies worldwide. Under this arrangement, an infrastructure-holding firm, mainly operated by the public sector, owns and manages railway infrastructure and rents it to operating companies. The benefit of this method is that, by reducing the initial expense of building infrastructure, the railway sector becomes more efficient. On the contrary, private investment provided Tokyo’s rail service; most private railway companies are responsible for restricted routes in densely populated urban areas. In order to secure benefit from their railway company, many private railway companies have built residential areas alongside routes themselves, and the construction of routes was completed before motorisation.

Smart technology solutions such as energy supply automation and the manufacture of highly connected vehicles are used in Tokyo to help solve regional problems in the pursuit of improved sustainability and liveability in the area. In addition, urban planning has significantly accelerated as Tokyo plans to host the 2020 Olympics, making sustainability a key consideration. Organizing the Olympic Games gives Tokyo the chance to make additional smart improvements in the city, including increased building energy efficiency, sustainable development and production of renewable energy.

From Smart to Sentient: Towards a Sentient Tokyo

The smart city can easily become the exclusive city, one that caters to the rich and does little or nothing for the working poor or for people looking for affordable housing.

Lefebvre notably introduced the idea that an individual’s ‘right’ to the city is far more than one’s liberty to be able to utilize urban resources. Instead, Lefebvre signified that an individual has the right to change by ways of changing the city, to a certain degree. This implies that the changes within a city such as Tokyo, inevitably reverberates to its inhabitants. And today, the body/city metaphors have turned concrete and literal. Mitchell describes this phenomenon in these words, ‘embedded within a vast structure of nested boundaries and ramifying networks, my muscular and skeletal, physiological, and nervous systems have been artificially augmented and expanded. My reach extends indefinitely and interacts with the similarly extended reaches of others to produce a global system of transfer, actuation, sensing, and control. My biological body meshes with the city; the city itself has become not only the domain of my networked cognitive system, but also—and crucially—the spatial and material embodiment of that system – Through electronic storage and distribution of my encoded commands—particularly by means of digital networks—I can indefinitely multiply and distribute my points of physical agency through space and time.’

Mitchell also noted how water supply and sewer networks have become geographic extensions of an individual’s alimentary canal, one’s respiratory system, and one’s associated organic plumbing. These network infrastructures enabled an individual to extend the ecological footprint—denoting the land area required to support and assimilate one’s waste products—although also nothing that for these network infrastructures, ‘their modern descendants have moved indoors to become standard, indispensable organs of buildings’. The radical de-localization of our interactions with places, things, and one another—in space through electronic sensing and telecommunication and high-speed travel, and in time through electronic and other forms of storage as ‘man-computer symbiosis’, mankind now interact with sensate, intelligent, interconnected devices scattered throughout the environment.

As artificial intelligence nodes are spread almost everywhere, as electronic interconnectivity increases, and as electronic feedback loops expand, cities develop into extended minds, and biological brains become components of larger cognitive systems. So follows, that cities are on the path towards sentience. It could be seen as the next step in a city becoming ever smarter. To summarize, new forms of how the world is being produced are being taken in, new forms of identification, empathy and internalization which arise out of the reengineering of what these processes can mean as a result of the growing preponderance of things which also function as links in chains of data and the new material surfaces that they engender. As we shall see, and as the example of therapy portends, this means thinking anew transference and countertransference as means of judging commitment to ‘going on being’, to the ongoing flow of vitality. When such extended and distributed mental systems have the capacity to store and recall information, they don’t just live in the present. They can learn from experience and grow smarter over time. Tokyo, its extended networks and fragmented habitats shape its inhabitants spatially and temporally as indefinite entities. The distinctions between user and tool, building and inhabitant, or city and citizen, no longer absolutely apply.


A participant wearing traditional clothes undergoes a temperature scanner. Source: Stanislav Kogiku

The continuous pervasion of digital technologies in all aspects of human activity provides individuals with increasing opportunities to participate and fulfil a new active role in digital space-making. This can only be fully realised if actors are fully aware of their role and impact in this process. The opportunity technology offers us all is the promise of a doorway into the fourth dimension: into a heuristic world of possibility anchored by centrality but free from gravity. If we fail to take advantage of this opportunity, then we will remain actors on the fringe of a new collective social world, as merely observers in a world that has characterised much of the production of space until now, especially in modern times. This study shows that the pervasive presence of technology is to be considered an opportunity for individuals; to take their place and inhabit the digital world; exchange information and adopt new roles and responsibilities in the making of the social life and space. Technological advancements are not to be considered positively or negatively per se. They should rather be regarded as tools through which people can enhance their way of seeing the urban life. If individuals are to be successful in contributing more actively in the making of the public life, changes in the appearance of the built environment would likely be meaningful yet imperceptible.

Pervasive technologies like the Internet of Things or Ubiquitous Computing change the nature of relationships that individuals have with themselves and with the built environment. However, these changes are ingrained in the relational dimension and their extent is not physical. People may actually need a sense of rootedness, and the global movement of the postmodern world does not necessarily instill anxiety. Advocating instead a progressive or global sense of place, even though places often have exclusionary and problematic singular identities, historical narratives and clearly defined boundaries, they can be better understood as a point of meeting, a process of intersections with permeable boundaries, multiple and conflicted identities and distinctiveness forged through local and global social relations. Finally, the political struggles over space play out through structures of difference and inequality that define and organize spaces according to dominant interests. The meanings and uses of space have much to do with defining who does and who does not have the power to define and control space. These characteristics reflect current intellectual understandings of space across the disciplines. Thus, perhaps also, when all the movement suggests towards ideally creating an ethical, sentient city—unattached to the complications of a utopia—the seemingly inevitable detriment would be the displacement of the desire of local populations against the abrupt, almost jarring desire of the other, of transforming Tokyo towards a sentient city and ultimately, a boundlessly global one.


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