Big corporations, seeking to attract and retain top talent, are opening offices in the downtowns they abandoned decades ago. Coca-Cola moved 2,000 workers from Cobb County to Atlanta; Motorola shifted its headquarters to Chicago; General Electric will move its HQ from suburban Connecticut to Boston’s hip waterfront area.
And then there’s Panasonic’s planned office in Denver, Colorado, 12 miles from the city’s thriving center. The building, a hub for Panasonic Enterprise Solutions, the electronics company’s “smart city” branch, will rise on a parcel of farmland. To the east is the Denver airport, to the west, a wildlife refuge 20 times the size of Central Park.
In 20 years, if all goes according to plan, this tract, which is about as large as downtown Denver, will be home to 55,000 residents, in addition to offices, shops and restaurants. Panasonic’s office is under construction now; multi-family construction will begin this summer.
“Certainly the easiest choice would have been to go to downtown Denver,” says Jarrett Wendt, the vice president of strategic initiatives at Panasonic. “We were willing to roll the dice.”
The site, anchored by (and named for) a new stop on Denver’s expanding light-rail network, Peña Station, is a collaboration between Panasonic and L.C. Fulenwider, a developer selected by the Denver International Airport to build out the first “aviation station” along the rail line to the airport. All parties are betting on the viability of the aerotropolis, John Kasarda’s vision of the airport as the key transportation nexus of the 21st century. Denver’s is the largest and fifth busiest airport in the U.S.
Panasonic Enterprise Solutions, which is working closely with L.C. Fulenwider on the design of the community at large, will model Peña Station after Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town, a “smart city” development designed by Panasonic and 18 other companies 30 miles outside of Tokyo.
A residential street in the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town (Credit: Fujisawa SST)
Fujisawa SST, which opened in 2014, represents the technocratic vision of the urban future that Cisco, IBM and other technology giants have sold to governments and developers around the globe. That means, on the one hand, meticulous environmental design: solar panels on every roof, car-sharing and real-time reports on the energy consumption of every single appliance. The town issues personal reports to residents with advice on their energy consumption habits.
Other elements of Fujisawa SST have begun to realize the enormous social consequences of merging big data and city planning. With limited entry points and cameras in public space to monitor children’s play, the development “will realize the concept of a ‘virtual gated town,’” according to a 2014 brochure. Panasonic is developing a digital mirror that will brief residents on their weight gain and sleep patterns. The town will award points for residents’ contributions to civic life, and publicize those point totals for motivational purposes.
Self-contained, wholly owned by Panasonic, and situated in one of the world’s most tech-friendly cultures, Fujisawa SST is one of the world’s purest — and to skeptics, most disturbing — iterations of the smart city.
At the Denver airport, by contrast, the electronics company is working with a local developer, a 20-year timeframe and the awareness that Americans are deeply skeptical of both surveillance and “nudging.” (Even though they are routinely subject to both.)
“You have to make sure citizens are cool with having ‘eyes on,’” Wendt says. “It’s a bogeyman, because in most big cities there are cameras on anyway, but citizens don’t realize it.”
Nevertheless, Peña Station will tone down the surveillance culture of its Japanese progenitor. Like Fujisawa SST, the new town will feature streets and homes aligned with wind patterns. Each house will have a solar panel and a screen to monitor and analyze real-time energy usage, appliance by appliance. Residents will have access to bike-share, car-share and light rail.
Is that a sufficient high-tech carrot to lure Denverites (and Panasonic workers) from cool downtown residential neighborhoods like Highlands to this satellite community? Certainly, the company is betting on the site’s success. But it is also, Wendt notes, a trial for Panasonic’s smart city business nationwide: “The fact that we can have this test site in our backyard enables us to understand where the market is for smart cities in the U.S.”
The Science of Cities column is made possible with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Henry Grabar is a senior editor at Urban Omnibus, the magazine of The Architectural League of New York. His work has also appeared in Cultural Geographies, the Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. You can read more of his writing here.