While Japanese cities are often known for large-scale development projects, such as Roppongi Hills or Tokyo Midtown, architects and smaller developers are keen to build on a more human scale.

At ULI Japan’s fall conference, which took place in Tokyo in November, two discussion panels considered how the Japanese market will develop over the next two decades.

The panel expressed some discontent with the form of many recent real estate developments. Kazuyo Sejima, architect at SANAA, compared the Tokyo of her first days in the profession with today. “It was noisy and busy and chaotic, but it had a lot of life. Today is much more efficient and clean but has lost some of its energy.”

Moderator Masao Koizumi, partner at Koizumi Atelier and professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University, said: “The problem is that unified major developments are all very similar to each other. Tokyo 30 years ago was like an old town, with different districts having different businesses and a different atmosphere. Modern developments are all like each other and do not have a strong association with the districts in which they are located.”

Tetsuya Okusa, director and senior executive officer at Mitsubishi Jisho Sekkei, noted that some areas—such as Tokyo’s famous bar area Golden Gai—still retained smaller buildings and a distinct sense of place.

The panel discussed the Maranouchi office district near Tokyo Station in the center of the city, home to some of the world’s most expensive real estate. Developer Mitsubishi Estate, which owns much of the land in Maranouchi, has redeveloped the area in recent years.

Sejima argued that the redevelopment had been successful and that the area had street life and activity. However, Koizumi suggested this had been a gradual development for an area that had been rather sterile initially and that it was still quiet outside of office hours.

Hiroshi Nakamura, president, Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP, said: “In the future, developers need to build shortcomings into their projects. At present, these mega developments have everything within them, so people go to work, stay in the complex all day, and go home. The developments suck the life out of the surrounding area.

“We need to stop developing this enclosed style of building and create the need to go outside, to bring life back to the area surrounding the building. Offices should be part of their local community.”

Okusa argued that developers needed to focus on the fringes of city districts, rather than pushing all development to the center. He added that developers needed to open up their projects to the public, to create more public realm and make the streets “more comfortable.”

The panel also made a plea to developers to include architectural expertise at the beginning of their projects, rather than just adding it as “seasoning” to a nearly completed idea.

Sejima reiterated the importance of building to a human scale and linking new developments to the community and to nature, in order to allow people to interact and foster the “happy accidents” that spark ideas and relationships.

Historically, it is Japan’s niche and driven developers that have created new models and visions for Japan’s cityscape, so the developers’ panel consisted of smaller players, who shared some interesting plans for the future. Ichiro Enomoto, president and CEO of Fukuoka Jisho, wants the southern city to become “the Seattle of Japan,” a magnet for tech companies and a source of homegrown tech “unicorns,” with a billion-dollar valuation.

Enomoto wants to develop buildings and districts that are a focus for innovations, but as fellow panelist Takatoshi Ito, president and representative director, ES-CON Japan, noted, “There are too many unnecessary rules around real estate development.”

Atsumi Hayashi, partner at SPEAC and director, Real Tokyo Estate, is involved with a number of new-economy businesses, including an internet shopping site for renovation and design and a coworking space.

He suggested that the sharing economy and new industries would be an important driver of office demand. The implementation of electric and driverless cars could “totally change the urban infrastructure,” he said.

“The young management of tech firms likes open space, they look to the U.S. West Coast for design cues,” he said. “To accommodate the desires of tenants, developers should look to deliver more open spaces and give their tenants ‘editing rights’ to create their own environment.” This will create more diversity within buildings, he said, allowing tenants to create “a city in a building.”

Ito concluded, slightly ruefully, that “Japanese tend to move in the same direction; we need a bit more variety.”