Innovation Cities

Higher education: Tokyo's 50-story university

Anmar Frangoul | Special to

Driverless trains, robot museum guides and an automated sushi bar where your nigiri is ordered via touchscreen. For the past half-century, Tokyo has prided itself on its innovation; its bustling streets are packed with a dazzling array of cutting-edge technology, its skyline dominated by gleaming, futuristic skyscrapers.

In the city's commercial heart, Nishi-Shinjuku, one tall building is helping to change the way we think about schools and how they should look.

According to Emporis - a global provider of information on buildings and tall structures - the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower is the world's second tallest educational building after Lomonosov State University's Main Building in Moscow. | Moment | Getty Images

Designed by Tokyo based Tange Associates, it is a futuristic 'vertical campus', home to three vocational colleges and 10,000 students.

Read MoreMalmö: Home of the invisible cycle helmet

With urban space in our cities becoming ever more scarce, it offers a glimpse of how our schools might look in years to come.

"Our client's requirement was to create something that inspires students, and architecture that they've not seen before," Paul Tange, President of Tange Associates, told in a phone interview.

The first to the fiftieth floors of the tower contain three rectangular shaped classrooms arranged in a "curvilinear" – or curved – form. Throughout the building, three story-student lounges act as high rise recess areas, giving students panoramic views of the city below and offering a space for rest and relaxation between classes.

Read MoreCheck out the world's most spectacular stadiums

According to Tange, the building's distinctive shape is in part inspired by nature. "The building is shaped like a cocoon," he said. "There are students in that cocoon, and we have to teach them, help them understand the world… [until] finally they break through the shell and go out to the world, to society," he added.

As well as its striking form and high-rise classrooms, the Cocoon Tower is also environmentally friendly. An onsite system simultaneously generates heat and power, cutting down energy bills and carbon emissions by producing around 40 percent of the tower's energy, according to the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

Are the days of the sprawling university campus dead?

"Vertical architecture will continue," Tange said. "Fifty years ago nobody thought a vertical school could function. Today, we have that."

While the Cocoon Tower is transforming Tokyo's skyline, technology is also helping to improve the way the city functions at street level.

The NTT Data Corporation, headquartered in Tokyo, has developed a bridge monitoring system that uses sensors to provide real time data and measure any tremor, strains or movement on a bridge.

Currently installed on bridges in the Tokyo area and Vietnam, the systems developed by NTT Data could prove crucial when natural disasters such as earthquakes strike.

Read MoreBarcelona is bringing 3-D printing to the masses

"Proper maintenance and early disorder detection using bridge monitoring systems will help to improve traffic efficiency, extend the length of lives of infrastructures, prevent accidents, and save infrastructure spending," Dr Tsuyoshi Kitani, Senior Vice President, Research and Development, NTT DATA Corporation, told in an email.

"Following an earthquake, bridges that might have been damaged can be quickly checked over through the use of bridge monitoring systems, enabling the traffic authorities to take quick corrective action, or accelerate the re-opening of a bridge, if no damage has occurred," Kitani added.

Official correction: an earlier version of this story referred to the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower as the world's third tallest educational building. Emporis has since altered its classification of the world's tallest educational buildings to reflect that the Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower is the second tallest.