A city like no other will be built deep in the New Mexico desert. The brand new city will feature urban, suburban, exurban and rural zones dotted with houses, malls, power plants, police and fire stations, with only one big difference from a real city: it won’t have any inhabitants. The Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation (CITE) will be the first of its kind, fully integrated test, evaluation and certification facility dedicated to enabling and facilitating the commercialization of new and emerging technologies. Basically, it will be a real life Sim City.

A model of the city. Image via CITE City.

Known informally as City Lab, the 26 square mile complex has a billion-dollar budget and will host numerous types of tests, from smart transportation and smart grids to green energy. Federal labs, federal agencies, universities, non-profits and of course, for profit companies will all be able to rent all or parts of the lab to conduct their tests. While from the outside it may look like a regular city, it’s entirely wired for data collection, recording and transmitting all types of valuable information. Pegasus Global Holdings, the company behind this project wrote:

“As a privately-owned, privately-operated test and evaluation center, CITE is open and accessible to a wide array of public and private customer segments – domestic and international. The structure and policies in place at CITE are specifically designed to remove legal, cultural and budgetary impediments as are currently prevalent in the process of moving beyond basic research and development activities.”

The city is meant to simulate a population of about 33,000 people, will include a city center, as well as suburban and rural zones – following the American model of cities. There will be a city hall, airport, regional mall, power plant, school, church, and gas station; for some reason which eludes me, no hospital. I could see several simulation scenarios in which having a hospital would be useful (evacuation, disaster, etc).

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So how does one even build a fake city? Well, as it turns out, much like a regular city; the prime factor is, as usually, location. As Pegasus managing director Robert Brumley explained to The Las Crucces Sun-News,

“There were really good places but had one or another item that gave us some concern. The primary concern is can you operate it once you build it.”

You want to be close to research institutions and companies that would be interested in your facilities, but then again, you want to be far away from established cities – to minimize the costs and to avoid potential influences. Then you start up with a model from a typical, regular city; of course, no two cities are alike, but many of them follow some patterns. CITE will be patterned after the very real city of Rock Hill, South Carolina—ideal as a template for its size and mixture of both old and new building materials and similar to many cities in the US and Canada. But there are some more subtle questions as well: should the city have litter on the streets like a real city? Should it feature urban art, vandalism, wear and tear? The answer to all those questions will is ‘yes’. All these elements could play a role in simulations, and therefore will be replicated.

Sherri Brueggemann recently told the website Hyperallergic:

“The metaphor that immediately comes to mind: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s around to hear it, does it make a sound? I thought, what an interesting idea, I wonder what kind of art there would be [in CITE]. I was teaching an art management class and looking for one great project. When I presented it to my students it took them a while to wrap their heads around the idea, but then it stuck and they all started talking about it.”

The new generation of smart cities is coming – we’re already seeing glimpses in some parts of the world. But apparently, the road to smart cities goes through an empty, spooky lab city.