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A city meant for new technology (but not for people) is rising up in the desert

Robert Brumley is a most unusual urban developer. While his peers scramble to invest in the next boomtown, he's funding -- to the tune of nearly $1 billion -- a metropolis made up of empty buildings and (mostly) carless streets.

Brumley's technology firm, Pegasus Global Holdings, will soon break ground on a city intended not for people but for computers, sensor panels, and even robots. Over the next three years, the Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation -- or CITE -- will rise in the New Mexico desert. Once completed, it will occupy roughly 20 square miles, taking the idea of an "urban laboratory" to a whole new level.

Scheduled to open for business in 2015, the facility, built from scratch, will include schools, a town hall, parks, and an airport, as well as housing for 35,000 people -- except that its only human "residents" will be scientists operating out of a network of underground labs.

Designed in consultation with Perkins and Will, an international firm specializing in sustainable design, CITE will give university, government, and private-sector researchers a life-size arena for experimenting with emerging environmental technologies, such as solar energy storage, green construction, grasses that can thrive in desert conditions, and water recapture. The space will also serve as a proving ground for riskier notions, such as the unmanned vehicles that will hurtle down CITE's five-mile-long freeway.

FAST FACTS

41% of energy in the U.S. consumed by residential and commercial buildings

38% of U.S. CO2 emissions attributable to buildings and their construction

25% of energy consumed by LEED Gold–certified buildings, compared with conventional ones

STATISTICS: U.S Department of Energy (1), U.S. Green Building Council (2,3)

"The idea was really born of frustration," says Brumley, CITE's lead developer and the managing director of Pegasus. The process of turning concepts into commercial goods and services can be costly and time-consuming, he explains. By the time a product is proved safe and effective, its relevance may well have been lost to the rush of advancing technology. Brumley conceived of the model metropolis as a way to overcome these obstacles in bringing new ideas to market. As a privately funded venture available for public use, CITE will let researchers bypass the often prohibitive costs of development and test big ideas.

"There's been an explosion of technology research over the past 20 years," says David Green, a Perkins and Will architect working on the project. "But it hasn't been followed by implementation. CITE will let smaller firms and nonprofits test transformative products without the usual financial constraints."

CITE's centerpiece, the City Lab, is practically a survey of twentieth-century architectural styles, complete with 1920s-style bungalows, 1950s-style ranch houses, 1980s-style McMansions, and modern downtown office towers. "It's not going to be a smart city," says Brumley. "It's your average American town, full of infrastructure that doesn't work. It's a dumb city, but it's for testing smart ideas."

The array of materials and structures will let researchers compare how various technologies perform in different contexts. "A lot of environmental products are meant to reduce resource consumption, and in the isolation of the lab they'll test well," says Green. "But in the big unknown of the real world, they don't work out that way. Now we can put technologies into hundreds of different homes and see how they function."

Unlike CITE, our next cities won't suddenly emerge from the ground up; they'll just be our old cities, made better. "We need to upgrade what we've got," Brumley says. "And to do that, we need to test ideas in conditions of similar complexity. Nobody's leaving New York. Nobody's leaving Boston. We need to figure out how to fix them."

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'It's your average American town, full of infrastructure that doesn't work' Why build this empty new city in a desert? This could be an ingenious way to bring new use to abandoned areas of New Orleans or Detroit.