A simulation video game can become a powerful innovation lab for new urban technologies, where researchers can test-drive every outlandish “what-if?” in a controlled environment. The Center for Innovation, Technology and Evaluation is launching a full-scale SimCity—a small, fully functioning ghost town equipped with the technology touted by futurists as the next generation of smart cities. Resembling a modest American town with a population of 35,000 spread over 15 miles, the virtual metropolis is sited on a desolate stretch of land in southern New Mexico.
Set to be wired with mock-up utilities and telecommunications systems as realistically as possible, the quintessentially mediocre town will even have a gas station, big box store, and a simulated interstate highway alongside its tall office buildings, parks, houses and churches. The town will also be sectioned into urban, rural and suburban zones.
From nuclear war to natural disasters to a stock market crash or a triple whammy of all three, the ho-hum hypothetical town will soon play host to driverless cars and packages delivered by drones, alternative energy power generation and never-before-tested public monitoring, security and computer systems. The goal of CITE is to provide the opportunity to test large-scale technology experimentations in real-world conditions “without anyone getting hurt,” said Bob Brumley, managing director of Pegasus Global Holdings, the Washington state-based technology development firm behind the concept.
Brumley estimates that support infrastructure, including electric plants and telecommunications, will take 24 months to create, while the city will be fully built between 2018 and 2020. The uninhabited virtual city affords possibilities to test otherwise non-starter ideas hampered by safety and feasibility concerns in the real world, where human beings are the most fickle of variables.
“It will be a true laboratory without complication and safety issues associated with residents. Here you can break things and run into things and get used to how they work before taking them out into the market,” Brumley told Wired.
One of numerous experiments he envisions involves deploying a fleet of driverless freight trucks controlled by a centralized wireless network. Testing on a real freeway, on the other hand, would be too hazardous.
Other ideas range from simple practicalities—having small drones drop off packages on doorsteps—to cataclysm readiness—simulating, a large-scale, real-time attack on energy, telecommunications and traffic systems, or the effect of a “massive electromagnetic pulse attack on all the integrated circuits in our economy.”
Brumley estimates an initial investment of $550–600 million in direct investment, with an estimated total cost of $1 billion over the next five years as the city grows in size and complexity. We can only hope that their servers don’t crash.