Ghost townNot that kind of ghost town.Photo: Pascal BovetThe story begins with a setting fit for the Wild West: Down a lonely road in dusty New Mexico lies a ghost town. But unlike in Western movies, this one won’t be filled with brittle old saloons, horse corrals, and tumbleweeds. This will be a modern ghost town, complete with apartments and offices, houses and highways. Though it could house 35,000 people, its only visitors will be scientists and engineers working to coax our cities toward a smarter, greener future.

The town has yet to be built, but when it’s completed it will be a testing ground where researchers can study how, say, smart grids or intelligent traffic systems will work in the real world. The proposed $200 million project will be built by Pegasus Global Holdings, a tech incubator and consulting company, on land owned by the state of New Mexico. The exact site has yet to be determined, but the idea is to turn the region into a Silicon Valley of next-generation infrastructure companies.

Building a town like this from scratch may appear wasteful at first glance; there are plenty of existing cities that could benefit from a few next-gen retrofits. But doing so has numerous advantages. For starters, in the absence of actual residents, scientists working at the site won’t have to worry about the consequences of intentional blackouts, traffic jams, or sewage backups. New Mexico’s hosting of the project should be no surprise: This is the state that greenlit a spaceport and turned the actual ghost town of Playas into a training center for anti-terrorism operations, after all.

The Pegasus site will be open to scientists from academia, industry, and nonprofit organizations. Users will be charged fees based on usage to run and maintain the facility. Any surplus electricity, purified water, or other “utility output,” as the company calls it, will be sold back to the real, non-ghost grid. Pegasus will also benefit by identifying promising startup companies or incubating technologies that rake in profits when they come to market.

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With any luck, the rest of us will benefit, too — from new infrastructure technologies that lower cities’ environmental footprints, all pre-tested and approved in an empty ghost town.