A History of Firsts Has Led to Today’s Smart Cities

1844: First Telegraph Message Sent

Samuel F. Morse sends the first electric telegraph message, “What hath God wrought?” from Washington, D.C. to his assistant in Baltimore. It marks the beginning of a new era of communication in which information travels faster than humans. 

1858: First Transatlantic Telegraph Message 

Initially decried as a hoax, the first transatlantic telegraph message is sent between London and New York City. Shortly thereafter, Queen Victoria sends a telegraph of her own to President Buchanan. It takes 16 hours to transmit. 

1863: The Metropolitan Railway Opens 

The world’s first mass transit system, the Metropolitan Railway, opens in London. On its inaugural day, it carries 38,000 passengers between Paddington and Farrington on gas-lit wooden carriages hauled by steam locomotives. 

Source: Transport for London

1876: The Telephone Arrives

Alexander Graham Bell unveils his telephone at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, placing it on opposite ends of the exhibition hall to showcase the human voice being transmitted by cables. 


1878: Paris Becomes the “City of Lights” 

As part of the Exhibition of 1878, electric arc lights are placed along the Avenue de l’Opéra in Paris, making it the first city to feature an electric lighting system and earning it the nickname “The City of Lights”. 


1882: Pearl Street Station Power Plant 

The Edison Illuminating Company, headed by Thomas Edison, opens Pearl Street Station, the first commercial central power plant in the world. Powered by steam, the New York City plant initially provides electricity to 400 lamps for 82 customers. 

Source: GridCo Systems, 2017

1884: New York City’s First Solar Panels 

Charles Fritt, inventor of selenium cells, installs the first solar panel array on a building in New York City, bringing solar power to the Big Apple before all of the city even has electricity.


1885: Holland Pioneers the Bike Lane

Utrecht, Holland opens the world’s first dedicated bicycle lane to the public, inspiring similar projects in Brooklyn, NY and Brussels, Belgium. With over 56,000 miles of dedicated bike paths used by 36% of its population, modern-day Holland is widely considered the world’s most bike-friendly nation.  

Source: Dutch Biking Council

1901: Marconi Transmits Across the Atlantic 

Italian physicist and radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi sends the first radio transmission across the Atlantic Ocean. Detractors say the curvature of the earth would limit transmission to less than 200 miles, but Marconi’s message, the Morse Code signal for the letter S, travels more than 2,000 miles from Cornwall, England, to Newfoundland, Canada. 

Source: History.com

1913: Ford’s Assembly Line Starts Rolling 

The first moving assembly line car manufacturing plant is opened by Henry Ford outside of Detroit. The mass production of cars introduces personal transportation to the mass market. 


1925: Houdina Drives 1st Radio-Operated Car

Houdina Radio Control Company drives a radio-operated automobile, a 1926 Chandler, through New York City traffic. Using a transmitting antenna, the car is operated from a second vehicle that follows it with a transmitter. The radio signals operate small electric motors that direct every movement of the car. 


1927: Jacobs Brothers Wind Turbine 

Marcellus and Joe Jacobs develop the first commercial wind turbine in Montana. The brothers sought to bring the urban conveniences of electricity to farmers who couldn’t afford gas generators. Today, Jacobs Wind is the oldest renewable energy company in the U.S. 


1932: The Autobahn Connects Bonn to Cologne 

Bonn and Cologne become the first cities in Germany to connect to the Autobahn, an early controlled access highway. The subsequent autobahns built throughout the country become the first limited-access high-speed road network in the world.



1936: BBC TV Launches

BBC Television Service officially launches. Its first large-scale live broadcast of the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth the following year showcases the medium’s potential for sharing live events with millions of people. 


1946: The First Computer

The Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC) is switched on at the University of Pennsylvania. The first electronic computer, it weighs over 30 tons. ENIAC’s combination of speed and programmability is a tremendous resource to scientists and engineers, as the computer needs only 30 seconds to calculate a trajectory that previously took a human 20 hours to solve. 

Source: Computer History, Birth of the Computer

1954: World’s First Nuclear Power Plant

Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant, the world’s first grid-connected nuclear power plant producing commercial electricity, begins generating power near Moscow, USSR. 


1956: The Federal Highway Act is Signed

Inspired by the German Autobahn system that he saw during WWII, president Dwight Eisenhower signs the Federal Highway Act of 1956, authorizing construction of a network of high-capacity controlled access roads connecting major cities across the U.S. The roads allow Americans to reliably, safely, and quickly travel the county by automobile, leading to the decline of passenger railroads and the rise of suburbanization and “car culture.”


1960: Geysers Geothermal Energy Station 

Pacific Gas and Electric begins operating the first successful geothermal electric power station in the U.S. at the Geysers, the world’s largest geothermal field, located north of San Francisco. 


1963: Syncom 2 Satellite Goes Into Orbit

NASA launches Syncom 2, the first successful communications satellite, into geosynchronous orbit. President John F. Kennedy, in Washington, D.C, makes the first live two-way call between heads of government by satellite, to Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. 


1964: High-Speed Rail Becomes Reality 

The Tōkaidō Shinkansen railroad line opens in advance of the 1964 Olympic Games hosted in Tokyo, Japan. The world’s first high-speed rail line, the “bullet train” travels at 130 MPH and inspires similar systems around the world. 

Source: Japan Times 2008

1968: Brazil Introduces the Curitiba Master Plan 

Curitiba, Brazil, begins implementation of a smart transportation initiative that favors walkability and rapid transit, the first time any city has undertaken such a project on such a large scale. Known as the Curitiba Master Plan, it redesigns city streets to minimize traffic, including giving express buses their own lanes. Today, Curitiba is considered one of the world’s best examples of urban planning. 

Source: Sustainable Urban Planning, Curitiba City

1969: MIT Sends the First Email 

The first electronic message between computers is sent on the campus of MIT using their Computational Time-Sharing System. Management of the system initially considers sending electronic “letters” to be a waste of resources. It would not be until Ray Tomlinson’s famous 1971 message via ARPANET that the technology’s applications were seriously considered. 


1973: Motorola Creates the Cellular Phone 

Martin Cooper, head of Motorola’s Communications Systems Division, makes the first cellular phone call. While walking down the street, he calls Joel Engel, his rival at AT&T who is working on a similar technology, to let him know that he has a functional portable phone. 


1974: L.A. Publishes First Urban Planning Report 

Los Angeles Community Analysis Bureau publishes “The State of the City: A Cluster Analysis of Los Angeles,” the first urban planning report using data gathered and interpreted by computers. Programmers use existing census data to better understand the demographics of the city and the cluster analysis to reveal correlations between data and social outcomes. 


1975: Combatting Congestion and Air Pollution 

The Singapore Area Licensing Scheme goes into effect across the city-state. Intended to reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality and boost ridership of public transit, it’s the first urban traffic congestion pricing plan in the world and inspires similar congestion charge programs in cities including London, Rome, and Bogota. 


1980: Nuclear Overtakes Oil 

For the first time, nuclear energy generates more electricity than oil in the U.S. 


1980: China Establishes Its First Special Economic Zone

The first of the five Special Economic Zones is established near the village of Shenzhen, China. Intended to act as laboratories of capitalism, these areas help launch explosive growth in the Chinese economy as the county embraces free-market policies throughout the ’80s and ’90s. 


1982: Solar One Power Plant 

The U.S. Department of Energy opens Solar One, the first test of a large-scale thermal solar power tower plant. 


1984: Competition Comes to the Telecom Industry 

In an effort to settle an antitrust lawsuit initiated by the U.S. Department of Justice, AT&T dissolves its monopoly of local telephone service in the U.S. AT&T had been the largest corporation in American history and dominated U.S. telephone service and hardware manufacturing. For the first time, the American telecom industry is open to competition, opening the door to a new era of innovation. 


1986: Motorola Launches Text Capable Pager

The Motorola Bravo pager goes on sale. While “beepers” had been in use by government, police, and medical personnel since the 1970s, the Bravo and its ability to store five 24-character messages brings this iconic tech into the mainstream for the first time. 


1988: “Cyberia” Internet Café Opens 

“Cyberia,” the world’s first internet café opens near Hongik University in Seoul, South Korea. Providing internet access at a time when computers and home access was prohibitively expensive, internet cafés surge in popularity around the world throughout the ’90s, introducing a generation to the wonders of the web. 


1991: Vindeby Offshore Wind Farm Completed

The world’s first offshore wind farm is completed off the coast of Denmark. The Vindeby Offshore Wind Farm consists of 11 turbines generating a collective 4.95 mW, fulfilling the annual power needs of 3,000 Danish homes. 

Source: South Baltic, Offshore Wind Energy Regions

1991: Highway Tolls Become Self-Serve 

The first use of completely unaided full-speed electronic tolling is used on a highway in Trondheim, Norway. Electronic tolling becomes prevalent around the world, allowing municipalities to charge tolls without vehicles having to slow down. 


1994: The Corporation for Solar Technology and Renewable Resources 

The first solar dish generator is tied to a utility grid. The Corporation for Solar Technology and Renewable Resources, a public corporation, is established to facilitate solar development at the Nevada Test Site. 


1995: The First Autonomous Car

A converted Pontiac Trans Port is the first vehicle to drive autonomously across the United States, from Pittsburgh to San Diego. It makes the culmination of over 10 years of research conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, and demonstrates the potential of autonomous vehicles. 


1997: The Prius Hits the Market 

Toyota releases the Prius, the first mass produced gasoline-electric hybrid car. Launched initially in Japan, the carmaker introduces the vehicle internationally in 2000. 


1999: The World Meets the Blackberry 

Canadian firm Research In Motion introduces the first Blackberry 850. Capable of accessing the internet, organizing schedules, and sending and receiving emails, BlackBerrys quickly become a hit with corporate executives and other professionals. 


2004: Fastest Commercial Train in the World 

The Shanghai Transrapid Maglev system begins operation. The first commercial application of its kind, the system connects downtown Shanghai with Pudong Airport 18 miles away using magnetic levitation trains that hover above the track. It is the fastest commercially-operated train in the world, capable of traveling at 268 MPH. 

Source: Shanghai Maglev Train

2006: Masdar City Construction Begins 

Construction begins on Madar City, UAE. It’s the first purpose-built city in the world created to rely on solar and other renewable energy sources. The city is designed to be a hub for cleantech companies. 


2007: Smartphones Enter the Market 

Apple introduces the iPhone, for the first time bringing smartphones out of the workplace and into the lives of consumers, leading to the rise of the “app economy.” One year later, Google releases its first Android smartphone, initiating a technology race that continues today. 


2008: Bahrain World Trade Center Opens 

Bahrain World Trade Center opens in Manama, Bahrain. The two towers are the first buildings in the world to include integrated wind turbines. Each structure has a 225 kW wind turbine capable of providing 11% to 15% of the towers’ total power needs. 

Source: E-architect, 2016

2009: Oslo’s Smart Lighting System 

Oslo installs a smart lighting system along city streets. For the first time, urban lighting can be dimmed or adjusted remotely according to the weather and movement in the area, and colored lighting can control the flow of traffic and pedestrians. Saved energy can then be used for other functions. 


2011: Heathrow Introduces Personal Rapid Transit 

Heathrow International Airport in London becomes the first airport in the world to feature Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT. The Ultra (Urban Light Transit) system connects several terminals with a remote parking lot by a miniature railroad piloted by automated podcars whose destinations are determined by riders. 


2012: Three Gorges Dam Completed 

The Three Gorges Dam spanning the Yangtze River is completed in Hubei Province, China. Capable of generating 22,500 mW, the hydroelectric power station is the world’s largest and an engineering marvel. 

Source: U.S. Geological Survey, 2016

2014: Free Wifi and Internet in New York City 

LinkNYC is created to provide free WiFi and internet access throughout New York City. Built atop the city’s obsolete payphone network, it’s on track to become the world’s largest public high-speed wireless network by 2020. 

Source: LinkNYC

2014: Tesla Installs Charging Stations Across the U.S 

Tesla completes a network of Supercharger Stations stretching from New York City to Los Angeles, allowing drivers of its electric cars to travel from coast to coast, charging along the way. 


2016: China sees 700+ Million Daily Internet Users

China becomes the first nation to top 700 million daily internet users, most of whom access it via mobile devices. Mandarin is expected to overtake English as the internet’s primary language by the end of the decade. 

Source: TechCrunch, 2017

2017: D.C. Named First LEED Certified City

Washington, D.C is named the first LEED for Cities Platinum City. One of the world’s most respected green building certification programs, it’s bestowed upon buildings and cities demonstrating a commitment to sustainability, green energy use and public transit accessibility. 65% of Washington, D.C is walkable, 58% of commuter trips are taken by bike or public transit, and the city government is powered entirely by renewable energy. 

Source: U.S. Green Building Council 2017

2017: South Miami Requires Solar Panels 

South Miami, Florida approves a measure to become the first city in the world to require solar panels on new homes. Florida has ideal conditions for adopting a solar technology and is increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. 


2017: Mass-Production of Self-Driving Cars

General Motors and Cruise Automation announce their intention to launch the first mass production of a self-driving car. Based on the Chevy Bolt, the cars will begin being assembled by the end of the year. 


2020: Tokyo Introduces Self-Driving Taxis 

Coinciding with the Olympics, Tokyo introduces a fleet of self-driving taxis to the city’s roads, echoing the introduction of the Shinkansen for the 1964 Games. 



2020: Volvo Goes Electric Only 

Sino-Swedish automaker Volvo introduces a fully electric lineup of cars and SUVs. 


2020: 5G Becomes the Standard Bearer

The 5G telecommunications standard is introduced in the United States. With potential speeds and capacity up to 100 times greater than 4G, 5G will be the backbone of widespread Internet of Things (IoT) and self-driving car technology. 

Source: ArsTechnica, 2016

2021: International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor 

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is completed in Cadarache, France. A global project funded by the European Union, China, Russia, Korea, India, Japan, Australia and the United States, the facility will produce the first self-sustaining plasma charge by 2025, a major breakthrough towards achieving the century-long dream of “cold fusion.” 

Source: ITER, 2017

2025: Norway and Netherlands Ban Internal Combustion 

Both Norway and the Netherlands prohibit the sale of vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine. Germany, India and China plan to follow suit by the end of the 2020s. 


2025: San Jose to Bakersfield at 200 MPH

Connecting San Jose and Bakersfield, the first segment of California’s High-Speed Rail network is completed. Traveling at over 200 MPH, the system will eventually connect the state’s largest cities from San Francisco to San Diego by 2035. 

Source: California High Speed Rail 2016 Business Plan


An Inside Look at Smart Cities

Countless people and technologies help keep our cities safe, clean, and efficient; some we interact with in plain sight, and others operate beneath the surface, improving our lives in ways we don’t fully realize. Here are a few examples of how our cities are getting smarter—and will need to continue to do so as the trend toward urbanization grows.

Solar Panels + Wind Turbines

Making urban energy systems smart isn’t just about using cleaner fuels, it’s also about producing energy closer to the places it’s consumed. Connected solar panels and wind turbines can generate energy in cities and contribute in peak conditions.

Smart Transportation System

Smart transportation systems can find bottlenecks in traffic patterns and help communicate alternate routes to drivers. Gathering and sharing real-time information makes getting around smart cities safer, more efficient, and less frustrating.

Connected Cars

Smart parking meters can inform drivers of parking availability. Soon, self-driving cars will shuttle people in and out of the city while they’re occupied with work or other activities.

Urban Farms

Urban farms are already producing up to 15% of the world’s food1. From fresh fish to produce and herbs, smart cities are building vertical farms in multi-story buildings and using soil alternatives to bring urban populations sustainable and locally-grown produce.

Smart Offices

Building automation systems can monitor and control operations to improve lighting, AC, air quality, as well as employee security. Investing in these upgrades pays off for employers— studies show that comfortable, well-ventilated, and well-lit workplaces can increase productivity by as much as 15%2.

Water Monitoring

Utilities can remotely and continuously monitor and diagnose problems such as leaks and stoppages, take preemptive measures to manage maintenance, and optimize water distribution. Sensors also help to keep drinking water clean and verify that wastewater is being properly processed.


Drones are already being used in cities to document accidents and support first responders. Their ability to cover hard to reach areas also makes them particularly useful for monitoring critical infrastructure like antennae and bridges.

Smart Lighting

Smart tech goes beyond connecting and automating everyday objects; it’s also about empowering them beyond their original purposes. Connected street lights not only provide energy-efficient lighting but can also provide environmental data collection and alerts, serve as wifi hotspots, and send gunfire detection alerts.

Small Cells

Connecting a smart city requires a strong wireless network. Small cells as compact as shoe boxes can provide faster data and support the host of smartphone users joining the network.

Waste Management

Cities create tons of waste, and smart technology can improve how it’s collected and separated. Smart garbage bins use compactors to accommodate more waste than the average bin, and can alert collection staff when full. Garbage trucks use GPS to make collection routes more efficient.

Big Data Analysis

Cities have access to more data than ever, but real-time reporting requires quick and intelligent analysis. New data centers help cities optimize approaches to lighting, energy, traffic controls, and public safety.


  1. University of Florida 2017
  2. Forbes, 2017

The Future Includes Data Centers That Power Radiators and Buildings That “Eat” Smog

For ages, people have wrangled urban existences from unlikely foundations, constructing architectural masterpieces in some of the most inhospitable places on the planet. Today, the issues facing urban sprawl are more complex than simply harnessing Mother Nature. Experts predict that 70% of the world’s population will reside in urban areas by 20501. Cities will feel the strain, magnified by stressors, such as infrastructure, that are ill-equipped to handle a growing population and worsening pollution. The good news is that today’s cities are combatting challenges with unexpected solutions that seem years ahead of the curve. Below are a few of the most innovative concepts happening around the globe.


Pollution is a pressing challenge for major Chinese hubs like Beijing and Shanghai. Recognizing the issue, China is leading the charge when it comes to state-of-the-art, sustainable solutions for improving air quality. One example is the Forest City, which aims to host a unique combination of inhabitants—up to 30,000 people and about a million plants2.

In China’s Forest City, plants will outnumber humans by a margin of 3,000 to 1. Image by Stefano Boeri Architetti.

It’s predicted that Forest City will absorb 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide, 57 tons of pollutants, and produce 900 tons of oxygen each year3. The experiment is expected to result in better air quality, natural noise barriers, and impressive levels of biodiversity that will literally “eat” smog.

Forest City’s self-sufficient community will be powered by geothermal and solar energy sources, and will feature a rail line for electric vehicles. Construction of the city, which will consist of more than 340 acres and house shopping malls, hospitals, homes, hotels, schools, and offices—all covered top to bottom in plant life—will begin soon.

Stefano Boeri, the architect spearheading the project, hopes that the community will serve as a model for future green endeavors, not just because of its features, but also because of its holistic approach to urban planning. The project is built around three pillars: technology, biodiversity, and community engagement—all of which will be central to successful green projects in the future, Boeri explained.

“Collectively, we have been able to increase the number of technical devices that produce renewable energy. But we now understand that this is not enough,” he said. “If we only focus on the technology to fight climate change we will only solve part of the problem. It has to be combined with a diverse urban forestry and, more importantly, a commitment from the local community if we want to create something enduring.”


Data centers, despite their reputation for efficiency, are in reality energy-intensive. Globally, data centers represent as much as 3% of total electricity consumed,4   much of which is needed to run fans to cool servers as they generate a tremendous amount of heat.

Stockholm’s data center program is a unique alignment of corporate incentives and sustainability.

That heat has to go somewhere, and Sweden wants to send it to individual homes. Working with a local heating company and power grid operator, the city of Stockholm announced the Stockholm Data Parks project in 2017, an initiative that helps data centers recycle their excess energy to heat the homes of city residents. The project, which expects to generate enough heat to warm 2,500 homes by the end of 2018, is part of Stockholm’s goal to be completely fossil-fuel free by 2040.5

Sweden is heavily focused on sustainable efforts like this one because it lacks natural energy reserves, and gets just 6.3% percent of its electricity from fossil fuels.6   Also, the Stockholm Data Parks project has attracted investor interest because companies that join the program can sell their own heat, and receive free cooling services. The project offers a great illustration of how a city can align corporate incentives with a unique sustainability initiative.


Renderings of the Dutch Windwheel—currently being touted as “the sustainable icon and future landmark in Europe’s largest port city”— feel like something straight out of science fiction.

The Dutch Windwheel will double as both a major architectural achievement, and a triumph of sustainability. Image by Doepel Strijkers.

In reality, the Windwheel will be part utility and part attraction. It will include apartments, offices, and a hotel, as well as shops and a futuristic ferris-wheel-type ride. The building will stand more than 570 feet tall and will feature a double loop of glass and steel, lending a sleek look to the structure.

Architect Duzan Doepel said that, with the Dutch Windwheel, he aims to create a structure in Rotterdam that rivals the touristic appeal of the London Eye, which draws millions of people each year. “I see this as the kind of project where tourism and real estate can combine in a way that illustrates how innovation can solve some of the social and environmental challenges that we face,” he said.

The Windwheel is more than just visually stunning; it will also be an icon for sustainability and cutting-edge technology. Each of the 40 cabins will be equipped with “smart walls” —glass panels infused with touch-screens that display data about the scenery viewable from the ride—as well as holographic tour guides and 3D interactive experiences that will enlighten visitors about Dutch sustainability programs. The building is intended to be carbon neutral and is scheduled to begin construction in 2025.

“If we’re going to embrace the next economy, which is built on the pillars of sustainable energy and innovation, then we need to develop an architecture that responds to our new environmental and resource challenges,” Doepel said. “Technology is a wonderful tool that we must leverage intelligently as we design our structures for tomorrow’s world.”

As our world progresses into new eras of history complete with their own set of challenges, cities will need to continue to be blueprints for adaptiveness—and smart cities in particular will need to be trailblazers for ideas that push the boundaries of what we thought was possible.


  1. UN World Urbanization Prospects, 2014 Revision
  2. Stefano Boeri Architetti, Studio Urban Planning and Architecture
  3. Stefano Boeri Architetti, Studio Urban Planning and Architecture
  4. The Independent, 2016
  5. BBC, 2017
  6. CIA, World Factbook, Sweden

Rapid Urbanization Creates “Smart” Opportunities

For the first time in history, there are more people living in urban than rural areas and that trend is expected to continue – with 1.4 million people added to the urban population every week1. Today, nearly 54.5% of the world’s population lives in cities2, and it’s expected to grow to 70% by 20503.   People are drawn to cities for a number of reasons – job opportunities, stronger education resources, exposure to arts and culture and a more diverse environment, to name a few.

But for all the richness of cities, urban living can be filled with challenges, from traffic jams to taxed energy systems to overcrowded sidewalks and transit. Many of these difficulties are rooted in dated infrastructure – so as the number of people living in cities continues to rise, investing in and modernizing city infrastructure becomes critical.

The ultimate goal? Creating a “smart city” – one that leverages technology to improve quality of life for its residents, and creates better systems and structures to support it. One that looks ahead to future generations and starts the work now to meet those needs.  Investing in the “smartness” of a city not only modernizes it, but creates a stronger, more sustainable place to live and work.

The good news is that the challenge of creating a smart city presents great opportunities. In fact, the smart city market could grow from an estimated US$1 trillion in 20174 to US$3.5 trillion by the mid-2020s5. This means opportunities for companies, investors and, of course, the residents themselves. How do you uncover those opportunities? Step one is imagining what it might be like to live in a “smart city”.


Logic dictates that as urban populations continue to swell, the strain already felt by public transit systems, roads, bridges, etc. will increase exponentially. But technology can and is having an impact: autonomous and electric vehicles, the smart power grid, and real-time travel behavior analysis are improving mobility. 

For example, Columbus, Ohio is experimenting with the concept of a rapid transit service consisting of semi-automated and autonomous vehicles, bikesharing and ridesharing services, and connected kiosks that provide scheduling information. The system will employ sensors, special lanes, and smart traffic signals to increase efficiency on the city’s bus system as well. The hope—based upon the premise that a lack of adequate public transportation is at the heart of many cities’ socioeconomic inequality issues—is that these updates will ultimately connect people in underserved communities to job opportunities and healthcare facilities. Ultimately, these innovations can have an even broader benefit, reducing carbon emissions, and solving ubiquitous challenges around the daily commute.


Leveraging technology alone doesn’t automatically make a city “smart”. One of the key practices that today’s smart connected cities follow is “collect, communicate, and crunch6.” This approach involves 1. The collection of data—things like pedestrian flow, weather conditions, and traffic patterns—via smartphones or other devices, 2. Communication among a network of such devices, and 3. Data analysis that produces actionable insights and even predicts what could happen next.

These street lights do much more than just give off light

This type of connectivity, supplemented by the Internet of Things (IoT), is no longer arriving—it’s already here. Today’s cities are transitioning to modern platforms in which every system from emergency response to water storage operates in harmony.

Cities around the world are already integrating their infrastructures through connectivity. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has a massive “smart operations” center, which collects and analyzes information from more than 30 local agencies. The city can predict conditions like where floods will occur if there are dangerous storms.  In Santander, Spain, more than 10,000 sensors have been installed  into city street lamps, poles, parking lots, and building walls to collect data about weather and pedestrian behavior—and an app gives citizens access to this data for transit and event schedules. And in Singapore, the Smart Cities Programme Office employs sensors, cameras, and GPS devices to implement “congestion pricing,” which assigns tolls based on real-time traffic patterns.


Even unseen, sensors are tracking residents and helping cities make commutes better.

Smart cities don’t adhere to a cookie-cutter template – creating an environment that’s comfortable and adaptable to the needs of its many residents is essential. In the smart cities of the future, things such as train platforms, sidewalks, and office buildings will offer a spectrum of data-powered personal comfort preferences. From individualized temperature and lighting controls to customized shopping experiences, virtually no experience of city life is likely to be 100% identical in the future.

 Accessibility can and should include assistance we’ve never imagined – and will open up the urban ecosystem to people of all ages and abilities. Voice assistants, “smart” signage, and responsive street technology will be capable of adapting to individuals’ mobility needs. One concept for “responsive street furniture” (from British designer Ross Atkin in partnership with Marshalls) is already being developed: Users register with a smartphone app and specify their needs (brighter street lights, audio information, a few more seconds to make it across the street) – while they’re walking.

This will be critical, as already today, 25% of the residents in the 100 largest US cities are over the age of 65 or living with disabilities7.



The road to arrive at the cities of our tomorrow isn’t short – but we’ve traveled it before.  In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that we installed the first streetlight or turned on the first computer or unveiled the first transit system. What can seem daunting is actually a compelling opportunity for community leaders, companies and investors alike.

Traditional organizations – telecom, construction, transportation, and local governments as examples – will play critical roles, as will relatively nascent industries such as renewable energy, artificial intelligence, cleantech, and cybersecurity.  All will be needed to shape the cities of tomorrow.

And making the investment is worthwhile. Cities are the #1 contributor to GDP – the world’s 600 largest cities are expected to comprise nearly 65% of global GDP growth in the next 10 years8. And a smart city does that in the most efficient and innovative way possible. But the chance to build truly inclusive communities – where technology opens up the ecosystem to all residents may in fact be the most remarkable opportunity of all.


  1. UN 2014
  2. UN DESA 2015
  3. UN World Urbanization Prospects, The 2014 Revision
  4. Smart Cities Council 2016
  5. Persistence Market Research 2017
  6. Smart Cities Council Readiness Guide
  7. U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey: 1-Year Estimates of Metropolitan areas in the U.S.
  8. McKinsey 2016

Reimagining Cities from Sewer to Skyscraper, and the Public-Private Investments Needed to Get There

What does it mean to be a “smart city”? It requires more than simply offering public WiFi or the latest digital cellular networks. It relies on technology to integrate a city’s infrastructure at every level. And, until recently, the word “infrastructure” meant physical assets like roads, streetlights, and sewers, but  smart  infrastructure expands that to include often-invisible data networks which connect, enhance, and control these physical fixtures – becoming the backbone for any truly smart city.

Ambitions for this modern connected infrastructure look to affect everything from energy to housing to transportation to education to health care. Ultimately, the goal is for all of these areas to be interconnected and ladder up to a centralized “brain” that helps them work together. Not an easy transition for most cities – getting there requires a new level of partnership and contribution by governments, companies and investors alike. Often, the private sector leads the way, with expertise or access to new technologies that governments tap into for a range of solutions. Initiatives in three cities—London, Singapore, and Dallas—illustrate some of the different approaches these partnerships are taking.


Lighting is a defining characteristic of any cityscape – but it’s so much more than that. Cities bustle with activity day and night, making ubiquitous lighting a necessity. All this illumination requires energy and manpower, and technology can help make it more efficient. That’s why London tapped Philips Lighting’s CityTouch system to power, connect, and automate 42,000 lights throughout the city. Philips estimates that energy consumption is reduced by more than 70%1 while lowering CO2 emissions. Additionally, when a light bulb goes out, CityTouch sends a notification so that a crew can be dispatched for a repair right away. Not only does this make upkeep more efficient, but potentially enhances security by keeping dark corners and roads to a minimum.

Another area of focus is public transportation. Beginning in the 1990s, London installed sensors in traffic lights that recognize oncoming buses and give them priority to pass through. These Selective Vehicle Detection (SVD) sensors have reduced travel times, increased bus ridership by 38% 2, and paid for themselves with operational savings. More recently, Transport for London partnered with the private consulting firm Transport Research Laboratory to develop driverless shuttles that are safer and more efficient than their non-autonomous counterparts. In addition, the partnership is developing technologies to make the system safer—with its trial run of curbside audio and light signals to alert pedestrians of an approaching bus.

The city has also gotten smart about its handling of another common challenge: lack of parking. Up to a third of traffic in downtown areas is made up of drivers looking for spots3 – contributing to congestion, frustration, and a steady unnecessary stream of CO2. By partnering with FM Conway Ltd and parking technology specialist Smart Parking Limited, the busy Westminster area of London has used Infrared SmartEye sensors in more than 3,000 parking spaces to determine availability. This data is then transmitted to the ParkRight mobile app, which maps real-time open spaces for drivers.

Historically London has been at the forefront of leveraging innovation to solve city challenges, but they reinforced their approach in 2013 by creating the Smart London Board. The board has included experts from companies like Siemens, Intel, Huawei, McKinsey, and IBM and its main focus is helping London’s leadership find technology-based solutions to major urban dilemmas.


Smart cities are data-heavy endeavors. When data is offered as a public utility, it presents a powerful new tool for entrepreneurs and startups to harness into opportunity. On this front, Singapore’s government has jumped in headfirst with one of the world’s largest smart city rollouts, Smart Nation. The program was launched in 2014 with the goal of leveraging technology, networks and big data to open the doors to economic opportunity, build stronger communities and an overall better quality of life. It’s a roughly $2 billion public investment aimed at creating opportunities for private infrastructure initiatives.

The program requires a massive amount of data aggregation and transfer, which is processed by public and private network controllers. This multi-faceted network will be used by both government agencies and businesses to offer services, such as predictive healthcare services, simplified cashless transactions, and real-time autonomous mobility services to Singapore’s highly connected population.

In addition, the city’s Beeline SG system leveraged these network-based technologies to deliver a connected mobility platform which went live in August 2015. The cloud-based system allows riders to book seats on available buses ahead of time via an app, guaranteeing a seat on the bus. Travelers can also suggest new routes and, based on demand, routes are added and changed. This is partially attainable because the Beeline platform is an open sourcing model– it allows for private transport companies to supplement the public services in order to keep up with commuter demand. Currently there are seven private bus operators on Beeline and 34 routes, with plans to add more4.


Dallas is an active city – it houses 20 Fortune 500 company headquarters5 and has the 7th largest concentration of technology jobs in the U.S6. In 2015, the Dallas Innovation Alliance (DIA) was founded as a public-private coalition that includes local government, corporations, civic organizations, NGOs, and academia joining forces to transform Dallas into “a forward-thinking, innovative smart global city.”7   DIA is a non-profit entity, with a strategy of a testing out key ideas and initiatives in pilots instead of pushing things out quickly to the whole city.

Phase One of DIA’s initiative includes the creation of a connected “living lab” inside the city’s West End neighborhood, the fasting growing residential area in Dallas County. The lab is powered by AT&T and supported by partners including Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Dallas Regional Chamber, Cisco, IBM, and Philips. An early initiative includes the installation of Smart LED light bulbs from GE and Philips managed by “intelligent nodes,” which enable intelligent lighting management. These connected light bulbs could eventually be used to capture real-time data such as air quality, traffic congestion, crowd gatherings, and other events.

Other initiatives being rolled out by the lab include a smart parking system, advanced water metering that wirelessly monitors and optimizes usage, and a smart irrigation system to service a downtown park. All the collected data will be funneled through an open source platform that can be tapped by citizens, entrepreneurs, and other organizations to create their own applications.

And a major added benefit of the living lab is that it allows Dallas to test smart city ideas with no cost to taxpayers. The solutions being tested in the West End are almost entirely funded by in-kind donations from partners of the alliance.


The dense and dynamic cities of the future will face unprecedented challenges.  They will be tasked to efficiently and sustainably deliver transportation, security, and opportunity to millions of residents. But these challenges bring with them unprecedented opportunities. Opportunities for governments, companies, investors and citizens to work together – bringing the best thinking to the forefront. From those ideas will come enhanced quality of life, more efficient governance, strong long-term investments, economic growth, and, of course, truly Smart Cities.


  1. Philips, Lighting the Future (2014)
  2. Transport for London, Bus priority at traffic signals keeps London’s buses moving (2006)
  3. Shoup, Cruising for Parking, 2015
  4. Government Technology Agency of Singapore, 2017
  5. Dallas Regional Chamber, Dallas Economic Development Guide
  6. Dallas Regional Chamber, Dallas Economic Development Guide
  7. Dallas Innovation Alliance, 2017

Traditional Industries Join Forces with New Tech

Increasing population levels and more frequent climate events are presenting new challenges to city living, and cities need to evolve in order to tackle these challenges. Below are some examples of how traditional industries, such as utilities, telecom and agriculture, are joining forces with innovations like artificial intelligence (AI), renewable energy and the Internet of Things (IoT) to help drive a new era of industry. Inter-industry collaboration will not only ensure that city infrastructure can deliver on a minimum of public services—security, water, electricity, transit—but it can also help overcome risks that lead to fragility.


The concept of smart agriculture marks an important collaboration between a centuries-old industry and ultra-futuristic technology. Ultimately, big data could inform the way we farm, eat, and sustain growing communities.

A clear example of this is smart water systems, which lead to smarter irrigation and in turn improve crop yields. Smart water networks enable proactive monitoring—they can measure metrics like leakage, pressure, quality, etc.; diagnose issues in real-time; and adjust settings accordingly to reduce waste.

The future of farming is smarter – and more vertical

Paired with urban ag developments like vertical farming, these integrated systems can help sustain rising city populations. In addition, drone surveillance and data-driven tech can drive other efficiencies in modern agriculture. Companies like GrowUp Urban Farms in London, Sky Greens in Singapore, and AeroFarms in the United States are proving that tech- and data-infused vertical farming is redefining the agriculture industry. AeroFarms, for instance, is leveraging data and technology to grow food without sun or soil. The company boasts 390 times more productivity per square foot and uses 95% less water than does a commercial field farm.1

There’s huge potential for growth within the smart ag industry. The market is expected to grow from $9.02 billion in 2016 to $18.45 billion in 20222, and the smart water market could grow from $8.5 billion in 2016 to $20.1 billion by 20213.


Smart waste systems have a big secondary benefit: fewer garbage trucks (and less pollution)

Smart waste management is one of the most promising ways to address the planet’s mounting pollution problem—which is also a major cause of urban fragility. Thanks to the introduction of technologies such as RFID (radio frequency ID) tags on waste bins, automated garbage collection, and solar-powered trash compactors, tech-based waste management systems are making progress in a big way.

Big Belly is one of the global leaders in the smart waste management space with more than 50 countries leveraging their platforms. Communities are able to use Big Belly’s solar-powered, sensor-equipped waste and recycling stations, which communicate real-time status to collection crews. These solutions not only lead to less clutter and waste in urban areas (Big Belly estimates a 70-80% reduction in waste and recycling collections), they also reduce the carbon footprint associated with fleets of waste-removal vehicles. In addition, they offer increased infrastructure for hosting technologies like WiFi. Soon, AI is likely to play an even greater role in urban waste management and recycling. This could result in more diversion of plastics, steel, aluminum, compostable food waste, and paper products—the bulk of municipal solid waste—from landfills 4. And while not as big as the agriculture and water markets, the smart waste management market is predicted to more than double from $1.1 billion in 2016 to $2.4 billion by 2021.5


5G connectivity will result in more than simply speedier web-browsing—it will fundamentally change the way the world exchanges data. The healthcare industry in particular stands to benefit from widespread 5G connectivity, especially as data-heavy technologies like the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) become integrated into city (and hospital) infrastructure.

Uniform and high-bandwidth connectivity means it will become easier for nurses, doctors, specialists, and medical facilities to connect with patients and with one another no matter where they are. In the long term, 5G networks will likely mean that a variety of routine healthcare scenarios— wellness visits to diagnostic testing to mental health examinations—can be conducted remotely.

Faster internet access can mean faster diagnoses, examinations and testing

A number of companies are developing healthcare technology solutions that will rely heavily upon 5G. At the 2017 Mobile World Congress, companies including Deutsche Telecom, SK Telecom, and Ericsson showcased how 5G networks may eventually enable robotic telepresence surgery.6  In a demonstration, a robotic “doctor” mimicked intricate surgical motions of a human counterpart—but the technology only functioned optimally while running on a 5G connection.7

Experts predict that healthcare transformation leveraging 5G will facilitate an estimated $76 billion revenue opportunity by 2026 for telecom companies.8  5G is good news for patients, too: One study found that nearly three-quarters of healthcare executives (73%) expect 5G networks will enable services and products that will improve the quality of life for the public at large.9


The old adage of 1+1=3 holds true. As established industries team up with new technologies, the results are meaningful for cities around the world. Tech advancement driving industry integration isn’t a new concept; cities have long incorporated new innovations into traditional infrastructure—electric power and computer technology being major examples.

The newer synergies are not only creating solutions that help modernize infrastructure, they are resulting in ancillary ways to help citizens live more efficient and connected lives—thus blazing the trail for a brighter future.


  1. Our Technology, AeroFarms
  2. Markets and Markets, 2016
  3. Markets and Markets, 2016
  4. Environmental Protection Agency
  5. Markets and Markets, 2016
  6. IDG Network World, 2017
  7. IDG Network World, 2017
  8. Ericsson, 5G Healthcare
  9. Ericsson, 5G and IoT: Ushering in a new era

For lovers of technology, the coolest stuff in human history

For lovers of technology, the coolest stuff in human history has arrived in the last century or so, a mere speck at the very end of civilization’s timeline. This last century is when hunter-gatherer and agrarian eras gave way to the mercantile, industrial, and current fifth era, characterized by digital computing and biotech. #DYK #GorillaGlass #history

When Thomas Edison had the idea for the light bulb

When Thomas Edison had the idea for the light bulb, he came to @Corning for the glass envelope that would make the product commercially available. From 1879 to the launch of Gorilla Glass in 2007, Corning has focused on innovations that make the world and your life, better. #AlwaysInnovating #GorillaGlass #SciFri #ScienceFriday 

Clean air, merci beaucoup

Four hundred million catalytic converters is a lot of clean air.

That’s because a catalytic converter cleans your car or truck’s exhaust as you drive (and these days, just about everything on the road has one).

Now these particular 400 million converters were turned out by BASF, the chemicals company – and their plant in Huntsville, Alabama is where they make more of them than any other BASF location in North America.  So naturally, they had a bit of a celebration.

To mark a production milestone, yes, but also to take note of the jobs created in Huntsville (more than 650), taxes paid (more than $1.6 million a year), and the fact that the plant is an officially certified Virtually Zero Waste Facility (which means, yep, they don’t waste much).

And, should you be wondering, the catalytic converter first hit the road in 1975.  But the original concept goes back to the 1950s – the work of a French war hero (WWI), engineer, and naturalized American citizen, Eugene Houdry.  Thanks Eugene, and thanks BASF.

What’s black and black and paved all over?

We’ve got more than 2.7 million miles of paved roads in the U.S. More than 90 percent of those roads, are paved with asphalt.

And here are two things about that asphalt, you might not know:

Asphalt is made from oil.  Not a lot of it, but the bitumen made from oil is the essential ingredient that holds all the other ingredients together (those other ingredients being mostly sand and stone and gravel).

And, asphalt is recyclable.  Very recyclable.  When a street needs repaving, you grind off the old asphalt pavement, and you can use all of the old, to make new asphalt pavement (and almost all of it is reused).

Alright, since those were short – here’s a bonus fact about asphalt:  It’s been around a long time.  The asphaltologists at the National Asphalt Pavement Association, report it was first used to build roads in Babylon.  Ancient Babylon – around 2600 hundred years ago.

(And if you’re hunting through a college catalog looking for the Asphaltology Department – ok, we just invented that.)

Various twists, turns and 2500 years or so later – and we have our paved roads of today.  That history, by the way, includes the legacy of John McAdam, who came pretty close to the making of the modern road, and gave his name to “macadam”, which had the rocks and the gravel, but not the asphalt, and which was the top-of-the-line in the early 1800s.

Our asphalt roads date back to the 1920s, though hopefully your roads have been resurfaced since then.

And the same oil that makes those asphalt roads possible, also probably makes it possible for your car to drive on them.  Kinda cool.


Think of it as an artificial iceberg.  When an oil tanker is fully loaded, three-quarters of it is invisible, underwater.

So when the supertanker TAQAH was headed for the Port of Long Beach, there was a problem.  Fully loaded, the bottom of the TAQAH would be less than 10 feet from the bottom – and when you’re talking about a ship that is more than 1,000 feet long, carrying more than 300,000 tons – being a few feet from running aground is a little close for comfort.

That is, it WAS too close for comfort.

Then Andeavor and the Port of Long Beach put technology on the job.  Instead of the traditional method of matching ship to harbor:  a close look at the waves, the charts and having to leave a large guesstimated margin for error – they used PROTIDE and the “Octopus”.

PROTIDE is software that uses wave and weather data, combined with the particular characteristics of each individual ship (like its potential “pitch and roll”).  PROTIDE makes predictions; the Octopus is motion detection gear and software that looks at what is actually happening as a ship is coming into harbor and compares those results to the predicted ones.

As a ship approaches port, PROTIDE is run a few days in advance.  When the harbor pilot who brings the ship into port, boards the ship, he or she brings the Octopus along, and that’s hooked up on board to provide real time information.  That means less guessing – and a much more exact match between the water depth in a specific port, and the depth of a specific ship, with a specific cargo.

And – that marriage of high tech and high seas has been a very happy marriage indeed.  Having tested (and tested and tested) PROTIDE and the Octopus on smaller tankers coming into Long Beach – this year, all 300,000-plus tons of the TAQAH sailed successfully into the Port of Long Beach, with seven precisely- and safely-measured feet to spare.

That was the first time, by the way, in the 107-year history of the Port of Long Beach that a VLCC (“very large crude carrier”) sailed in, as deep in the water as the shipping channel actually goes – instead of having to bring in the big ships more lightly loaded to allow for that guesstimated margin of error.  And that’s not just a remarkable technological feat.  Each extra foot of draft (meaning how much deeper the ship sits in the water) for an oil tanker, means it can safely and efficiently carry more cargo, as much as 40,000 barrels of oil per each extra foot.

Being able to use the maximum capacity of the harbor – means less need for dredging (which is expensive and sometimes complicated) – and less need to unload some cargo offshore to lighten a ship before entry (which is definitely complicated and time-consuming).

As PROTIDE is refined, Andeavor and Long Beach are planning to make this SOP, Standard Operating Procedure.  And ports around the country are keeping a close eye on Long Beach, with a view toward potentially bringing this new technology to harbors nationwide.

The OTHER March Madness

It’s nearly the end of March Madness for 2018, and you’ve been steeped in college hoops for a month.  So let’s see if you know the answer to THIS basketball question:

What team was national champion six years in a row, and 11 times altogether?

Nope, we’re not thinking of the Celtics, or the Lakers, or the Bulls.  The answer – is the Sixers.  But not the Seventy-Sixers – the Sixty-Sixers!  The Phillips 66ers.

And yes, that’s “Phillips”, as in Phillips 66, the global energy company.  This story begins back before the NBA, when the next stop after college ball was the AAU, the Amateur Athletic Union.

Phillips wasn’t the only business to field a basketball team.  The 66ers matched up with teams like the Peoria Caterpillars, Denver-Chicago Trucking and the Buchan Bakers.  But at their best, there was nobody like the 66ers.  During those six years they were national champions (1943-48), the team record was 241-24.  Not even the Golden State Warriors can match that.

The game was a little different in the ‘40s and ‘50s than it is today.  No three balls, for instance.  But watch a little 66er video, and you’ll see some slick ball movement and sweet mid-range jumpers.

To watch the video, click here.

And it wasn’t all old school.  Bob Kurland, the first player to dunk, back in 1944 when he played for Oklahoma State; Kurland went on to play for – the Phillips 66ers.  And Hank Luisetti, who the San Francisco Chronicle described this way, “Imagine a basketball player from 80 years ago who compares to … Stephen Curry. … He dribbled behind his back, fired no-look passes and drove the lane with either hand” – Luisetti also logged a year as a 66er, in the ’41-42 season.

Of course, the 66ers weren’t just basketball players.  They were working for the Phillips Petroleum Company (as it was known back then).  As Bill Martin told the Oklahoma City News, “I got $125 a month, worked all day and played basketball at night.”  Burdie Haldorson (who also played on the U.S. Olympic team that won gold in 1956) explained, “Phillips offered me the chance to continue playing basketball, as well as a good job. … we reported to work every day and practiced after work.”

The first 66ers hit the court in 1921, and with a couple of stops and starts, Phillips fielded a team through to 1968.  And as it turned out, the 66ers were a pretty successful bunch off the court too.  Over the years, the 66ers roster included four company presidents: Boot Adams (President, 1934-39), Paul Endacott (President, 1951-67 and Naismith National Hall of Fame Inductee in 1972), Bill Martin (President, 1971-74) and Pete Silas (President, 1982-94).

Petrochemicals Are an Astronaut’s Best Friend

When you think of space travel you probably think of high-tech rocket launchers, moon walks and billions of dollars in NASA research. But did you know that space travel wouldn’t be possible without fuels and petrochemicals? And I’m not just referring to the rocket fuel used to propel the rockets into outer space. Without petrochemicals, astronauts wouldn’t be able to survive the harsh environment of space. Here’s a quick look at some of the ways petrochemicals make space travel possible:

  • Stronger Helmets and Visors: The helmets and visors that astronauts wear in space are made from polycarbonate, which is a high-tech polymer (that is, plastic) used in bullet-proof glass. Because of these plastics, astronauts are able to see their surroundings clearly without losing oxygen and they are protected from potentially dangerous and fast-moving space debris.
  • High Tech Space Suits: Orbiting around the Earth, conditions can be as cold as minus 250 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade and as hot as 250 degrees in sunlight. Spacesuits protect astronauts from those extreme temperatures, while also supplying them with oxygen to breath and, like their helmets, protecting them from flying debris. Modern space suits are composed of 14 different layers of synthetic materials, most of which use petrochemicals as the primary building blocks. These layers do everything from allowing the suit to be fire resistant, to protecting from harmful radiation, to enhancing mobility and comfort.
  • Space Shuttle Seating: The seats in a spaceship are for more than just lounging around. A space shuttle’s main landing gear touches down on the runway at about 214 to 226 MPH so you better hope those seats are soft. To counteract these hard landings, NASA developed temper foam (also used in your Memory Foam mattress!) to help blunt the impact of landings. This open-cell polyurethane-silicon plastic makes it easier for astronauts to travel into space, and back again without getting injured (and in relative comfort).

The Spacecraft itself: Aluminum was always the primary material in the construction of spacecraft during the early days of the space program. However, aluminum does not adequately protect the spacecraft from dangerous cosmic radiation, which would make longer space travel and habitation impossible. However, studies found that plastics provide effective shielding against radiation hazards and could help reduce risks to astronauts while exploring the next frontiers of space.  So keep an eye out for the next generation of plastics in the next generation of spacecraft.

3 innovations set to make your car’s engine cleaner, more efficient

The internal combustion engine (aka, the thing under the hood of most cars) started taking shape in the 1700s, so it’s been around for a while.  But that doesn’t mean it’s been standing still the entire time.

Engines have gotten bigger – like the V-12 in your Ferrari or Lamborghini.  Engines have gotten smaller – like the wee two-cylinder powering up a lawn mower.  Engines have gotten cooler – like the V-8 in a Corvette or a Mustang.  And engines have gotten weirder – like the Lancia Delta S4 (which really, looks like a droid more than an engine).

Engines have also gotten more efficient and cleaner over the years – and another round of those improvements is on the way.  Which is good news, because that means the cars most of us drive today – and the cars most of us are going to be driving tomorrow – are going to use less gas, and produce fewer emissions.

First, Mazda announced a “new compression ignition engine…20 percent to 30 percent more fuel efficient than the…automaker’s current engines,” according to Reuters.  Like a diesel engine, it uses compression to ignite the fuel, rather than spark plugs.  Unlike diesel, the new engine runs cleaner and adds the spark plugs back in, for use when they are more effective, like driving in low temperatures.

Second, Rolls Royce announced a new turbocharger, with an electric boost.  Electrically-assisted turbocharging makes for an engine that responds more quickly and uses fuel more efficiently – which is a pretty ideal combination for anything powered by an engine (and this engine can be used on land, in a boat, and in emergency generators).

And last, a team of researchers from around the country, led by the University of Houston, announced that it’s working to develop a new catalytic converter (aka, the thing under the car that turns engine exhaust into nitrogen and oxygen, water and carbon dioxide).  That’s a good thing twice over:  a better catalytic converter means cleaner air, but it turns out that some next-generation engine technologies may require a next-generation converter too.

Now, you can’t walk into a showroom and find any of this yet.  But these are all based on real-world technologies – and long before you’ll be asking Scotty to beam you up, you’ll be out in your new ride.

The wheels on the bus make the world go round

25 million kids get to school each day (and home again) on a school bus.

And how do those school buses get to school?  Almost every one of them is fueled by diesel.

Yep, without the diesel fueling these buses, a lot of parents would be scrambling to get their kids to and from school about 180 days a year (your average school year).

That’s a lot to be thankful for right there (especially for the kids that don’t really have a Plan B for getting to school otherwise).

But it turns out there’s other good news about school buses.

Like this (don’t take it personally): “Students are about 70 times more likely to get to school safely when taking a school bus instead of traveling by car,”* according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

And did you know about the “school bus effect?”  It turns out that school buses not only help kids get to school, they help kids STAY in school.  From EdSource, “Students who ride the school bus in the critical first year — kindergarten – are absent less often and have lower odds of being chronically absent, a key indicator of future academic success…”**

Not bad for a big yellow bus.

It could be that one day, very far in the future, kids will get to skip over the bus stop by strapping on their jet packs and flying off to school. And no, they will probably never step into the transporter room at home and get beamed to school (although that would make life a lot easier when they forget their homework or their lunch. Just beam over a couple of PB&Js.)

But the future – tomorrow, and as a practical matter, for years to come– is probably going to look pretty much like today.  Which is to say, if your kids ride a bus to school, chances are, it’ll be running on diesel fuel.  And it’ll be yellow.

Say goodbye to the plaster cast

It started with the story of a baby girl who was born with a hip problem (“hip dysplasia,”). Her “treatment,” which began at three months, involved being hung upside down so that her leg would pull out of its wrong position – something so painful, she had to be given morphine.

Next in this six month regimen, her legs were put into plaster casts, with a wooden bar from left foot to right foot, to keep her from moving.  As she grew, every six weeks she went back into the hospital to have the old casts cut off, and to have new casts and a bar put on.

In the end, the outcome was successful. But not surprisingly, her dad wondered if there was something better.

Now, Ron Taylor and his colleagues at Torc2 (Coventry, England) have come up with that something better: a novel blend of petroleum-based wax and thermoplastic for casts, splints, even the connectors for prosthetic limbs.

They started with thermoplastic, because it softens when heated, but becomes solid when cool.  This particular thermoplastic blend can be warmed on a person’s body, in just the spot where a cast is needed, for example.  Then while it is soft, the doctor can shape it to a perfect fit.  And when it cools down, that plastic cast is solid and sturdy and ready to protect that broken arm or leg.

And why the wax?  Because heating thermoplastic on a person’s arm or leg might burn the skin.  Blending in that wax, means the plastic can be warmed and softened at a lower temperature that is safe for patients, while still allowing it to be molded precisely to where it is needed.

These high-tech thermoplastic blends can be heated, shaped and cooled to solid, over and over again – so adjustments as a baby girl grows, for example, don’t require returning over and over again to an operating room.  And reshaping, instead of replacing casts, will not only be simpler to do, it will be much less expensive for patients as well.

Thermoplastic blends make the new treatments possible, and what makes thermoplastic blends possible, are petroleum and natural.

If George Jetson had been a farmer…

Driverless vehicles are headed off road.

Not for recreation though.  This is all about work, because these driverless vehicles are farm tractors.

Yes, the driverless tractor is coming to a furrow near you.  Mahindra is bringing the first version to market next year – starting in India, and then available worldwide.

Like the driverless car, in the beginning the farmer will be the “driver”, but not driving.  Next stage will be the remote-operated tractor; and in the end, the tractor will be programmed to head out on its own in the morning, and come back when the day’s work is done.

There is plenty of work on a farm that requires a farmer’s touch.  But driving a tractor back and forth across a field, and another field, and another – doesn’t have to be in that category.  The driverless tractor just frees up the farmer for all the other work that nobody but she, or he, can do.

As you’d expect with any driverless vehicle, Mahindra’s tractor uses GPS to steer itself – but being a tractor, it faces some challenges you don’t see much on your typical street.  So this tractor can reach the end of a crop row, turn, and head precisely back down the next row – row after row after row.  And when it makes each turn, this tractor can lift the plow or harrow or whatever tool it is using, make the turn and drop it back down in the next row.

And, if you’re envisioning a rogue tractor, something out of a Stephen King novel – not to worry.  These tractors feature a geofence lock, so they can’t go beyond the boundaries of the farm, and a remote off switch, so a farmer can stop the engine and the tractor, should there be an emergency.

Fill ‘er up, Siri

You can get groceries delivered right to your door – you can get a cooked dinner delivered – you can get books and shirts and shoes delivered.  And maybe one of these days – those toilet-paper-delivering drones will finally be airborne.

But – how about gas for your car?  Yes, that’s happening now too.  Not here yet – but Shell is testing out the idea in the Netherlands, in the city of Rotterdam.

How easy is it?  This easy: “It’s three clicks.  You set the time, set the location and then it’s done.”  That’s a Dutch customer explaining how it works on his smartphone, and yeah, that sounded like just two clicks to us also (but we think that third click is the “send” button).

The service is called Shell TapUp, and using their app on your phone (if you were in Rotterdam), you can order up a delivery of gas or diesel, to your car or truck, at home or at work, wherever your ride may be parked, when you need it.  A digital fill-up.

This pilot program is to test out the tech, and also to see how people like it.  The tech testing?  That’s still ongoing.  But the people test?  It’s a hit.

And if you’re wondering, since this is the Netherlands – yes, Rotterdam has canals, but no, Shell doesn’t send the gas boat to your car.  It’s a truck.

So get ready for one day and, “Siri, the car needs gas.”

Pretty Fly (for a shoe)

It’s tough.  It’s light.  It’s sustainably made.  It’s… “a little like baking a cake”!

And…it’s a shoe.  Yep.  Nike’s line of shoes made from Flyleather.

Flyleather is made from leather, but leather plus.  WIRED Magazine laid out the Nike formula: “…[Flyleather] combines leather scraps and polyester blend fibers.  While traditional leather-makers discard parts of the hide that are blemished or too soft and stretchy, Nike takes those pieces and grinds them into a fine dust before combining it with polyester fabric and water.  ‘It’s a little like baking a cake’ says Tony Bignell, VP of Nike’s footwear innovation.” (So yes, we are serious about that.)

If you’re a tennis player, you can pick up some Flyleather right now at the Nike shop online.  And what you get – is a shoe that Nike believes looks exactly like leather but:

  • Is 40 percent lighter
  • Is 5 times more durable
  • Uses 50 percent recycled leather
  • Uses 90 percent less water to make.
  • And looks like this.

In leather manufacturing, typically as much as a third of each cow hide can be tossed out.  Combining that scrap leather with polyester (which in turn is made using petrochemicals) – makes a smart, sustainable combination that couldn’t exist with just one or the other.  Welcome, Flyleather.

Make Mine Plastic: Plastic Wine Bottles

Here in March, it’s hard to imagine summer, well, period – let alone a day when we can spread a blanket out on the grass, open up a picnic basket and worry about ants instead of ice.

(And thanks Punxatawney Phil, for giving us six more weeks of winter!)

So here’s a jump start for your imagination, and a soon-to-come addition to those picnics – the plastic wine bottle.

The folks at Amcor make it (Amcor is a plastics company in Michigan).  The folks at Naked Winery fill it (a winery in Oregon).

And why might you want it?  First, no more “oops”.  No more “after a long hike in to your lovely picnic spot, nicely shaded under a big old tree, and as your (sweaty) hands reach for the wine bottle that you’ve packed in all that way, oops.”  No wine, and a mess of broken glass to clean up.  That, and, a plastic bottle weighs a lot less – so your hike in (and out) to your picnic spot is a lot more comfortable.

Your new bottle keeps your wine fine for at least a year, comes with the modern post-cork topper (a metal screw top), and is made from PET plastic.

Right now, Naked Winery is filling those bottles with a rose, a couple of whites and a Cabernet/Merlot blend.  But stay tuned, because we think other wineries will be following suit.


(Oh, and if you’re the kind of person who wonders about this kind of thing, “PET” stands for polyethylene terephthalate.  But you could call it just another way that petrochemicals make life, and picnics, better.)

There’s an app for that (getting gas delivered to your car)

“Two orders of dumplings, spicy beef with eggplant, sweet and sour soup, rice – oh, and ten gallons of gas.”

Yep, that could happen.  And in fact, if you just want the gas delivered – it can happen right now.

You can get a weekly fill-up, gas when you need it, air for your tires (and our readers know how important that is for good gas mileage), an oil change, a car wash – wherever your car is parked, whether or not you are there – and you arrange it all, on an app, on your phone.

So you can skip the drive to the gas station or the car wash, and have your car taken care of, while you are taking care of something else.

Now you can’t do this everywhere – yet.  But if you’re in or around Minneapolis-St. Paul, you can now.  Cleveland or St. Louis?  Also available for you now.  And if you live in Austin or Atlanta, Nashville or Tampa or Chicago, LA or the San Francisco Bay Area – you could already be signed up.

Never heard of this?  Yoshi is the name of this service (the fuels partner is ExxonMobil).  You can find their app wherever you usually find your apps, or you can check them out online:  Yoshi.

Why “Yoshi”?  Well, that we don’t know, so you’ll have to ask ‘em.

And maybe one day – you WILL be able to get that pizza delivered, along with that tank of gas – so everyone (and everything) can get a fill-up at the same time.

Mirai Nagasu and “the tale of the tape” (the petrochemical-based tape)

Maybe you watched Mirai Nagasu land a triple axel Sunday night (Monday night, if you were there in South Korea) – the first-ever American woman to do it at the Olympics.

And maybe, when you got over that — you were one of many people who wondered – what was that “thing” on her thigh?

Tattoo?  No.  Bruise?  No.  Turns out – it was “USA” – printed on the KT Tape she was wearing under her tights.

And KT Tape turns out to be the Official Kinesiology Tape Licensee for the U.S. Olympic team (Admit it, THAT’s a category you’d never heard of before.  We hadn’t either.).

What’s that all about?  Petrochemicals, of course.

Now that’s not why our Olympians wear it.  They like it because – well, let’s have KT Tape tell the “tale of their tape”: “an elastic sports tape designed to relieve pain while supporting muscles, tendons, and ligaments – helps reduce pressure to the tissue – without restricting comfort and range of motion.”  And some athletes in outdoor events, skiers for instance, are even wearing the tape on their faces – to keep their skin from freezing.

But what makes that possible is the petrochemical touch.  In particular (for you chemists), it’s all about the polyacrylate, a polymer resin made from propylene (which is one of your basic petrochemicals).  It’s the petrochemical touch which makes a tape that can fit precisely to your muscles, and stay flexible enough to expand and contract with them.  That “touch” also repels water and wicks moisture away, so Olympic (and weekend) athletes can concentrate on their performance.

In a way though, this petrochemical connection is no big deal.  No big deal – because it might be harder to find a sport without some polymer-based material, without some synthetic fiber, in short, without a petrochemical connection.

Last week, we did a little Sports Petrochemical 101 on the Games – how petrochemicals are used in making skis and skates and sleds – helmets and pads – jackets and pants and brooms (the ones for curling).   Petrochemicals can even be used to help make the snow and the ice!

So, like most of us, you might be likely to make a triple bogey than a triple axel – but if you play a sport at any level, your game is probably better thanks to – petrochemicals.

Plastic Makes Perfect (Figs!)

There’s no time like mid-winter for thinking about something completely different – the fruits of mid-summer.

In this case, we’re thinking about fresh figs.  And while (other than idle daydreaming) would a news page about petroleum and petrochemicals be thinking about figs?  We’ve got an answer for that.  Or actually, Matthew Naitove, at Plastics Technology magazine has an answer:

“If you’re a fan of fresh figs (as I am), then you may have resigned yourself (as I have) to the fact that when you buy figs in a plastic mesh-style box, the fruit on the top may look great, but the figs on the bottom will be mashed, mis-shapen, and quite possibly moldy as a result.

“Well, I am resigned to such disappointment no longer, thanks to a more imaginative use of plastics [and there’s your connection!].  For the first time since I have been living in New York City … I found a supermarket that stocks fresh figs in thermoformed PET clamshells, where each piece of fruit (six to eight) is held snugly in its own separate pocket.  No bouncing around, no mashing, no squishing, no leaking of juice to promote mold growth.”

It’s clear, it’s strong, it’s lightweight – you heat it, mold it, turn it into the perfect carrying case for figs.  It’s recyclable when you’re done.  And it’s only made possible by the petrochemicals needed to make that modern plastic.  Not bad, even if the closest you come to a fig, is a Fig Newton.