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The Arctic is the new Dubai

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It may be cold and dangerous, but it’s also rich with ever-more accessible natural resources, says Rory Olcayto

The Arctic is the new Dubai. Consider the following:

  1. The Arctic is home to some 4 million people comprising a broad range of cultures – including 40 ethnic groups, such as the Sámi of northern Scandinavia, the Evenki of Russia, and the Inuit of Canada – and has an economy worth around $230 billion annually.
  2. A US government study has estimated that tanker, bulk carrier and general cargo shipping into the Western Arctic will grow by between 117 and 469 ships per year over the next decade. If melting sea ice encourages container ships to use the Northwest Passage or Russia’s Northern Sea Route that total could increase to an extra 882 ships a year. Resulting carbon emissions in the same period are set to increase by almost 600 per cent.
  3. In the first week of February this year, Russian energy minister Alexander Novak announced that energy giant Rosneft will invest $500 billion in the exploration of the Arctic over the next two decades.
  4. Broadband speeds in Reykjavik are twice as fast as those in London. (Yes, okay, Reykjavik lies just outside the Arctic, but still, it’s close enough.)

Business strategists are calling the Arctic the next emerging market. Why else would the Russians be ploughing billions into Arctic exploration? It’s got heaps of oil and gas and other natural resources: metals, fish, diamonds, rare earths and lots and lots of fresh water. It’s like a cold Middle East. With no religious wars. And water instead of sand.

Still, just thinking about how the Arctic could be transformed should make you a little queasy – drilling for oil and gas there, for example, when we have no idea of the impact an oil slick might have on the native flora and fauna, is fraught with danger. And infrastructure is scant. Except for certain areas of Norway and western Russia, the region scores badly on ports, roads, railways and other critical networks.

The Arctic as the next emerging market? Why else do you think the region is hiring starchitects and forming orchestras?

The Arctic too, is not without its disputes. They may have nothing to do with religion, but the lines are clearly drawn.  The region comes under the jurisdiction of eight states, and two of them are the USA and Russia. (The others are Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark – in the shape of Greenland). So governance is a problem. For business folk, that’s always a pain.  There are territorial wrangles between Canada and the US and Canada and Greenland, and fishing disputes in the coastal waters between Alaska and Russia.  These will only intensify should abundant resources be found at these flashpoints.

Governance is directly linked to infrastructure. A research paper for consultant PWC in 2013 noted that: ‘Increasing the attractiveness of the Arctic for investment in infrastructure is tied to the need for stable, transparent political governance and judicial systems and a consistent, clearly defined regulatory regime.  The main issue here is that without clear rules for how to operate, multinationals will hesitate to engage with the region – and if they don’t, there is no need for infrastructure.’

Then there are the very dangerous – and literal – waters to navigate. Ice conditions can change rapidly, freezing vessels in ice, or worse, cracking their hulls – resulting in loss of life and serious environmental damage.

The bottom line is research – or the lack of it. We just don’t yet know enough about the Arctic to begin to properly capitalise on it.  There’s a reason for this: logistically it’s a tricky place to study. Yes, we’re talking infrastructure, or lack of it, again.  There are research hot spots – Alaska is one, Greenland is another –but most of the Arctic coast remains a mystery, and you only have to Google-map it to frighten yourself by its sheer vastness. We don’t know what effect thawing permafrost will have on global methane gas emissions, or what impact shrinking Arctic snow, sea ice, and glaciers will have upon global sea levels, weather patterns and fish stocks.

What then, has this do with you; with architecture? Quite a lot actually, as some British firms have found out. Apart from the obvious knock-on effects of shorter cross-polar global shipping routes – potentially lower product prices, new jobs etc – emerging markets need buildings. Simple as that. And not just research huts on the edge of glaciers. Emerging markets need architecture. Showpiece buildings.  Things that say: ‘Hey – this is a place worth coming to!’

Here’s another list to  consider:

  1. In 2009 David Chipperfield’s Anchorage Museum expansion in Alaska opened.  The four-storey mirrored glass building houses the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center.
  2. That same year the Norwegians created the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra and hired a British architect, DRDH, to build a new home for it in the Arctic city of Bodø. Stormen, as the concert hall is called, opened in 2014. Read the review here.
  3. Also in 2014, at the Venice Biennale, the Canada Pavilion show was called Arctic Adaptations: Nunavut at 15. It focused on the townscapes of Nunavut, Canada’s newest territory, founded in 1999, and explored the role architecture can play in years to come.

The Arctic as the next emerging market? Why else do you think the region is hiring starchitects and forming orchestras? Why else would the Canadians travel to Italy with a show about the freezing waters of the polar Atlantic? Trust me. The Arctic’s on a roll.


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