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Prototyping the Arctic

Text: Franziska Porsch

Translation: Bronwen Saunders

The Strelka Institute in Moscow is a non-governmental organisation that since 2009 has been running experimental, multidisciplinary, and project-based programmes for students wishing to do urban design work and research.

Alexander Mamut, Sergey Gordeev, and Dmitry Likin, all of whom are leading members of Russia’s economic elite, are among the members of its board of trustees. The current postgraduate programme, The New Normal, directed by US American design theorist Benjamin H. Bratton, is a speculative think tank dedicated to exploring “the opportunities posed by emerging technologies for interdisciplinary urban design practices”. The first graduates of the three-year programme presented their graduation projects in the summer of 2017. One of them is an alternative development strategy for the Arctic called Sever.



Starting Point

The project grew out of a field trip to Murmansk. What fascinated the group around architect and researcher Francesco Sebregondi, the journalist Inna Pokazanyeva, the media artist Ildar Iakubov, and the film-maker Alexey Platonov most about the largest city above the Arctic Circle were the sharp contrasts defining it. For while the melting of the Arctic ice cap is quite rightly regarded as an environmental disaster, the fact is that for Murmansk, it opens up new economic prospects. New sea lanes promise more marine traffic, in anticipation of which the countries bordering the Arctic Ocean (the USA, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Russia) are already jockeying for position with major new port projects. Yet, the region’s economic potential will also lead to competing interests that are likely to bring political conflict in their wake. The group therefore takes the view that the Arctic can only be developed as a single, integrated territory. Hence, their decision to design a scenario that would add a third approach to the two already on the table, one of which envisages declaring the Arctic a sanctuary, while the other would allow it to be colonised.



To be able to develop a speculative, but nevertheless plausible scenario, the group had to do extensive research in the field. This entailed talking to local authorities, to stakeholders of the industries that operate in the Arctic, and to residents of Murmansk, all of whom were asked what they expect of the future. They also interviewed climate scientists to hear their latest predictions for the Arctic and analysed geopolitical developments in the Arctic region over the past ten years. Even after it was clear that the scenario would have to take a cinematic form, most of the group’s energy was expended on developing the scenario itself. That work entailed drafting texts, working on storyboards, and drawing diagrams with which to visualise the complex dynamics being modelled.



The development of the Arctic as a centre of global exchange demands an infrastructure consisting of cities and ports that no one state alone can afford. As an incentive to build such a network, the group modelled a blockchain-based currency called Sever, whose worth would vary depending on the latitude, that is the further north, the greater it would be. The aim is to stimulate investments north of the Arctic Circle. A blockchain network would enable the development of a collectively financed infrastructure on which a decentralised economic order, and ultimately a decentralised government, might also be based. Alongside decentralisation, the network would also facilitate a new measure of automation and transparency. With blockchain technology, the economic sectors of relevance to the Arctic, such as logistics, energy generation, and fishery, could be automated and regulated transparently, also with regard to the ecological consequences of these activities (although the negative impact of blockchain technology itself on the environment cannot be entirely disregarded here). Furthermore, any new cities would rest on the involvement of their citizens, as the owners of the infrastructure would in all probability be its users. The location-based protocol of this blockchain could make all of these things possible.



Sever is intended less as an ideal vision than as a speculative scenario with which to change the current view of this region and to formulate new questions of potential relevance to the future development of the Arctic. Sever, moreover, “would lay the ground for the development of an alternative model of globalisation”, the project summary tells us, “first trialled in the Arctic frontier”. To be able to continue testing the technical and economic feasibility of the scenario, one member of the group, Francesco Sebregondi, has now enlisted the support of the UCL Centre for Blockchain Technologies in London. And according to the project website, which also features a vivid and impressive audiovisual presentation of the scenario, they are seeking additional partners, too. At least one aspect of the “new normal” awaiting us, maps on which the Arctic takes centre stage, is no longer in any doubt.

According to the UCL Centre for Blockchain Technologies, “blockchain is a new disruptive information technology that allows anonymous partners to operate safely without the intermediation of a third party or the need for a central authority. This enables the creation of peer-to-peer distributed economies and paves the way for a range of applications, from e-commerce to management.”


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