BUSINESS WATCH

Profits from the frigid season

Peter C. Newman February 29 1988
BUSINESS WATCH

Profits from the frigid season

Peter C. Newman February 29 1988

Profits from the frigid season

BUSINESS WATCH

Peter C. Newman

Somebody once described Canadian weather as half a year of snow followed by six months of bad sledding. But last week in Edmonton, a group of cold-weather enthusiasts met to extol the virtues of winter, with the emphasis not so much on how to survive the frigid season as on how to profit from it.

Winter Cities Showcase ’88, ably organized under the chairmanship of Mary Cameron and the directorship of Laraine Barby, brought together three dozen speakers in a four-day forum that explored everything from new rainbow fashions in lightweight underwear to commercial uses of glacier ice in yuppie cocktail bars. More than 700 delegates from 16 countries, representing the 1.9 billion people who live within the earth’s winter zone, explored every facet of the fourth and commanding season.

The idea originated in 1982, when Canadian magazine editor Jack C. Roy le founded the Livable Winter City Association, while a parallel initiative was taking place in the northern Japanese city of Sapporo, where Mayor Takeshi Itagaki hosted the first conference of northern city officials. The Edmonton meeting follows a similar 1985 conference in Shenyang, China. “Winter in the North is more a condition than an episode,” said William Rogers, a world affairs consultant at the Minnesota International Centre who was one of the Edmonton meeting’s animating spirits. “We become prisoners of its cold and snow. Cabin fever and alcoholism are often considered northern diseases, yet winter doesn’t have to be this way. No one can take the cold away, but we can add color and cheer to our lifestyles, buildings and natural surroundings. We must be ready to accept what we are for a significant part of our civic lives: northerners in winter cities.”

Winter has various effects on different countries. In West Germany, for instance, construction activity drops by 42.3 per cent during the cold months, while more hardy Canadians build only 14.6 per cent less than in summer. Despite their climates, northern countries retain huge advantages such as possessing 64 per cent of world reserves of fossil fuel, but some unlikely areas are more economically developed than others. Siberia, for example, has 3.5 million more people than Cana-

da, even though less than 10 per cent of its terrain has been geologically surveyed.

The Edmonton seminar heard news of such startling innovations as a Swiss invention called verglimit, which, when mixed with highway construction material, makes roads significantly less slippery. Many cities, including Oslo and Stockholm, are installing community heating systems, some of them using the heat generated

by refuse incinerator plants. An experimental Swedish highrise is heated almost entirely by the transfer of surplus energy from lighting, office machines and the body heat radiated by its occupants. The Alberta-based Ice Age Co. is busy mining glacier ice to supply what its officials call “40,000year-old, pure (‘created long before pollution’) ice” to upscale southern wateringholes.

For his part, American futurist John Naisbitt told the meeting that “winter

cities need to diversify into biotechnology, robotics and information industries.” Added Naisbitt: “Cold climates serve as catalysts for innovation and creativity, particularly as new methods of protection from, and control of, the winter climate offer incentives for new business development.” The Canadian company that has most successfully exploited winter is Bombardier Inc., whose founder, Joseph-Armand Bombardier, introduced the snowmobile (which he called the Ski-Doo) in 1959. The Montreal firm has since sold almost three million of the vehicles, and it is one of only four (out of 110) snowmobile manufacturers surviving in the business. Said Bombardier president Raymond Royer: “The sport is now structured and disciplined. Snowmobilers are organized into clubs supported by local governments and play a crucial role in maintaining the 300,000 km of groomed trails to which their vehicles are restricted. The new machines are also more quiet than before: it would take 282 snowmobiles of the 1988 type to make as much noise as one 1970 model.”

It is an awful thought, but most of the conference delegates seemed to regard the 5.2-million-square-foot West Edmonton Mall as a prototypical escape from winter. (Last year the megamail attracted 9.14 million tourists, making it the third-most-popular attraction in North America after Walt Disney World and Disneyland, which welcomed about 20 million and 10 million tourists respectively.) The Ghermazian brothers, who own the mall, are currently considering 16 proposals to put up similar behemoths in other locations.

Arni Fullerton, an Edmonton architect who is deeply involved in the Winter Cities movement, wants to celebrate the millennium in the year 2000 by opening permanent research facilities that would turn the Alberta city into what he calls “the capital of the winter world.” That may or may not happen, but the idea of discussing winter as a creative rather than destructive force is becoming accepted. Said Naisbitt: “Just as air conditioning made hot climates in Houston, Jakarta and Manila attractive for year-round living, the range of technologies that are being brought to bear on building design, energy use, transportation, clothing and recreation has equalized the negative effects of a cold climate.”

Many are cold, but few are frozen.