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All shipshape

Norway

The pressure to find oil and gas in the depths of the world’s wildest oceans is having a dramatic impact on ship design. The Ulstein shipyard in the fjords of Sunnmøre, Norway, is producing vessels that seem to defy all traditional shipbuilding logic. Gone is the elegant prow of the ocean liner, or even the snub nose of the tug: these dramatically sculpted ships, which have echoes of Viking vessels, look more like giant grasshoppers.

The five-year quest to create a craft than can operate in the most punishing conditions – while protecting crew and equipment – resulted in the boat’s extraordinary appearance. That locust-like face is in fact an X-Bow, designed to curve backwards sharply. This innovation helps vessels cut through rough seas, reduces slamming from the waves and almost completely eliminates sea spray on deck.

For crews used to being thrown around in the North Sea, the effects are extraordinary – now they can focus on their work, rather than on simply staying upright. And when they do have time to rest, they can get proper sleep: as the crashing of the waves diminishes, so does the thunderous noise that goes with it. Well-rested crews are less likely to suffer accidents, and in an industry often accused of a poor environmental record there is another key benefit: improved performance in all sea conditions helps cut fuel consumption.

The development of the X-Bow has also helped sustain Sunnmøre’s reputation as one of the most innovative and entrepreneurial centres for marine industries in Norway. The vessels, which cost between €36.5m and €78m, sustain the world-beating reputation of a company that started 90 years ago – as a workshop repairing fishermen’s boats.

Island of opportunity

Iceland

What do you do when you have a population hovering around a quarter of a million, your economy’s on the cool and your biggest tenant has just moved out? While Iceland’s buying spree has not let up just yet (it is now next to impossible to spend a day shopping in the UK and not venture into a retailer owned by an Icelandic consortium), the streets of Reykjavik aren’t as hot as they were six months ago and the US Air Force has packed up its fighter planes and gone home.

Keflavik is a lonely, windblown place on the best of days but even more so now that pilots, support staff and their families have been redeployed. But where others might see a collection of low-slung, unloved buildings, too few take-offs and landings and the worrying potential for a spike in local suicide rates, Monocle has spotted an opportunity.

With the US an increasingly difficult place to get into and flying a generally annoying experience, unless you’re doing it on a private aircraft, Keflavik should be turning itself into the biggest building site in the middle of the Atlantic and developing a compromise conference facility for European businessmen who don’t want to deal with the charms of US immigration officers and American entrepreneurs who cannot be bothered to drag themselves all the way across the Atlantic. Dream with us for a moment – think exquisitely designed conference facilities, a range of hotels, an outstanding thermal spa, a duty-free luxury shopping village and money and time saved in the process. Time-pressed Credit Suisse broker in New York, double-booked agent in Paris and the Iceland economy – everyone’s a winner.

Urban scrawl

Sweden

John Erixon is in Milan to tell a city beset by urban scrawl just why they require the services of his 23-year-old graffiti removal business. “Europe is terrible,” he says, “Berlin is infamous for it; French trains are covered in it; even little Switzerland has a problem.”

In 1983 the pioneering Swedish businessman crossed the Atlantic to bring New York the first tanning salons it had ever seen. While turning the Big Apple brown, Erixon found himself surrounded by graffiti and set up a company called All Remove, to wash it away.

The physics were simple: wash graffiti from wall and apply wax. If graffiti-ed over, wax renders spray-paint soluble and ready to be washed away again with clean water. Re-apply wax. Repeat until offender gets exhibition at MoMA. Or something like that.

The USP in All Remove’s business plan is that it offers “a kind of insurance against graffiti” for which customers sign up for 36 months of cover, which guarantees an anti-graffiti operative turning up with a power hose and a tub of wax within 36 hours. If not? A month free.

“A guarantee is a good way to get customers,” says Erixon. For a graffiti-buster, New York in the 1980s was like Christmas: “We started making money very early – every school, transport authority, local council signed up.”

After an extraordinary expansion, Erixon sold the US business in 1986 and the allied European businesses during the 1990s. The Swedish business, Klottrets Fiende No 1 (“Graffiti’s Enemy No 1”), remains and is worth 500m kroner (€55m). “That’s the equivalent of just one borough in New York,” says Erixon, without a trace of regret. While currently negotiating to rid Milan of its amateur expressionism, Erixon splits his time between Sweden and the golf courses of southern Spain.

“Where there’s shit, there’s money,” confirms Erixon. And a tidy profit.

Talk of the town

Tokyo

When it comes to big building projects, Japanese developers are in a league of their own. The endless delays, excuses and recriminations that dog construction efforts elsewhere are unthinkable in Tokyo. From the moment construction begins, with the blessing of a Shinto priest and the ceremonial opening of a sake barrel, it’s all systems go, with high-profile architects, top graphic designers and specially commissioned theme tunes all in place. So no one should be surprised that Mitsui Fudosan, Japan’s biggest property company, will open Tokyo Midtown, its €2.3bn, 10 hectare city-within-a-city, at the end of March, on schedule and just four years after it was announced.

With over 500 apartments, 130 shops and restaurants, 184,000 sq m of office space, the city’s tallest tower, a five-star hotel, an art museum and 40 per cent green space, Tokyo Midtown is one of the biggest private construction projects the city has ever seen. Since people started talking about redeveloping White City in west London, Tokyo has seen the fruition of three giant projects: Shiodome, Roppongi Hills, and now Midtown – not to mention smaller central Tokyo developments such as the regeneration of the Marunouchi area around Tokyo station, and developments like Omotesando Hills and Coredo Nihonbashi. In April Mitsubishi Estate will open its 38-storey Shin-Marunouchi building, an office and retail tower that is anticipating 20 million visitors in its first year.

Tokyo Midtown isn’t Mitsui’s only large-scale project – they’ve opened three big shopping centres in Tokyo in the last six months, and a vast complex in Akasaka is due to open in early 2008. This will have a 39-storey office tower, a theatre, and a building for the TV channel Tokyo Broadcasting System.

Tall stories

Dubai, UAE

How can you tell just by looking at a city’s skyline how its businesses are faring? Just count the cranes. “They are an immediate indicator of the state of the economy,” says Leigh Sparrow of vertikal.net, the UK-based online magazine for the crane cognoscenti.

Perhaps that’s why some cities tell tall stories about their populations of tower-cranes (that’s the giant variety that stays in one position on site for the duration of a project). One Gulf newspaper boasted recently that Dubai has 24 per cent of all the world’s tower cranes toiling away.

Sparrow doubts that. “I think they have perhaps 5 to 7 per cent.” He also points out that Shanghai has as many – about 1,200 – and that Spain is the true tower-crane hub. Good news for key players Liebherr, Manitowoc and Potain.

With demand so high around the world, tower-crane prices can run to €2m, and the second-hand market is booming: the cranes being used to erect the Burj Dubai – set to become the world’s tallest skyscraper – were previously used on the Petronas Towers in Malaysia.

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