Seasteading: a Silicon Valley pipedream or the future of our children?
Shura Collinson | November 28, 2016 3:13pm
Peter Thiel, a German-American billionaire entrepreneur and investor, caused a near-tidal wave of outrage ahead of the recent U.S. presidential election when he set himself apart from most of Silicon Valley by coming out in favour of Donald Trump.
But victory was on Trump’s side, and Thiel has since been named to the executive committee of the president elect’s transition team. It was hardly the first time Thiel – a co-founder of PayPal and partner in the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator – had backed a winner: he was the first outside investor in Facebook, and remains on its board of directors.
Nor was Trump’s bid for the presidency the first ambitious and seemingly doomed project that Thiel has thrown his support behind. He has funded a startup devoted to making nuclear fusion viable, and in 2008 co-founded the Seasteading Institute, a non-profit think tank based in Silicon Valley whose goal is the creation of floating cities.
The dream of the Seasteading Institute was presented in Moscow last month at the Open Innovations forum held at the Skolkovo Technopark, where author Joe Quirk took to the main stage to show artists’ impressions of utopian floating cities in calm waters that were a far cry from the Moscow snow and slush outside.
Seasteading isn’t just about the life aquatic for pleasure’s sake, or about escaping rising sea levels (though the latter is also a key incentive). Its proponents seek emancipation from government regulation and restrictions in order to go about their work unhindered and to test new ideas for government.
“Seasteaders are a diverse global community of nautical engineers, aquaculture farmers, maritime attorneys, medical researchers, security personnel and investors, and we plan to build politically independent cities that float on the ocean,” said Quirk, who together with Patri Friedman, another founder of the Seasteading Institute, has written a book due out in March titled “Seasteading: How Ocean Cities Could Change the World.”
“The greatest and most important business opportunity is startup governance, startup countries,” said Quirk. “If you want a platform for governance innovation, it’s time to break away and try something new. So my colleagues and I at the Seasteading Institute set out to start a business to create the Silicon Valley of the sea.”
An aquatic testing ground
The “seavangelists,” as Quirk describes himself, aren’t the first group of entrepreneurs to have called for the creation of an unfettered space for inventors and scientists. Google co-founder Larry Page has also said the tech community should be able to “set aside a small part of the world” to allow experimentation, while others have called for Silicon Valley to become an independent state.
Quirk is confident that the freedom to innovate and experiment will attract buyers.
“Business people want new jurisdictions for innovations: build it and they will come. Technologists and countries will come to us,” he believes.
The business model for the seasteads is that the creators would sell the real estate that they create, as well as stakes in companies that will operate on them.
If freedom from regulation is not enough, there will be other advantages to a life on the waves: a cheaper cost of living, a lower risk of crime and advantageous tax rates, Quirk argues. The rationale is based on the experience of cruise ships, which, he notes, just keep getting bigger and bigger.
“Cruise ships are floating cities that are de facto self-governing. They are semi-independent pioneers of the blue frontier: They dock in one nation, fly the flag of another nation, and pick up passengers from another,” says Quirk.
The captain of a cruise ship, argues Quirk, is “a de facto dictator of his own global island,” in that he can lock up passengers who misbehave towards other people on the ship.
“Park a dozen of these floating skyscrapers next to each other, and you’ve got the rudiments of an aquapolis,” said Quirk.
French Polynesian pioneer
The vision frequently sounds more like science fiction than a plan for the future, and there is no shortage of sceptics of seasteading. Media reports have described the Seasteading Institute’s vision as “a secessionist daydream” and “techie island fantasies,” and the topic of seasteading has its own page on rationalwiki.org, a website devoted to debunking pseudoscience and “crank ideas.”
There, the authors point to the fact that previous attempts to set up autonomous strongholds in the sea have generally failed miserably, such as the Republic of Minerva set up on reclaimed land in the South Pacific in 1972 (swiftly dispersed by the government of nearby Tonga), the Republic of the Island of Roses founded on a manmade platform in the Adriatic Sea in 1968 (blown up by the Italian Navy) and Operation Atlantis, a large ship that sank in the Bahamas in 1971.
But the Seasteading Institute may have the advantage of having agreed first with a host nation before getting to work on its utopian dream.
In September, representatives of the Seasteading Institute visited French Polynesia at the invitation of the nation’s president Édouard Fritch, and the organisation is now preparing to sign a memorandum of understanding on the creation of the world’s first seastead in its territorial waters, according to Quirk.
“If the memorandum is agreed upon and signed, we plan to create an environmentally sound, self-sustaining floating island starting with two or three island platforms,” he said.
“These floating communities will adapt organically to sea level change, and they will offer significant regulatory autonomy so people can experiment with new societies,” explained Quirk.
“French Polynesia has about 50 uninhabited islands, so we asked them to legislate one as a Special Economic Zone. Simultaneously, we build a floating community inside the natural wave-breaker of an atoll, and declare it a Sea Zone, with a little more legal autonomy [than on land], unprecedented in the world. Our floating village, as it profits and grows, will leave territorial waters and go out into international waters,” he said.
The idea of ocean cities has also attracted interest and financial support from members of the public. More than 1,000 people have donated to the Seasteading Institute, according to Quirk, and when the non-profit organisation launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in 2013, it raised more than the $20,000 it was looking for and which the Thiel Foundation had pledged to match.
Over 3,000 potential residents have already filled out a detailed survey saying what they’d want to see in an ocean city and what they’re willing to pay for it, said Quirk.
If the ideological inspiration for seasteads comes partly from cruise ships, the technical plans – for the Seasteading Institute has done more than simply talk about the prospect of living on the sea – have their roots in oil rigs, which are also getting bigger, and where workers already live for up to half of the year.
“An oil rig is basically a city block without all the frills, and if you take away the incredibly expensive infrastructure of drilling on the ocean floor for fossil fuel, it gets a lot cheaper,” said Quirk.
In French Polynesia, the institute envisages a series of floating platforms, each about 50 metres wide, constructed of reinforced concrete with basalt rebar, which doesn’t corrode in salt water.
It will be, he says, “like a floating Venice,” and the platforms will be able to be locked together for more stability if the sea is unsettled.
The prototype for the floating island project has already been built, says Quirk: the solar-powered sustainable Floating Pavilion in Rotterdam made by Blue 21, which describes itself as a social enterprise devoted to creating cities on water.
That’s not to say that the engineering can simply be transferred to French Polynesia, however. The plan for the first seastead relies on a floating wave breaker which has not been invented yet, Quirk admits, and would necessitate shipping cement all the way from New Zealand.
There are also legal issues to be addressed in the Seasteading Institute’s plan, including differences between French law and French Polynesian law, according to Quirk, and a month after his talk at the Open Innovations forum, no signing of a memorandum has yet been announced.
But proponents of building cities on the sea, like Thiel, are unlikely to be deterred by naysayers. After all, a year ago, there were many who believed that Trump had zero chance of winning the Republican candidacy, never mind the presidency.
Quirk for one is adamant that seasteading is the future, telling the audience in Moscow:
“Throw out the calendars, because this is month two of the aquatic age, and your children are going to be living on floating cities.”