Silicon Valley’s dream of a floating, isolated city might actually happen
Melia Robinson | 5.10.2016
Randolph Hencken spends most of his day on Skype and Slack, talking with business partners around the globe who share his vision of an isolated, “floating city” — a literal island unto itself.
When that idea becomes reality, Hencken, executive director of the Seasteading Institute, says not much will change. He will still be stuck behind a desk.
“The difference would be, I would probably start my day going kitesurfing,” Hencken said over the phone, adding that he would eat a lot more fish and breadfruit.
Those kitesurfing dreams could one day come true. The Seasteading Institute tells Business Insider it has found a partner, French Polynesia, to help build a floating city in the South Pacific. A formal agreement, which is likely to be passed, according to Hencken, now awaits the signature of President Édouard Fritch.
If things go as planned, the group may break ground on a seastead off the coast of the island chain, a territory of France, as early as 2017. The new city could consist of two or three platforms that each cover half a football field and house 30 people. Should the pilot program prove successful, more platforms would be added.
The Seasteading Institute, cofounded by billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel and Google software engineer Patri Friedman (the grandson of economist Milton Friedman) sent waves through Silicon Valley when it was created in 2008. The group set out to develop a floating city that would serve as a permanent, politically autonomous settlement.
Thiel, who invested some $1.7 million in the project, envisioned a sort of libertarian utopia.
“The United States Constitution had things you could do at the beginning that you couldn’t do later. So the question is, can you go back to the beginning of things? How do you start over?” Thiel, who resigned from the group’s board in 2011 and continued to give financial support through 2014, told Details Magazine in 2011.
The group’s ambitions are thought by some Silicon Valley influencers to be too wild, financially burdensome, and elitist to generate real results. But the new relationship with French Polynesia shows there’s hope yet.
Fritch is currently reviewing a memorandum of understanding, a document that would cement the government’s intent to work with the Seasteading Institute. The government has not begun drafting the legislation that would permit the seastead’s development.
Hencken envisions the floating city as a rig that’s small but self-sufficient. Residents shop for food on the seastead and hop on a speedboat to complete more substantial errands on the neighboring French Polynesian islands. Each housing platform would be modular, so if a person were to grow tired of life on the seastead, they could simple unhook their home and sail away.
The starting cost of construction will be about $30 million, though that’s subject to change, Hencken says. Each additional platform sets the group back $15 million. The institute hopes to raise money from a handful of investors (whom Hencken declined to name), future residents, and interested parties in the maritime industry.
Business Insider could not verify how close the Seasteading Institute has come to its fundraising goal. The organization raised over $27,000 via a crowdfunding campaign in 2013, but Hencken says it was used to fund a project implementation report from the design firm DeltaSync.
For years, the Seasteading Institute wanted to set up camp in international waters, without any connection to an existing nation.
Eventually, the group determined the costs were too extravagant. The United Nations grants every member state economic and environmental control from its shoreline to 200 nautical miles out, which means the institute would have to build at least that distance away. Such isolation raises the cost of operations and transportation to get people on and off the seastead.
The institute crunched the numbers and thought it would take $225 million to build and $8 million to operate annually. So the group looked to team up with a host nation.
French Polynesia fit the bill. The island chain is an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles, and it has a fiber cable that runs underwater to Hawaii, providing the same tier of bandwidth that techie islanders might expect. Plus, rising sea levels threaten French Polynesia’s very existence — making a proposal to build new land appealing to the government.
While French Polynesia would not impose a regulatory body on its floating neighbors, Hencken expects some rules to spill over. Residents would be required to obey numerous French Polynesian and French laws, most likely those related to crime and environmental standards.
The islands would also provide space and resources for construction. (Hencken insists the institute would not accept any subsidies.) This new approach to seasteading could allow the institute to reduce costs and stay connected without sacrificing independence.
Still, there are numerous challenges. Hencken rattles off a few, including developing a foundation that can withstand seawater for 100 years, and establishing a special economic zone, where business and trade laws on the seastead differ from those in French Polynesia.
Hearing Hencken describe the logistical and architectural feats required to build the floating city, which he hopes to complete by 2020, it sounds easier just to buy a plot of vacant land.
“All the land is claimed,” Hencken said. He said he believes “the ocean is our last place on Earth” where the seafaring pioneers would be free from the rules of established governments.
But that doesn’t mean the seasteaders would be isolated.
When Hencken, who previously worked as a drug policy reform activist, pictures his future life on the island, he imagines buying a speedboat so he can take a yoga class or buy his wife an expensive dinner in nearby French Polynesia.
“If somebody wants isolation, they can go buy a sailboat right now and be out at sea for months at a time. Go be a hermit,” Hencken said. “Seasteading is for people who want to engage in the marketplace of ideas, the marketplace of commerce, and the marketplace of government.”