Float­ing cities be­gin to take shape


NEW YORK: It is an idea at once au­da­cious and sim­plis­tic, a seem­ing im­pos­si­bil­ity that is now tech­no­log­i­cally within reach: cities float­ing in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters — in­de­pen­dent, self-sus­tain­ing na­tion-states at sea.

Long the stuff of sci­ence fic­tion, “seast­eading” has in re­cent years ma­tured from pure fan­tasy into some­thing ap­proach­ing re­al­ity, and there are now com­pa­nies, aca­demics, ar­chi­tects and even a govern­ment work­ing to­gether on a pro­to­type by 2020.

At the cen­tre of the ef­fort is the Seast­eading In­sti­tute, a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion based in San Fran­cisco. Founded in 2008, the group has spent about a decade try­ing to con­vince the pub­lic that seast­eading is not an en­tirely crazy idea.

That has not al­ways been easy. At times, the story of the seast­eading move­ment seems to lapse into self par­ody. Burn­ing Man gath­er­ings in the Ne­vada desert are an in­spi­ra­tion, while ref­er­ences to the Kevin Cost­ner film Water­world are in­evitable.

The project is be­ing par­tially funded by an ini­tial coin of­fer­ing, a new con­cept sweep­ing Sil­i­con Val­ley and Wall Street in which money can be raised by cre­at­ing and sell­ing vir­tual cur­rency.

And yet in 2017, with sea lev­els ris­ing be­cause of cli­mate change and es­tab­lished po­lit­i­cal or­ders around the world tee­ter­ing un­der the strains of pop­ulism, seast­eading can seem not just prac­ti­cal, but down­right ap­peal­ing.

Ear­lier this year, the govern­ment of French Poly­ne­sia agreed to let the Seast­eading In­sti­tute be­gin test­ing in its wa­ters. Con­struc­tion could be­gin soon, and the first float­ing build­ings — the nu­cleus of a city — might be in­hab­it­able in just a few years.

“If you could have a float­ing city, it would es­sen­tially be a startup coun­try,” said Joe Quirk, pres­i­dent of the Seast­eading In­sti­tute. “We can cre­ate a huge di­ver­sity of gov­ern­ments for a huge di­ver­sity of peo­ple.”

The term seast­eading has been around since at least 1981, when avid sailor Ken Neumeyer wrote a book, Sail­ing the Farm, that dis­cussed liv­ing sus­tain­ably aboard a sail­boat.

Two decades later, the idea at­tracted the at­ten­tion of Pa­tri Fried­man, grand­son of econ­o­mist Mil­ton Fried­man, who seized on the no­tion.

Fried­man, a free­thinker who had founded “in­ten­tional com­mu­ni­ties” while in col­lege, was liv­ing in Sil­i­con Val­ley at the time and was in­spired to think big. So in 2008 he quit his job at Google and co­founded the Seast­eading In­sti­tute with seed fund­ing from Peter Thiel, the lib­er­tar­ian bil­lion­aire.

In a 2009 es­say, Thiel de­scribed seast­eading as a long shot, but one worth tak­ing. “Be­tween cy­berspace and outer space lies the pos­si­bil­ity of set­tling the oceans.”

The in­vest­ment from Thiel gen­er­ated a flurry of me­dia at­ten­tion, but for sev­eral years af­ter its found­ing, the Seast­eading In­sti­tute did not amount to much.

A pro­to­type planned for San Fran­cisco Bay in 2010 never ma­te­ri­alised, and seast­eading be­came a punch line to jokes about the techno-utopian fan­tasies gone awry, even be­com­ing a plot­line in the HBO series Sil­i­con Val­ley.

But over the years, the core idea be­hind seast­eading — that a float­ing city in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters might give peo­ple a chance to re­design so­ci­ety and govern­ment — steadily at­tracted more ad­her­ents.

In 2011, Quirk, an au­thor, was at Burn­ing Man when he first heard about seast­eading. He was in­trigued by the idea and spent the next year learn­ing about the con­cept.

For Quirk, Burn­ing Man, where in­no­va­tors gather, was not just his in­tro­duc­tion to seast­eading. It was a model for the kind of so­ci­ety that seast­eading might en­able.

“Any­one who goes to Burn­ing Man mul­ti­ple times be­come fas­ci­nated by the way that rules don’t ob­serve their usual pa­ram­e­ters,” he said.

The next year, he was back at Burn­ing Man speak­ing about seast­eading in a ge­o­desic dome. Soon af­ter that, he be­came in­volved with the Seast­eading In­sti­tute, took over as pres­i­dent and, with Fried­man, wrote Seast­eading: How Float­ing Na­tions Will Re­store The En­vi­ron­ment, En­rich The Poor, Cure The Sick and Lib­er­ate Hu­man­ity From Politi­cians.

Seast­eading is more than a fan­ci­ful hobby to Quirk and oth­ers in­volved in the ef­fort. It is, in their minds, an op­por­tu­nity to re­write the rules that gov­ern so­ci­ety.

“Gov­ern­ments just don’t get bet­ter,” Quirk said. “They’re stuck in pre­vi­ous cen­turies. That’s be­cause land in­cen­tivises a vi­o­lent monopoly to con­trol it.”

No land, no more con­flict, the think­ing goes.


A ren­der­ing of the Float­ing Is­land Project in French Poly­ne­sia. Blue Fron­tiers will build and op­er­ate the is­lands, with the goal of build­ing about a dozen by 2020, in­clud­ing homes, ho­tels, of­fices and restau­rants at a cost of about $60 mil­lion.

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