Floating Cities: Innovative Living Free of Traditional Power Structures?

By October 27, 2014

Designing artificial islands and floating platforms on which pioneering innovators could build their own city-states is one of the more radical propositions among the general trend towards creating new innovative work spaces.

Interest in ‘seasteading platforms’ – basically small cities floating on the sea – has been revived now that a number of Internet billionaires, including Peter Thiel and Larry Page, have become attracted to the idea of building communities that will enable people to escape from the restrictions of United States legislation. Google founder Larry Page argues that US Federal law is in fact seriously hampering certain areas of theoretical and applied research and has expressed interest in creating a space where research could be carried out free of these constraints. To such thinkers, ‘seasteads’ installed in international waters could well provide a means of evading the tendency of US regulation to clamp down on the more progressive notions and disruptive business ideas for which California has become famous – witness the struggles Google has faced to push ahead with its driverless Google Car and the fight Airbnb continues to have with the hotel lobby. Those libertarians who back the floating city concept think it would be a good thing if statehood were a matter of international economic competition, with countries having to offer the best possible living and working conditions to attract high-potential citizens. However, most people would view such projects as utopian pipe-dreams, and even many keen proponents suggest gradual, iterative progress towards the construction of artificial islands way out in international waters where entrepreneurs from the whole world could experiment freely.

Startups as autonomous governments?

A key driver of this trend is the non-profit organisation Seasteading Institute set up by Patri Friedman, the grandson of the economist Milton Friedman, which is working to enthuse Silicon Valley philanthropists about the idea of an entrepreneurs’ paradise located outside US Federal jurisdiction. Leading tech guru Peter Thiel has already come on board as an investor in the project.
Patri Friedman understands the importance of testing out a number of different blueprints for a sustainable floating city. Trials on a small scale are due to start soon in San Francisco Bay with platforms designed and constructed by DeltaSync. The Seasteading Institute publicity material stresses the need to balance physical comfort against the hoped-for increase in freedom. Friedman admits that for the moment it seems more reasonable to plan to install a floating city relatively close to land, i.e. in the territorial waters of an existing coastal country, so as to be able to use local logistics. The Seasteading Institute-driven floating city concept, whose design was completed in 2013, is based on 2,000 square metre, four or five-sided, modular platforms which can be attached to one another. With eleven modules, a structure costing an estimated $167 million could accommodate close to 300 people. The structure is designed to be highly mobile so that the floating city could be moved if there any difficulty arose with the host country. In fact mobility is a basic principle of the entire project, and initially there was debate about whether the developers should simply use cruise ships, at around $10 million each, as their floating base instead of the modular floating platform structure at well over $100 million.

Building a smart floating city

One major advantage of a floating city is that urban planners would be able to start from scratch. Connections, cables and buildings could all be constructed on a homogenous pattern, in sharp contrast to those attractive historic towns where regulations require streets and buildings to be preserved in their traditional form.
However, autarky is not a primary goal of the Seasteading Institute. Patri Friedman stresses that “autonomy from a resource point of view is not a priority.” Each floating city could for example specialise in a given production sector, capitalising on its comparative advantages depending on its geographical location. The platforms will be equipped to generate their own power from renewable, sustainable energy sources but supporters point out that the first floating cities will not aim to be entirely self-sufficient and will engage in trade in order to supply themselves.
The platforms have been designed with four strict imperatives in mind: modular structure, storm resistance, cost savings for residents coupled with the right level of comfort and convenience. So it would appear that the traditional key objectives of the ‘smart city’ – i.e. resource management optimisation and empowerment of citizens in the running of their own community – are not among the Seasteading Institute’s central concerns.
Aside from the putative tax advantages, the Seasteading Institute promoters have a number of ideas for monetising their floating cities and making it worthwhile for pioneers to come on board the scheme.  One of these is medical tourism. As the floating city will be operating outside the legislation of the countries of origin of most residents, it might provide a way for patients to undergo treatment which is currently not permissible at home.

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