Seasteading Movement Seeks To Build Floating Cities
Oceanfront property is some of the most sought-after and expensive in the world. Nearly 25 years ago, the median value of waterfront properties was 64% more than the median value of all homes, according to Zillow. About five years ago, the difference was more like 116% – and that was while the housing market was still in recovery mode. You might be shocked (or not) to learn that Malibu has the priciest waterfront, with the median home price at $4 million. But there are even properties in New Jersey where just fronting the water will cost you $1.5 million or more. That sort of sticker shock has forced some to either head to higher ground – Colorado has had one of the hottest property markets until recently – or find a cheaper place to surf where no one can tell you what to do. Welcome to the seasteading movement.
What is Seasteading?
That’s right: There’s a movement by a group of aqua pioneers that wants to build eco-friendly, self-governing floating cities called seasteading. It’s not just about introducing a new disruptive technology, but disrupting society itself. At least that’s the sales pitch. The idea is that these floating cities will be technologically, financially, and legally sustainable and independent. They would probably leverage some of fintech’s more buzzy and esoteric technologies like blockchain and cryptocurrencies. We would expect that they would employ solar (maybe even floating solar?), wind, and other green technologies in their design, with more advanced seasteads doubling as smart cities. Maybe they could harvest some of their food with aquaculture, and invest in desalination technologies.
While repackaged by Silicon Valley as the libertarian tech entrepreneur’s utopia, seasteading as both a concept and a practice has been around for a while. Architects who are just failed cartoonists have come up with some futuristic-looking designs that might not seem out of place in another Peter Jackson Tolkien film:
At the other end is the Principality of Sealand, a nation of sorts founded circa 1967 on an offshore platform near the coast of Suffolk in the North Sea. Apparently, the descended royalty of Atlantis usurped a pirate radio station, and declared sovereignty in 1975. Everyone pretty much ignores the group, which was led by a former British Army major until his recent death at 91.
The Modern Seasteading Movement
Silicon Valley claimed ownership of the modern seasteading movement, when in 2008 a former Google engineer and grandson of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman named Patri Friedman floated the idea of a literal startup nation that had nothing to do with the Chosen People. On the other hand, it did, because Friedman proposed that each of these floating city-states would govern itself based on its own set of principles. Eventually, he founded The Seasteading Institute with the help (and reportedly $500,000) of PayPal co-founder (and archetypal tech tycoon libertarian), Peter Thiel. The money paid for designs and the other big-picture accoutrements of any endeavor that proposes to change society for a price. Now you can really live in your own bubble floating on the sea if you’re willing to pay for it. There’s a haiku in there somewhere.
At least two companies have taken up the challenge of building a new Atlantis.
Piracy at Sea?
Ocean Builders is a “team of engineering-focused entrepreneurs” that is “merely building the homes for the future seasteaders to live in.” Not much additional information on the company’s background. It takes its inspiration directly from oil rigs as a way to stay safely away from the chop of the deep ocean, calling it the spar design, which looks like a gazebo on a stick:
Ocean Builders actually built one of those things off the coast of Thailand in what it claimed was international waters for a couple of seasteaders. Unfortunately, the Thai government considers them invaders, and they’re now wanted fugitives, facing death or life in prison. Neither option sounds like utopia to us. The Thai navy reportedly towed away the seastead.
As the recent event in Thailand has been all over the news lately, it’s brought lots of free exposure to the idea of seasteading and also helps validate the idea – or not. The technology exists, given that modern oil rigs can operate with no problem at offshore sites where the ocean depths can reach 10,000 feet. The question is, can it prove to be economically viable if we re-purpose oil rig technology for co-working spaces? At least one more company thinks it can.
Looking for a New Home
Founded in 2017, the team leading Blue Frontiers seems pretty diverse, including “the executive director and seavangelist of The Seasteading Institute, a Belarusian businessman, a former Polynesian government minister, and a French entrepreneur.” Based on those connections, it’s no surprise that the company went the more conservative route and opted to build its first seastead in the calm waters (literally and politically) of French Polynesia. The designs show what appears to be a closed-loop ecological system for recycling waste to support food and water systems (as opposed to flushing the poo with the dolphins, as Ocean Builders says):
The designs themselves look like a floating golf course:
Unfortunately, the project appears to be in limbo, after locals protested the memorandum of agreement between their government and Blue Frontiers, according to a story in CityLab.
At this point, it’s clear that seasteading is half Silicon Valley marketing and half college philosophy class 101. While we’re sure there are futurists, engineers, and other impassioned people who are genuinely trying to bring these concepts to fruition, the seasteading movement is a mission without a need at present. Whether you want to consider these floating cities as lifeboats in the coming climate apocalypse or luxury condos with clothing optional communities, the business case to spend what would have to be hundreds of millions of dollars – if not billions – for a floating Abu Dhabi is just not there. A couple of budding entrepreneurs couldn’t even pull off a luxury music festival on an island, so not sure how we’re going to rebuild society at sea. Let’s just shoot a few millionaires into space for now and see how that goes.
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