Why People Are Building Entire Cities On The Ocean

Would you live in a floating home? The reality is closer than youthink.

Why People Are Building Entire Cities On The Ocean

Duke Harten

Artist’s rendering of the Floating Island Project.|The Seasteading Institute

Would you live in a floating home? The reality is closer than you think.

In 1967, a British guy named Roy Bates declared independence from his motherland while living aboard an abandoned British naval fort. “Sealand” became Bates’ royal seat — he even referred to his wife as “Princess Joan.” Roy’s new micro-nation was technically located in international waters and he claimed that it satisfied all four requirements of the Montevideo Convention to be considered a sovereign state. It had a permanent population, territory, government and the capacity to negotiate with other states.

Twenty years later, in 1987, Britain extended its boundaries several miles into the Atlantic, which brought Sealand into the Queen’s fold. Roy’s son Michael shrugs at this, claiming Sealand had satisfied Montevideo’s requirements long before the English expansion. Even though Britain rolls its eyes at the micro-nation, Michael Bates doesn’t care, saying:

“We’ve had the German ambassador visit at one point to discuss something: that was de facto recognition. We’ve had communication with the president of France many years ago, but we have never asked for recognition and we don’t feel we need it.”

Whether or not you think Sealand is the real deal, it raises some interesting questions about the possibilities of hosting sovereign states in international waters. What if the Bates family had access to billions of dollars in funding? What if they had thousands of like-minded friends? In other words, if we scale Sealand up by 50, or 100, we’ve got a settlement not so easily ignored by the heavy hitters.

What Roy Bates did is known as “Seasteading”; picture a floating city adrift in international waters, free from the strangling fingers of government regulation. Such a place would have to have its own political mechanism, self-sustaining infrastructure, and mountains of independent funding. Roy’s island, for instance, might be independent by the letter of the law, but not by its spirit. What would it look like for someone to truly build a self-sustaining nation-state out in the middle of the ocean?

Let’s take a look at two major players who are gearing up for what they see as the inevitable transition into cities-at-sea.

The Venus Project

The Venus Project is not dedicated wholly to seasteading — rather, they’re an organization that aims to enact worldwide social change by transitioning from a money-based global economy to a resource-based economy. In other words, they’re utopian, pie-in-the-sky dreamers.

But as long as we’re exploring seasteading, it can’t hurt to see how those dreamers envision floating cities. Venus describes its seasteading plans like this:

“Many of these ocean cities may serve as oceanographic universities that maintain the ecological balance of marine systems. Others will maintain sea farms that will cultivate many forms of marine life. They could also be used as a new resource for mining the relatively untapped resources of the oceans without disturbing its ecology.”

They add that other seasteads may be used to help preserve the ocean’s equilibrium and to empty the sea of pollutant and radioactive materials.

Supposedly, the structures will be built on (or near) land, then tugged out to sea and anchored. They’d be “self-maintaining and fully automated” — though the Project doesn’t say how — and could be used for fish farming and national flood control thanks to “mega-hydrological” systems. It’s all very vague.

The Seasteading Institute

Moving up the ladder towards a modicum of realism, we arrive at The Seasteading Institute. These folks have more concrete plans than the Venus Project. They realize that the largest barrier to entry for seasteading is the high cost of open ocean engineering. To that end, they place a lot of faith in “incrementalism”:

“Seasteading is an audacious vision that will take decades to fully realize. We strongly believe in incrementalism — breaking this huge vision down into manageable, practical steps. Our current strategy centers around the Floating City Project, through which we are crafting practical plans for the world’s first seastead, designed around the needs of actual potential residents, and located within a “host” nation’s protected, territorial waters.”

The Floating City Project is already underway, thanks to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the government of French Polynesia. The Institute plans to “break sea” on the project as early as Spring 2018, contingent on the completion of three requisite documents as outlined in the MOU. These are:

  1. A study of the economic impact the endeavor would have on French Polynesians.
  2. Preparation of an environmental framework report and integration plan to require that the floating islands are a positive contribution to the environment.
  3. A legal framework for the Seazone, a legal regime incorporating the best practices of over 4000 Special Economic Zones around the world.

Should those things be satisfied, the first colony would potentially attract “the middle class of developed nations,” particularly “pioneers and innovators.” The first colony would be roughly the size of a soccer field and would expand organically (whatever that means).

The Institute’s executive director, Randolph Hencken, told ABC Australia:

“We were looking for sheltered waters — we don’t want to be out in the open ocean — it’s technologically possible but economically outrageous to afford. If we can be behind a reef break, then we can design floating platforms that are sufficient for those waters at an affordable cost.”

What the Institute cannot — or will not — predict is what day-to-day life looks like on a seastead. The Institute calls itself a “meta-political” body, meaning it’s beyond all political agenda or ideology. The culture of a seastead, then, would likely mimic whatever laws and customs its host country is used to.

As of right now, this tentative agreement with French Polynesia is the closest any legitimate establishment has come to erecting a livable seastead. It remains to be seen whether the plan sinks or swims. Guess we’ll have to wait for 2018.