Floating cities could become a reality if "seasteaders" like George Petrie have their way. The naval architect is director of engineering for the Seasteading Institute, a nonprofit firm founded in 2008 to create floating communities. He says havens far out at sea could redefine human existence.
Jon White: What exactly is seasteading?
George Petrie: Who among us has not looked at the current dysfunctional state of political systems and wished, "If only there were a deserted island where we could start over again." The bad news is there are no deserted islands that are not claimed by a jurisdiction, so the only way to have one is to build your own. That's what the seasteading community is hoping to facilitate.
We don't pretend to have the answers to how that island will be governed. We are trying to set up a laboratory that other people can use to do those experiments, to home in on the best sets of rules. It's like the communes of the 1960s: We're going to start with a bunch of like-minded individuals and create our own paradise. That probably sounds terribly retro, but I think that's where the populist appeal stems from; it's that same yearning.
JW: Does everyone view floating cities in a utopian light?
GP: No. From the libertarian point of view, it means freedom from taxes and the oppressive thumb of burdensome regulation, plus the ability to pursue enterprises that would not be possible onshore.
JW: Why not just take off to some tract of unoccupied land?
GP: There's a difference between "not occupied" and "not controlled." Unoccupied areas have the same laws, the same regulations as inhabited areas.
JW: Do people really want to live on the ocean?
GP: People love living there already. They take cruises because they just love being on the ocean. Hundreds of thousands of people spend time on sailboats and buy beachfront property. The water has a certain allure.
JW: Cynics might say that you'll end up creating offshore tax havens rather than paradise-like communities that nurture people?
GP: The seasteading movement needs to be wary of being perceived as simply offshore tax havens or even venues for money laundering or depots for arms merchants. It's very important that we be perceived as undertaking activities that are for the benefit of humankind, as opposed to skirting the law.
JW: How did you get involved in the cause?
GP: I taught naval architecture for over 25 years and recently hung up the chalk. Also, at the end of 2009, I attended a conference in Shanghai. Most of the presentations were boring engineering stuff, but one was entitled "floating cities at sea." By the time it finished I was jumping up and down in my seat asking how I could get involved. Three weeks later I got a call from the Seasteading Institute inviting me to become their director of engineering.
JW: The institute did a study that identified possible locations for the first cities at sea: off Brazil, the Galapagos, and West Africa. Why were those chosen?
GP: Many thought that this study would be the definitive starting point for identifying the locations we should look at. For me, it's just a tool. You're going to get a different answer depending on how you define what's important to you. It's a bit like asking where is the best place to build a city: Is it going to be an industrial city, a research hub, or a natural resources hub? How you address those questions is going to significantly change the answer you get. If your business model is based on aquaculture as opposed to medical tourism or deep-sea mining, you're going to get different answers.
JW: What will the first floating cities be like?
GP: As a matter of economic pragmatism, the first is probably going to be some sort of converted passenger ship. In the fullness of time I expect a move towards something more like a semisubmersible platform, because that would give much more inherent stability and habitability in more challenging weather.
JW: When might they be built?
GP: The Seasteading Institute may be in a position to begin a small venture within the next year or two, most likely off the West Coast of the United States. As far as the larger seasteads—that we call "metropolisteads"—are concerned, at least 20 to 30 years in the future.
First we would have a couple of smaller seasteads, and the ones that seem to work will take on a larger scale in the same way that, when the settlers set up stakes out on the prairie, the areas with fertile land and good rainfall attracted a lot of people. After a while there was a town, and then the town grew into a city, and the railroad came. It is going to grow incrementally.
It is almost certain that many of the early seasteads will wither and die or convert into casinos or whatever, but the successful ones will grow. It will be a Darwinian type of selection. The ones that have good business models, good rules to live by, good governance, and good social and economic systems, they are going to succeed.
JW: How independent could seasteads really be?
GP: The initial, smaller ones will be more heavily dependent on proximity to potential customers and services from shore-based depots. Once you have a critical mass of, say, 20,000 or 100,000 people on this floating island, you become more autonomous economically as well as politically. You don't need that umbilical link to land.
JW: How has the public responded to the idea?
GP: If you go out and talk to ordinary people on the libertarian theme, it doesn't take long for their eyes to glaze over. But when you pitch the "start fresh on a desert island" view, I've yet to find anyone who doesn't ask within minutes, "How do I get to be on the list to be a resident?" It has tremendous appeal.
JW: Is there anything that won't be possible on a floating city?
GP: Gardens you can have, cattle-ranching probably not. Obviously things that require hundreds or thousands of acres of space are more cost-effectively done on land.
JW: What about the Blueseed project, which hopes to set up a kind of seastead off the coast of California, linked to Silicon Valley?
GP: From my perch at the Seasteading Institute, we hope they are successful. But what they are endeavoring to do should not be construed as what we envision as a seastead. Blueseed is, in my view, an offshore workplace as opposed to an enduring community.
JW: So have you already reserved your room on the first seastead?
GP: I am keen on the idea, but I don't know that the demographics are in my favor. I am at a point in my life where I would not want to forego some of the comforts to which I have become accustomed. By the time seasteading reaches that level of sophistication, I will probably no longer be a candidate for the lifestyle.
This article originally appeared in New Scientist.