Monday, 4 July 2011

Seasteading: building countries at sea?

"The ocean is the next frontier"

Nobel laureate Milton Friedman's grandson Patri's vision is as panoramic as his economist grandfather's: Patri plans to build floating nations- the first one, off the California coast- that will be founded on libertarian principles. Patri outlines the prime reason for his project. "Innovation in society and serving marginalised groups has always happened on the frontier. We don't have a frontier anymore. The reason our political system doesn't innovate anymore is that there is no place to try out new things. We want to provide that place." 

Some reject Patri's vision- that he calls seasteading- as a crazy idea, but venture capitalists have already shelled out $2 million dollars for his project. Funding is led by Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and first investor in Facebook, according to Patri's 'Seasteading Institute'. The Institute works 'to enable seasteading communities - floating cities - which will allow the next generation of pioneers to peacefully test new ideas for government. The most successful can then inspire change in governments around the world'.

The first of these small flotilla nations will be constructed on a series of barges and platforms 12 miles off San Francisco, and would include homes, schools, hospitals and transportation. Food would be grown on aqua farms. Construction will begin in 2012, and the 'seastead' will keep on growing until 2040, at which time Patri expects to have 'tens of millions of residents.'  Friedman wants to create a political vacuum into which people can experiment with startup governments that are "consumer-oriented, constantly competing for citizens," he says. "I envision tens of millions of people in an Apple or a Google country," where the high-tech giants would govern and residents would have no vote. "If people are allowed to opt in or out, you can have a successful dictatorship."

The Seasteading Institute has George Petri as its Director of Engineering. The ex Professor of Naval Architecture at the Webb Institute and an offshore industry consultant

has his work cut out for him- the design and structural analysis of the nation-flotilla will be no walk in the park. In addition, in addition to critical engineering issues, Patri and his team will have to look hard at legal, jurisdictional and diplomatic issues that these floating nations will generate in future.

Patri's Seasteading Institute recognises that the sea is a harsh mistress, and that, unlike ships, seasteads cannot flee to port to avoid a storm. "This is one of the primary questions The Seasteading Institute's engineering program seeks to answer", it says, adding that off-the-shelf technology can be used for other, smaller issues. It says it is focusing on safety, economy and comfort at the moment- and a modular concept, so the project has the ability to scale. The project draws heavily from well-established technologies from cruise ships, oil platforms, and bridges.

As can be expected, Patri's vision has many detractors. "The whole thing is so far from any kind of conventional urban planning," says UC Berkeley Professor of Architecture Margaret Crawford. "The physical premises are just ridiculous."

But others see seasteading as the future, some even claiming that it will be, eventually, a stepping-stone to human colonies in space. "Two hundred years ago, we could have gone out West," says Jon Cain, President of the Thiel Foundation. "Now, we have to go further. The ocean is the next frontier."

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