Seasteading 101: How to Build the World’s First Society-at-Sea

Who will live on the this brand-new floating nation in the South Pacific—and how?

Marc Collins: A question I get quite often is, “What is Seasteading?” And Seasteading started out I guess in 2008. It’s a movement. It started out as a non-profit so it’s called the Seasteading Institute, based in California. But I think—just a couple of months ago—Seasteading is actually a word that’s recognized by the Oxford dictionary, and what it means is living on platforms on the open oceans and with new forms of society.

So the way I got involved in Seasteading is I was a government minister in French Polynesia; so a lot of people know my country by the name of Tahiti. And when I left the government I was looking at interesting opportunities for what we could do, especially in terms of sea level rise mitigations. That’s an issue that’s quite front of mind for a lot of Pacific islanders, especially now. And I had come across this institute and read about them, they were very—there was a lot of media focus on them back in 2008, 2010, 2012. So basically I reached out to the institute and said my understanding was that they had built a huge network of specialists of aquapreneurs, of scientists, researchers, investors. But what the movement was missing was the support, strong support, of a government that was willing to have a light hand on regulation and allow such an ambitious project as the world’s first sustainable, self-sustaining, floating island.

So French Polynesia had the advantage when I reached out to Seasteading. They have several things that the institute was interested in. And one of the first questions they asked was about connectivity. So, you know, is your country connected to the internet backbone? Connectivity is obviously crucial for big data that is going to be generated by the researchers, the scientists, so the first thing was: 'Do you have a submarine cable?' So we checked that one off. In 2010, French Polynesia connected to Hawaii, so we’re right on the internet backbone. Huge unused capacity, 99 percent unused, so obviously available for research. And the second major concern was about hurricanes, cyclones and tsunamis. So basically, 'All right, we’re going to be doing this pilot project floating island. Obviously the weather and the situation in your country is important to us.' So we did some research. I already knew, being from French Polynesia, that this was a very rare occurrence. I think we’ve had two hurricanes in the last hundred years that had significant damage. There was property damage, a very light loss of life, and tsunamis are not really an issue for us. We’re in the middle of the South Pacific and so we get at least an eight-hour window before any tsunami were to hit us. But just given the geomorphology of the islands we don’t get these high waves that you get when you have a continental shelf off your city.

The objective of the pilot is to get all of these technologies tested on a smaller scale. It’s small yet we should be able to support around 200 people. So our objective is 200 to 250 people living there full time. There would be about a third research and scientists, a third will be people who just love to live on Seasteads. And we’ve got a long list of people who want to come live on a Seastead. Another third we believe are going to be startups and entrepreneurs that are building technologies around the ocean. So basically all sort of blue tech: you’ve got underwater drones, you’ve got all of these different types of startups that are linked to the space.

We also have the issue of energy. Now obviously we need internet on board these platforms. We will have some low-energy lighting, low-energy pumps and we’re going to be very careful with everything that goes on board these structures, but we feel fairly confident that there are enough ways for us to generate energy. So we’re looking primarily at floating solar panels. There’s a company we’re in discussions with in France that’s got some interesting technology. It’s not just as simple as putting solar panels on the water. It’s the corrosion resistance, it’s the wave, you know, how you mitigate for wave action. But here’s the interesting part about solar panels on the water as opposed to solar panels on land: the water actually cools the solar panels, the back of the solar panels, and it increases the yield by about 20 percent. So we’ve got some advantages to that. So we’re doing calculations as to exactly what surface area we would need. We’re going to be using some solar panels, of course, on some of our roofs. But in addition to that we’re looking at some pretty modern wave generation techniques. So we’re inside the reef but there are waves right outside of the reef. So these are units that actually are under water, I think about eight, ten, twelve feet under water. So they won’t disrupt normal boats going out there for leisure or commercial purposes. These are under water. They basically are complex buoys that take in that wave energy. It’s a little bit less, but there’s still quite a bit of wave energy and that will create additional power to just the solar.

On our pilot project, we have an idea of what we're doing for power, but ultimately the objective of these platforms is to go to the open sea. The research has been done, now I think it’s a matter of funding and of focusing all of this on one major project and that’s our objective, is first let’s do this pilot, let’s prove that these technologies work together. Let’s prove that people can live on these platforms in a new social way and that’s something that Polynesians are very interested in as well. I mean we’re the original Seasteaders in the sense that we’ve colonized and migrated throughout the Pacific for a thousand years and covered one of the largest oceans in the world. So living on the ocean is something that Polynesians know about and I think we have a lot to contribute to the project as well.

Seasteading began as a thought experiment: imagine a sovereign Libertarian utopia in international waters, far from the reach of any government. Over the last decade, this dream has inched closer and closer to reality. But establishing a completely independent floating city in the ocean isn't simple--or cheap. The Seasteading Institute compromised a little on its independence and instead sought a partnership with an established nation that could support their project while having a very light hand on regulations. The idea grew out of and caused a stir in Silicon Valley, was widely reported in the media, and Marc Collins, a former government minister in French Polynesia, saw an opportunity for symbiosis. The Seasteading Institute needs internet connectivity, energy solutions, food, and government permission to establish themselves in the South Pacific Ocean, while Polynesians are very interested in the technology needed to build floating cities—a concern at the front of their minds as sea levels rise—and in economic growth. And so Collins co-founded Blue Frontiers, a world-first company that builds societies on the sea. But who will live on this brand-new floating nation in the South Pacific—and how? Marc Collins explains the feats of engineering that are making this vision a reality.

Participatory democracy is presumed to be the gold standard. Here’s why it isn’t.

Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.

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Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.

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