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.
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.