by Emma Marris
Early designs for a floating island in Tahiti
mimic a natural landscape.
The seasteading movement
is getting close to building
its first prototype,
an artificial archipelago
where people will live, play
and do research.
The view is unbeatable. To the right, steep volcanic mountains,
draped in green, rise up from a beachside coconut grove. To the left, the Pacific
Ocean glitters turquoise under the midday sun.
It is here in this
Tahitian lagoon that a group of entrepreneurs plans to build an
artificial island - three-quarters of a hectare of floating housing
and research space, made up of linked platforms.
If the team is
successful, the vision could become reality by 2020. But it would be
just the first step, says self-described "seavangelist" Joe Quirk.
The ultimate goal is to
build whole sovereign nations on the open seas, composed of modular
"French Polynesia has
all the stepping stones: lagoons, atolls, shallow waters right
next to deeper waters," Quirk says.
Quirk, one of five
managing directors for the company behind the project, and his
colleagues propose that artificial islands could serve as
laboratories for testing out new technologies and exploring
different social structures, or act as life rafts for coastal
peoples displaced by sea-level rise.
Seasteading Institute was founded by former Google
engineer Patri Friedman in 2008, and it has garnered support
from influential people in the linked worlds of Silicon Valley,
libertarian politics and the anything-goes desert festival, Burning
Most media reports have
been skeptical, however.
The project has been
characterized as the dream of,
"two guys with a blog
and a love of Ayn Rand" 1 and "a hacker's approach to government
with a Waterworld-esque conception of Manifest Destiny". 2
But the Seasteading
Institute and the new for-profit spin-off,
Blue Frontiers, have
racked up some real-world achievements in the past year.
They signed a memorandum
of understanding with the government of French Polynesia in January
that lays the groundwork for the construction of their prototype.
And they gained momentum
from a conference of interested parties in Tahiti in May, which
hundreds of people attended.
The project's focus has
shifted from building a libertarian oasis to hosting experiments in
governance styles and showcasing a smorgasbord of sustainable
technologies for, among other things, desalination, renewable energy
and floating food-production.
The shift has brought
some gravitas to the undertaking, and some ecologists have taken
interest in the possibilities of full-time floating laboratories.
But the project still faces some formidable challenges.
The team must convince
the people of French Polynesia that the synthetic islands will
It must raise enough money to actually build the
prototype, which it estimates will cost up to US$60 million
Once it is built, the group must convince the world that artificial
floating islands are more than just a gimmick
Producing solid science
and broadly useful technology would go a long way towards making
"What we are dreaming
is that this structure will be a scientific laboratory," says
Winiki Sage, head of the Economic, Social, and Cultural Council
of French Polynesia in Tahiti, who has been concerned about
brain drain from his country.
Designs are surfacing for the prototype island, and its look is a
key part of Blue Frontiers's public-relations strategy.
The company's current
plans don't entirely align with the concept art on the Seasteading
Institute's website, which swings from tiki bar to Tomorrowland in
Bart Roeffen, a
'water pioneer' at the
Dutch design firm Blue21 in Delft, has been
drawing up new plans that fit with the landscape and culture.
"We are working
together with Tahitian designers to make something that is not
like an alien invasion," Roeffen says. In particular, he plans
to take cues from Polynesian shipbuilding.
The elegant outrigger
canoes, or va'a, used by islanders are stable and light; oceangoing
versions are the type of boat rowed by the Tahitian voyagers who
discovered Hawaii and New Zealand around AD 1100.
Linked platforms would be
arranged to ensure that no coral below is completely shaded and
The goal is to actually
expand the habitat for reef species (see 'Seasteaders in paradise').
Illustration by Emily Cooper
The team would not
provide direct information about funding.
Paypal founder and
one-time Donald Trump enthusiast Peter Thiel provided
a reported $1.7 million to the Seasteading Institute, but he last
contributed to the project in 2014, and any recent investors are
keeping a low profile.
Quirk says that they have
"a nice amount" of seed money and are preparing for what is called
an initial coin offering - an investment
mechanism that uses digital cryptocurrency.
Looking ahead, the
company hopes to generate revenue by renting out space on the island
and acting as consultants for other would-be island builders.
Along with hiring Quirk
and the other four managing directors, Blue Frontiers has recruited
ten staff members and commissioned environmental, legal and economic
studies on the impacts of the project for investors and the
The "why?" - everyone's
first question about seasteading - is answered differently by
everyone involved. Some are captivated by the project because it is
an excuse to push sustainable design to the next level. For people
on low-lying islands, it looks like a life raft.
mayor of Makemo, an atoll in the Tuamotu archipelago in French
Polynesia, told Blue Frontiers that he's interested.
The Tuamotus have
experienced widespread flooding, and Tokoragi is worried that his
people will become climate-change refugees.
"We are attached to
our atoll; we are attached to our culture," he says. "We are not
against this idea, since the technology can respond to the
problems that we face."
For others, the pull of
the project comes down to autonomy and self-reliance, particularly
with respect to governance:
anyone who decides
their island's political style is not for them can detach and
depart for another system that they like better.
For at least one
scientist advising the project, Neil Davies, executive director of a
field station of the University of California, Berkeley, on the
neighboring island of Moorea, the island's appeal is as a base for
research that would,
"fill the gap between
oceanographic-research vessels and coastal marine labs".
Ships are on the water,
but they are "phenomenally expensive", he says, and they don't stay
Coastal labs can gather
long time-series of data in one place, but don't provide access to
Davies dreams about
floating "sea stations" that would allow low-cost, long-term access
to the ocean for research, especially for students in tropical
systems are among the most sensitive to human activities", he
Experiments could include
modifying pH or temperature on small sections of a reef to simulate
future environmental conditions, and 'planting' different corals to
which will thrive best in the future.
Data could be gathered
using semi-permanent sensors and cameras, along with regular
Some scientists not
involved in the project see value in the concept, as well.
"If you have a
floating island and you want long-term study, that is a perfect
way to do it," says Ross Barnes, marine-operations
superintendent at the University of Hawaii Marine Center in
Honolulu, who oversees two large research vessels and on-shore
The university has been
conducting research at a spot in the ocean that it calls Station
ALOHA, which scientists have visited nearly 300 times by boat since
A floating platform, he
says, would mean that scientists could leave behind some instruments
- and that some of them could stay as well - allowing for continuous
"It's a good idea,"
Currently, Davies is
advising the seasteaders on site selection and environmentally
positive design choices.
He also plans to help
them to document the installation's performance using sensors that
measure things such as energy expenditure and waste generation on
the platforms, as well as water temperature and quality.
And he sees it as a great
teaching opportunity for the many students who visit his station.
many social, legal, ethical, environmental issues, even if it
never gets anywhere," he says.
Whether the seasteaders
make progress depends on whether the project is embraced by French
Polynesia, a largely autonomous 'overseas collectivity' of France
with a population of 287,000 on 67 islands spread out across an area
nearly the size of Europe.
At one level, a grand
floating project could appeal to a nation of voyagers and boat
builders. But French Polynesia has been burnt by big-science and
technology projects before.
From 1966 to 1996, France
conducted 193 nuclear tests in its Polynesian possessions, many in
the atmosphere. In February 2016, then-president of France François Hollande admitted that the testing had harmed the environment and
And the place is littered
with defunct projects and closed hotels.
"We have a history of
being taken for fools," says Pauline Sillinger, a
sustainable-development specialist at Te Ora Naho, a federation
of environmental groups in French Polynesia, who took a job with
Blue Frontiers this year, and also teaches Tahitian dance.
"Nuclear testing, big
hotels, nice, smiling, white, intelligent people telling us
it'll be good for us."
But their wariness vies
against their desperation for new revenue streams, Sage says.
After winding down
nuclear testing, France began paying French Polynesia more than
US$100 million per year in compensation for lost income from
military activity. But in 2016, that amount was reduced.
tourism revenues have never recovered from the 2008 recession.
Thanks to increased
political stability and other factors, things have improved since
2014, when the collectivity was so broke that it risked not being
able to pay its civil servants, according to Sage.
But it is still
dangerously reliant on a small number of income sources - tourism,
pearls, coconut oil. Unemployment stands at nearly 18%.
"We are looking for
new ideas," Sage says. "We are really open to any ideas, any
If Sage is skeptical
but willing to give it a shot, there are others who have had
enough of grandiose project ideas.
Among them is a
religious leader in Tahiti, Frère Maxime Chan, who heads
Association 193, which advocates on behalf of those harmed by
Chan is also
vice-president of Te Ora Naho. (Sage, incidentally, is
the organization's president.)
Chan says that his
old friend Sage and the rest of the government are "dazzled" by
the flash and money of the Seasteaders. He talks about recent
projects - including a tourist resort, an aquaculture scheme and
an eco-resort - that were all announced with fanfare and
optimistic job projections, only to be cancelled, scaled back or
put on indefinite hold.
Chan wishes the
government would admit that the standard of living for the
average Tahitian has been artificially inflated by nuclear-test
payments and must come down.
This can be done
without suffering, Chan contends, by gracefully returning to a
version of the pre-1960s subsistence economy.
beautiful," he says.
Polynesia to support the project will fall mainly to Marc
Collins, another managing director of Blue Frontiers.
Collins is Tahitian
and lives there now, but in the early 1990s he lived in Silicon
Valley, and fell in love with its fast-paced culture of big
ideas and endless possibility. Ever since, he's kept his toe in
those waters in part by maintaining a subscription to Wired
In May 2015, the
digital lifestyle glossy ran a story 3
about how the seasteading movement planned to scale back its
grand, high-seas concept, reorienting towards safer, shallower
waters and looking for,
solutions within the territorial waters of a host nation".
Collins, a serial
entrepreneur who has dabbled in every major French Polynesian
industry, from hotels to black pearls and telecommunications,
saw an opportunity to, as he puts it,
"bring some of
the DNA of Silicon Valley to Tahiti".
Tahiti joined the
world of high-speed Internet in 2010, with the completion of an
undersea fibre-optic cable linking it to Hawaii.
It has calm lagoons
aplenty and daily flights from Los Angeles, California, and, as
a minor bonus, is widely regarded as paradise on Earth. Collins
fired off a LinkedIn request to the Seasteading Institute's
executive director, Randolph Hencken.
The Seasteaders were
interested in Collins's pitch, but they wanted a more official
gesture of support. So Collins, who served as French Polynesia's
minister of tourism in 2007 and 2008, began working his
By August, the
president of French Polynesia, Édouard Fritch, signed a
letter formally inviting the Seasteaders to present their ideas.
A delegation of nine
took him up on the offer the next month, and by January, a
memorandum of understanding with pledges of cooperation was
The next step in
making the island a reality will be the passage of a law
defining the 'special economic zone' that will cover the
synthetic island. Blue Frontiers isn't asking French Polynesia
for any subsidies to build the island, but it is asking for a 0%
tax rate, among other regulatory exceptions.
It has hired French
firm GB2A, based in Paris, to prepare legal research and a set
of requests, which Blue Frontiers presented to the government at
the end of September. The team hopes to see a bill emerge before
the end of the year.
In the meantime, the
Seasteading Institute is building excitement and courting
potential investors with a series of gatherings. In May, it held
talks, networking events and tours in Tahiti.
Tony Hsieh, chief executive of online retailer Zappos
in Las Vegas, Nevada
Tua Pittman, a master canoe navigator from
the Cook Islands
engineers, nanotechnologists and a 'blockchain
a specialist in the distributed information systems
The seasteaders hope
to use such systems to handle their financials, as well as any
scientific data that they generate. But the event wasn't all
An announcement for a
party on outrigger canoes cheerfully suggested:
"Do not wear
heels. Bring a swimsuit for an optional moonlight swim."
On 22–29 October,
Blue Frontiers will hold an Insiders Access Week for supporters
and potential investors, a mix of tours, discussion and morning
yoga with Hencken.
Always ambitious, the
team hopes to have draft legislation from the Polynesian
government by then, and some detailed architectural plans. The
goal is to break ground - or rather, sea - in 2018.
While all this work
goes on behind the scenes, the lagoon remains fairly quiet.
day in July, locals compete in a stand-up paddle-board race
while families play on the shore and young women drink beer with
their feet in the waves. By the roadside,
freshly caught tuna are for sale. On one level, it is hard to
imagine this place being improved upon.
Time will tell
whether the Seasteaders' island becomes a refuge for Polynesians
facing rising seas and an incubator for Polynesian science and
business, or merely a playground for wealthy foreigners who want
to dodge bothersome regulations.
That is, if it
materializes at all.
- 'Peter Thiel makes down payment on libertarian ocean
colonies' - Wired (18 May 2008)
Harkinson, J. - 'My
sunset cruise with the clever, nutty, techno-libertarian seasteading gurus'
- Mother Jones (September/October 2012)
- 'Silicon Valley is letting go of its techie island
fantasies' - Wired (16 May 2015)