Acton Institute Powerblog

Start-up nations: Are ‘floating cities’ a frontier for freedom?

From the mega-church municipalities of Nigeria to the ”private cities” of India, swaths of entrepreneurial pioneers are responding to the challenges of urbanization and political disorder with new approaches to governance and community transformation.

As of now, the majority of that practical experimentation has been a “privatization of necessity,” occurring mostly in disrupted areas of the developing world with a focus on solving immediate economic problems. Yet those same ideas are starting to pick up steam in modernized countries as well, whether among freedom-hungry libertarians, climate-change-wary academics, or Silicon-Valley innovators and tech entrepreneurs.

Take the Seasteading Institute, a San Francisco-based organization seeking to develop autonomous “floating cities” that challenge the status quo of political governance. Founded nearly ten years ago by Petri Friedman — grandson of economist Milton Friedman — and funded in part by billionaire Peter Thiel, the institute has announced plans for what will soon be the first privatized “ocean city.”

“If you could have a floating city, it would essentially be a start-up country,” says Joe Quirk, president of the Seasteading Institute. “We can create a huge diversity of governments for a huge diversity of people.” The goal: to “allow the next generation of pioneers to peacefully test new ideas for government.”

According to The New York Times, “the government of French Polynesia agreed to let the Seasteading Institute begin testing in its waters,” with estimates that a new island-city may come to fruition and be inhabitable within a few years.

The government is creating what is effectively a special economic zone for the Seasteading Institute to experiment in and has offered 100 acres of beachfront where the group can operate.

Mr. Quirk and his collaborators created a new company, Blue Frontiers, which will build and operate the floating islands in French Polynesia. The goal is to build about a dozen structures by 2020, including homes, hotels, offices and restaurants, at a cost of about $60 million. To fund the construction, the team is working on an initial coin offering. If all goes as planned, the structures will feature living roofs, use local wood, bamboo and coconut fiber, and recycled metal and plastic.

While would-be seasteaders and so-called “aquapreneurs” have long dreamed of private cities in deeper and wider waters — untethered from any sort of formal government strings or oversight — the prospect of city-building in the high seas has proven extremely risky and expensive. Thus, even for the more principled libertarians, who are primarily seeking new degrees of civic and social freedom, the project in Polynesia is a welcome first step on a longer path to true autonomy.

Again, unlike the “private cities” of the developing world, such efforts are not primarily driven by material necessity. For most seasteaders, the purpose is tied to the long-term expansion of freedom and social and political flourishing. Even though the project has expanded its stakeholders beyond the libertarian and “freedom movement” communities, Friedman still believes that “the idea of competitive governance still overarches, or undergirds, what we see as the long-term 100-year impact.”

This is an important distinction. Given the mixed results of private cities like Gurgaon in India, we’ve seen that while improved laws, property rights, and incentives are important, they are not enough. Such cities have material and social improvements in varying degrees, but in total, remain “good but not great.”

If seasteading somehow leads to a more overt prioritization of freedom and virtue in such efforts — elevating spiritual and social well-being alongside the political and material — might it fare better?

Image courtesy of The Seasteading Institute

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.