Floating city conceived as high-tech incubator (The Globe and Mail, February 24, 2012)
October 17, 2012 by Eric Jacobus
You’re a Canadian businesswoman, let us say, with a brilliant idea for a high-tech startup. All you need is a year in Silicon Valley – time to network, sell the concept, raise capital and gain liftoff.
Only one problem: You can visit, but you can’t stay. U.S. immigration officials won’t let you.
Enter Blueseed, an enterprise that is the brainchild of two immigrants to the United States, Max Marty from Cuba and Dario Mutabdzija from the former Yugoslavia. They hope to launch America’s first experiment in seasteading, the creation of permanent, politically autonomous floating cities.
Although skeptics consider the project impractical and the estimated cost of startup is at least $25-million, Blueseed’s basic plan to convert a cruise ship into a complex that will incubate high-tech innovation has attracted interest and money.
To avoid the reach of maritime law, the Blueseed boat would be parked in international waters, 22 kilometres from San Francisco and nearby Silicon Valley, terrestrial magnet for innovators and venture capitalists.
“Unfortunately, foreigner entrepreneurs have a hard time getting visas to stay legally,” explains Blueseed’s president, Mr. Mutabdzija, a 32-year-old lawyer who emigrated to the U.S. with his family from Serbia in the 1990s. “A standard three-month work permit does not give you enough time to raise money, network, find talent or do anything significant.”
A floating city, operating outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard and American port or immigration authorities – and offering daily ferry boat or helicopter runs into Silicon Valley – could be the answer.
If its plans proceed on schedule, Blueseed would acquire and moor its ship by the fall of 2013.
Rent would constitute Blueseed’s primary source of revenue from a potential of up to 1,000 tenants, each paying about $1,200 a month. But the company also intends to claim small equity stakes in the businesses it houses.
Blueseed residents would simply need a B-1 business visa. Relatively easy to acquire, they permit travel to the U.S., are valid for up to 10 years, and allow overnight stays. The ship would provide the venue for what the visa does not allow – actually doing business on American soil.
Blueseed already has at least one deep-pocketed backer. Billionaire libertarian Peter Thiel – co-founder of PayPal – has injected some $500,000 in seed money. It’s one of more than a dozen investments he’s made in innovative startups, some of which (Facebook, Yelp, Zynga, LinkedIn) have become game-changers.
In principle, building semi-permanent colonies at sea is less implausible than it might seem. Small cities of people now effectively reside on vast, ocean-going cruise ships. Sizable communities also live for months on off-shore oil rigs, outfitted with basic housing and recreation facilities.
And there have been a few attempts at sea-based colonization. Since 1967, for example, a retired British major, Paddy Roy Bates, and his extended clan have occupied the so-called Principality of Sealand, a Second World War U.K. naval encampment 10 kilometres off the coast of Suffolk.
Laying claim to sovereign status, the Bates community has adopted all the trappings of nationhood – a flag, a currency, passports and a national anthem. But no state has yet conferred formal recognition.
In the early 1970s, Las Vegas libertarian millionaire Michael Oliver imported boatloads of sand from Australia and established the Republic of Minerva – essentially a glorified sandbar – in the South Pacific, near Tonga. Alas, Mr. Oliver’s idyll of an independent fiefdom was quickly shattered. Tonga laid claim to the “territory,” and invaded.
But the seasteading ambition remains, and nowhere more prominently than at the San Francisco-based Seasteading Institute, which also claims Mr. Thiel as a benefactor.
Founded in 2008 and chaired by Patri Friedman, 35-year-old grandson of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, the non-profit SI springs from the libertarian assumption that current political systems are sclerotic and beyond meaningful reform.
Only new frontiers, it maintains, can catalyze new experiments in democratic governance. Because habitable land is largely spoken for by the world’s nation states, what remains of virgin territory is the deep, blue sea. And, outside territorial waters, it is theoretically claimable.
“We’re not about creating libertarian utopias or billionaire playgrounds,” SI president Michael Keenan said. “The goal is to have a variety of floating cities, with different political systems and social ideas. We no longer believe that one ideology, one form of government, is right for everyone.”
In fact, the potential appeal of seasteading lies in what Mr. Freidman has called “dynamic geography” – a principle that would allow any given seasteading colony to join or secede larger units within the whole.
That reasoning “is deeply flawed,” said Timothy B. Lee, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute. “In a real-world seasteading community, powerful economic forces would…leave seasteaders no freer than the rest of us.”
For now, the Seasteading Institute is nowhere close to realizing its ambitions. The obstacles – legal, financial, environmental and technical – are profound, if not insuperable.
That’s why Mr. Mutabdzija, who is based in Sunnyvale, Calif., thinks Blueseed’s for-profit model represents a faster track for testing the idea, even though the project will need to navigate a minefield of U.S. regulatory agencies.
“It’s like building a bridge,” he says. “You need to create segments of the bridge before you can connect them and prove the viability of the whole.”
“The Institute is a useful organization,” allows Mr. Mutabdzija – until a year ago, he served as its director of legal affairs – “but it may be decades before the various hurdles are overcome.”
The engineering issues alone – designing an ecology-friendly, floating city able to absorb the ocean’s wave action and more than occasional storms – are daunting. There are ancillary questions about electricity generation, sewage and a desalinated water supply.
Then there’s the potential legal quagmire. A nation’s territorial waters extend 12 kilometres offshore, although many countries claim the right to enforce criminal laws 24 kilometres out, while others claim a 322-kilometre economic exclusion zone.
If seasteads became bases for business operations, which Mr. Keenan says they must, they’d be in violation. But even 50 nautical miles away from land is likely too far to maintain logistical supply lines.
Also unclear is how seasteads would protect themselves from marauders, pirates and would-be terrorists.
Despite the obstacles, Mr. Keenan believes the political vacuum is urgent enough to yield solutions.
“We need more experimentation and opportunities for people to live in different ways,” he says. “Let’s try a variety of ideas – libertarian, communist, direct democracy. Most startups fail – and that’s okay. We’ll find out what doesn’t work.”
In the meantime, the organization’s founder, Mr. Friedman, may be hedging his bets. He is also CEO of Future Cities Development Corp, which hopes to build land-based urban centres governed by libertarian principles. The first one would be located in a special autonomous zone recently established by the government of Honduras.
Mr. Keenan calls this “seasteading on land,” though another word for it might be homesteading.