There have been so many utopian communities proposed in America over the years, from the free-loving anarchist vegetarians at the Fruitlands Commune of 1843 (they lasted six months) to the Shakers (who lasted 150 years, but found that celibacy wasn’t a great business plan). In 2008, a more modern utopia was proposed by the Seasteading Institute, backstopped financially by Peter Thiel, a wealthy Libertarian best known as the co-founder of PayPal and someone who doesn’t like death or taxes. It was to be a floating city located outside any national jurisdiction 200 miles from shore — where anything goes.

Jacob Weinberg of Slate called it “the most elaborate effort ever devised by a group of computer nerds to get invited to an orgy. (Let’s build our own Deepwater Horizon with legal prostitution!)” Tabitha Southey of the Globe and Mail summarized it as “a country where there is no welfare, little gun control, no minimum wage and looser building codes. Because the first place most of us want to experiment with looser building codes is 200 miles out to sea.”

It was all over the Internet in 2009 when it ran an architectural competition with results published in MNN and many other websites. Since then, the group has been quietly working away, commissioning a feasibility study from Dutch design firm Deltasync complete with designs, cost analyses and interviews with prospective seasteaders. Physically, it has evolved significantly; it is no longer 200 miles off shore but is now sheltered in a protected bay in (possibly) central America.

Through this project and previous research by the Institute, it became evident that the jump to an autonomous man-­made island on the high seas was itself a formidable barrier to entry. It is difficult to overcome the high cost of engineering structures that are capable of withstanding the ocean’s elements — waves, wind and corrosive seawater ­— while remaining comfortable enough to live on for extended periods of time.

The politics haven’t changed much, although the words are different. It’s now a “startup society.”

Our supporters tend to view government as an industry, lacking competition due to high “barriers to entry.” In other words, it’s exceedingly difficult to enter the government industry and offer a government startup.

They want to approach government as an engineering problem.

Seasteading attempts to transform a political problem into an engineering challenge. Whereas solutions in politics continue to elude even the most competent technocratic managers, relatively small groups of people have proven highly adept at solving complex engineering problems.

One doesn’t like to point out that the last professional engineer to run the American government was Herbert Hoover. One thing engineers can do, however, is figure out how to make things float, and they have done a good job of that here.

barges planFloating concrete barges get connected. (Photo: Seasteading Institute)

The community would be built on barge-like concrete platforms, squares and pentagons, with 50-meter (164 feet) sides. These could link together in a number of ways, and would act basically like a big deck within which you build streets with houses, apartments, offices and hotels.

built form at seasteadingIt's a floating Silicon Valley subdivision. (Photo: Seasteading Institute)

Being modular, it can start small and expand as required; a single platform could house 20 to 30 and would cost about $15 million.

aquacultureAquaculture will feed us all. (Photo: Seasteading institute)

The design could be self-sufficient through aquaculture and hydroponics. Pescatarians will thrive here, however, now that it's not totally out to sea, there can be trade with the locals. The goal of self-sufficiency makes the project extremely green, depending on rainwater harvesting, solar power and composting of everything.

The site search is ongoing, with two main criteria:

  1. Located in a desirable and strategic location from the perspective of our intended residents.
  2. Ability of the government and relevant authorities to act nimbly, granting substantial autonomy for the residents and businesses in exchange for the economic, environmental and societal benefits to the host nation.

Preference will be given to locations not prone to revolution, pirate attacks and hurricanes.

It’s all fascinating technically, a sort of floating suburb of Silicon Valley. It's only when you go down the rabbit hole of their wiki and look at discussions of governance that you realize you are in what Tabitha Southey called AynRandLandia, a place where Atlas shrugged and libertarians rule. Well actually, nobody rules.

As an architect, I'm not sure that I want to live in a world built and run by libertarian engineers, particularly in a floating city. They might decide that if I get old and sick, the logical thing is to heave me over the side or into the tilapia tanks. And while I certainly have problems with the way our governments are run, they do have pretty fire trucks. I do wonder what happens if you park your city off the coast of Honduras, one of the world’s most violent countries, and the citizens notice the rich guys sitting out there on their big concrete yacht. Who you gonna call?

Related in MNN and TreeHugger:

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Seasteading still floating libertarian utopia idea
They've engineered a technical solution, but the rest of the concept still sinks.