It seems like a fanciful idea from science fiction, but chances are it could just be the next big thing. A libertarian fantasy of a society on or under the sea, without any governance, is what many among us would want to live out.
The concept is called seasteading, the creation of permanent, autonomous dwellings at sea, called seasteads. Most proposed seasteads are modified cruising vessels, where others are refitted oil platforms or custom-built floating islands. Currently the closest things to a seastead are large ocean-going ships, sometimes called “floating cities” or small floating islands.
Like any new idea, it’s still facing numerous challenges, requiring further development before it matures. The concept of creating sea-based communities based at sea is not new, with Kampung Ayer in Brunei and the Tanka people of Fujian, China as pre-existing communities.
Most of the crucial infrastructure needed to sustain seasteading is underdeveloped or simply does not exist. While attractive to and attracting investment from libertarian ideologues in the US, there is no pre-existing technical, social or legal infrastructure to build, maintain and operate seasteads and their communities.
Potential markets The Economist has highlighted challenges that seasteading faces, among them is a lack of legal, social and industrial infrastructure to fabricate, operate and maintain seasteads. There needs to be a strong attractor to draw interest from people, in order to grow the critical mass of communities and corporations necessary for a sustainable seasteading sector.
The locations with the most potential to develop a seasteading sector in Asia Pacific are Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. There will also be a strong demand from Pacific and Indian Ocean island states due to rising sea levels that pose an existential threat to these island states. Among them are Kribati, Fiji and particularly the Maldives.
Seasteading presents an attractive technological solution for island states facing the problems of rising sea levels and/or finite land. Seasteads create extra housing, industrial facilities, aquaculture and office space, while maintaining links to territories with the necessary infrastructure to sustain them.
Hong Kong would be well-suited to seasteading, given its proximity to China’s burgeoning shipbuilding industry. However, inclement weather conditions in the form of occasional typhoons may pose engineering challenges and safety issues, and a high risk to investors and project developers. The pollution problems of Hong Kong is also a deterrent in attracting people to join the communities based there.
Japan has the engineering expertise and industrial capacity to build and support seasteads as well. However, Japan’s declining and geriatric population, conservative culture and hazardous environment with natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis can be risky not just to seasteads, but their infrastructure as well. This may make investors reluctant to base seasteads there.
Singapore is particularly well-suited to support and develop the concept of seasteading because of the finite land, excellent logistics, resilient infrastructure, protection against inclement weather and the industrial capacity to build and maintain large offshore drilling rigs. Keppel Offshore and Sembcorp Marine, two major offshore rig builders, are also headquartered here. This creates compelling reasons to use Singapore as a base for developing seasteading.
Given escalating competition from Chinese shipbuilders, there are compelling reasons to the shipbuilding sector of Singapore to invest in seasteading and diversify their portfolios. Combined with the government’s drive to develop and diversify Singapore’s economic portfolio, seasteading enthusiasts may be well-advised to look at Singapore as a welcoming place to start off.
The Floating City Project by the Seasteading Institute, is another venture that could generate interest from governments in the region, given the solution package it provides: integrated housing, business and industrial space within their territory. Meanwhile, nearby infrastructure (i.e. legal systems, civil defence and security services, etc.) would serve to provide the necessary mechanisms in the new community.
What lies ahead
Seasteading today faces a host of challenges: legal, social and industrial. Infrastructure also needs to be built and a high initial CAPEX can very well deter investors. But it has moved closer to reality, with major investors like PlayPal Co-founder Peter Thiel have come out in support of it and committed financial capital to seasteading ventures, having realised the benefits of seasteading.
But it will require more than major investors, passionate ideologues and dedicated academicians to drive its growth. It must serve as a compelling solution to a crucial problem, and that problem lies in places with finite land or under long-term threat from rising sea levels.
Governments and major corporations need to be engaged. Engineers have to be trained and educated, with energy, aquaculture, waste, social and security services and technologies developed. Doctrines and standard operating procedures need to be evolved and validated. An entire foundation needs to be laid for seasteading to be realised and sustained.
As the economic weight of the world moves towards Asia, it would be immensely beneficial for potential seasteaders to look East, for the greatest opportunity to build a future for seasteading lies here.