The design challenges of building floating cities, or 'seasteading'

"Seasteading" has been gaining attention in the media as both an ambitious technical and political concept. What are the design difficulties of making a city that floats permanently on the ocean?
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor on

Recently, there's been a flurry of high-profile press around the concept of "seasteading," or the creation of new cities that float on the ocean--and are ruled by new, not existing, governments.

The concept features prominently in The New Yorker's recent profile (which requires a subscription to read in its entirety) of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, whose Thiel Foundation has given $1,000,000 to The Seasteading Institute; CNET and SmartPlanet both featured Blueseed, a seasteading start-up that proposes transforming a cruise ship into a tech incubator off the California coast. These pieces have provided detailed definitions and descriptions of the seasteading concept, as well as political context (seasteaders tend to be libertarians). And now the current double-issue (dated December 3-9) of The Economist explores the design challenges that seasteaders face.

The article, "Cities on the Ocean," part of the publication's Technology Quarterly, acknowledges that the idea of seasteading is "not a completely crazy idea," given the very real scale and scope of luxury cruise liners and off-shore oil platforms that house hundreds of workers. However, The Economist lays out the practical design difficulties that seasteaders face:

  • Giant, pontoon-like barges, which are a popular design concept among seasteaders, are even more likely to bob about than ocean liners when the seas get choppy, causing discomfort for residents
  • Residents on floating cities are likely to have higher expectations for comfort standards, such as lack of seasickness, than oil-platform workers, who expect short-term stays on the seas, versus permanent residency
  • Building renewable-energy systems that use wind and wave resources that can withstand harsh ocean conditions is more expensive than building comparable systems on land

The article concludes by stating that large corporations with massive design, engineering, and funding resources, as well as histories of innovation (the article suggests India's Tata group or South Korea's Samsung as possibilities) might be the best-equipped makers of future, feasible seasteads. The challenges--even in the design and engineering departments alone--might prove too large for the start-ups and politically minded groups leading the movement to make their visions a reality any time soon, despite their huge ambitions.

Image: The Seasteading Institute

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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