Seasteading: Interview with Randolph Hencken

The Seasteading Institute is a non-profit organization set up to facilitate the development of permanent, autonomous cities in international waters. To help raise funds they’ve launched a campaign on Indiegogo. Below, I interview Randolph Hencken, Executive Director of the Seasteading Institute. If you’re tired of the slow pace of political progress, regretful you weren’t alive to help settle America, or want to explore the high seas without leaving your Xbox behind, read on. Seasteading may be for you!

I imagine a lot of Humanity+ readers have heard of seasteading, but for anyone who hasn’t, what is seasteading and what are you doing at the Seasteading Institute? Seasteads will be permanent communities deriving legal autonomy from their location in international waters – Earth’s last unclaimed frontier. The Seasteading Institute works to enable seasteading communities — floating cities — which will allow the next generation of pioneers to peacefully test new ideas for government. The most successful can then inspire change in governments around the world. This is an audacious vision that will take decades to fully realize. We strongly believe in incrementalism – breaking this huge vision down into manageable, practical steps.

How close are you to building an actual seastead? What are the biggest remaining challenges? Have you already worked out the political/legal challenges to acquiring political autonomy? As a non-profit organization, our role is not to build seasteads ourselves, but to set the stage in order to empower others to do so. Our program therefore focuses on business development, engineering and legal research, political and industry diplomacy and building a community of aspiring seasteaders. This work is currently taking the form of the Floating City Project, which aims to produce marketable plans – based on input from potential customers (i.e., residents, businesses, and timeshare owners), investors and real estate developers – for what could become the world’s first floating city. The biggest challenge is striking a balance between a pragmatic, cost-effective design and something which inspires people to the full vision of seasteading, including legal autonomy. We have determined that an efficient and cost-effective way to do this is to locate within shallow or protected seas, where engineering challenges are less severe, and to negotiate with the coastal “host” nation to grant the seastead autonomy within those territorial waters. We are optimistic about the prospects for this strategy because of the interest expressed by governing officials in countries like Honduras regarding the ideas of startup cities and experimental jurisdictions. Much of what has held these efforts back is the perception that outside investors are encroaching on the land of the current inhabitants; locating offshore would mitigate this objection.

How are you planning to use the money you raise on Indiegogo? We are raising money for an engineering feasibility study by our colleagues at DeltaSync, a Dutch multidisciplinary research and water architecture firm. Their famed approach – displayed in projects like the Rotterdam Floating Pavillion – employs extreme energy-conserving materials, urban architecture capable of dynamic evolution, as well as food and water solutions that clean the ocean as they nourish aquaponic farms. DeltaSync will give us cost estimates for various configurations, designed around customer input and oceanographic data in our select coastal locations.

credit: András Győrfi

You recently conducted a survey to find out what amenities were most important to members of the seasteading community. What’s the most interesting thing you learned? Was there anything that surprised you?  We were surprised by the sheer number of people who express both an interest in living on the world’s first seastead, and a willingness/ability to pay realistic prices for modestly-sized units. There is substantial appeal associated with participating in a bold new experiment in government – for being a part of a movement that fundamentally disrupts the governance industry – and for being among the first pioneers on the ocean frontier.

credit: Anthony Ling

Is seasteading only appealing to people who associate with political libertarianism or have you had interest from across the political spectrum?

Interest has come from across the spectrum. The unifying trait of seasteaders is a desire to abandon pointless arguments over how government ought to operate, and work together on creating new zones for experimentation to actually demonstrate which systems of government work best. We do not endorse individuals or groups who advocate a particular ideology for a new nation at sea – the only rule or meta-ideology on which we are adamant is that citizens are free to exit their jurisdiction if it no longer suits them or if the government becomes abusive. credit: Anthony Ling

The idea of “voting with your boat” kind of flips democracy on it’s head. Explain the idea of using citizenship as a voting tool and why it’s so vital to seasteading. Will this transform taxes into something more like a recurring membership fee?

Seasteading is about creating competition among governments – forcing them to innovate in order to attract a population. The creation of multiple new countries in international waters would grant citizens greater mobility and leeway to enter and exit the jurisdiction of their choosing. In a democracy, we often witness the victory of special interests with the deepest pockets or loudest megaphones over the true will of the people. A single vote rarely sways an election, whereas withdrawing your house has a concrete and measurable effect on the government’s “bottom line.” In most cases, the mere threat of exit to another jurisdiction will cause government to be more sensitive to the needs of its citizens. The recurring membership fee is a great analogy. 

Will it be realistic for larger cities to accommodate “voting with your boat”? If you had a boat-home in the heart of a big city, wouldn’t you basically be stuck there since moving would require a massive reorganization of the homes around you? Similarly, would moving too late to a huge city mean you’re limited to the less-desirable outskirts?

Some cities/citizens may opt for contracts which entail higher costs of exit, but others will account for the desire to leave with greater ease through novel designs, such as the container module semi-submersible, or a breakwater city in which houseboats and buildings float freely in a protected lagoon. The ability to access particular “premium” locations in a larger city will depend on how the contracts are structured between residents and owners of the seastead; but regardless, the fluid medium on the ocean will greatly ease the costs of reconfiguring buildings and will open up new possibilities for dynamic cities and more rapid recombination and evolution of their rules and regulations.

A pessimist could imagine a future in which seasteading facilitates a separation of the rich and the poor. With governments competing for the world’s most valuable citizens, is there a danger that the poor, sick, and elderly (or anyone else with a need for social welfare) might have difficulty finding a community willing to take care of them? Since the idea is to put government onto the free market, a crude analogy might be that you’d probably never find a corporation with a percentage of its budget allocated to hiring non-productive workers.

The rich already have many options in terms of where they travel (i.e., medical tourism), the jurisdiction of their assets to minimize taxation, the schools to which they send their children, etc. It is the world’s bottom billion who stand to benefit the most from greater competition in governance. They are currently locked out of the markets where their skills might be put to productive use because of the archaic “country club” model of closed nation states and immigration. Cruise ships flying under open registry flags may be the closest existing model to the seasteading ideal of competitive governance – these ships offer developing-world laborers higher wages and better conditions than are available on land. A strictly profit-seeking seastead would not admit citizens who are a net drain on society, but it would offer additional options and opportunities for even the worst-off people on earth. Furthermore, we hope and expect to see a growing role for voluntary charity, such as the nonprofit “Mercy Ships” which travel to places in need of healthcare and community development aid.

I’m guessing it will take a while for anyone but the more adventurous “settler” types to move to the ocean, in which case one of the earliest impacts of seasteading may be on already established governments. As you say, “instead of just arguing about politics, seasteading will give people the freedom to demonstrate their ideas in practice” and that “Seasteads will be the world’s first political R&D department”. Do you foresee any specific issues as first to be challenged by seasteads?

Immigration policy and medicine are two areas of regulation which seem most ripe for disruption by the early seastead businesses and communities. The for-profit Blueseed is aiming to work around the US immigration system by providing a live/work space – 12 nautical miles from Silicon Valley – for foreign entrepreneurs who can’t get visas to come pitch their startups in the US. Medical tourism is already a multi-billion dollar industry, creating the opportunity for foreign-flagged ships and platforms to bring innovative or more cost-effective treatments closer to patients – again, just 12 nautical miles from shore, where FDA rules and regulations cease to apply.

credit: Jason Sussberg

What are some of the more “far out” seastead ideas you’ve heard? Ben Goertzel had a post about a resort and research lab for psychedelic drugs. Not meaning to sensationalize the conversation, but stuff like that might inspire people who think politics is boring.

A number of prominent commentators have noted the slowdown in transportation speeds over the past few decades. Prior to 1990 or so, we moved faster and faster, with horse-drawn carriage giving way to trains, cars, and eventually planes and supersonic jets. The retiring of the Concorde jet actually represented a decline in the maximum speed of travel. Now, entrepreneurs like Elon Musk are attempting to resume the positive trend with ideas like the Hyperloop, but they seem impossible due to bureaucracy and conflicting interests on land. Many people have suggested a series of interlocking pneumatic tubes under the sea to transport people and goods around the world at record speeds.   A presenter at our 2012 conference suggested a high-frequency trading center in the mid-Atlantic, to exploit the arbitrage opportunity arising from the time-delay between transactions in New York City and London, based on the physical constraints of data transmission across long distances.   Lastly, many “aquapreneurs” see the potential for algae-based biofuels, harvested from vast open-ocean farms, to someday replace fossil fuels with a carbon-neutral process.

And now for your final pitch! What can people who are interested do to get involved?!

Currently, we are seeking support for our Floating City Project in the form of contributions to our Indiegogo campaign, survey participation at Floating-City.org, or volunteer research into the core challenges of engineering, location/oceanographic analysis, and legal diplomacy with potential host nations. All inquiries can be directed to info@seasteading.org or volunteers@seasteading.org. Lastly, we welcome applicants to our ambassadors program, through which seasteading enthusiasts become deputized representatives of the Institute’s vision and strategy.

Thanks so much to Randolph for the interview! If you’re new to seasteading, you probably still have a thousand questions and concerns (my mom said building a city on the sea was something a cult would do). In that case I recommend checking out the Seasteading Institute’s FAQ, which is quite comprehensive, covering everything from food production to pirates to environmental ramifications. No mention of cults though, mom.   If you’re in California, check out Ephemerisle, a yearly gathering of DIY seasteaders on the Sacramento River Delta. The Seasteading Institute originally launched the event, but since 2010 hasn’t been officially associated.   And of course, you can make a donation, volunteer, or share this article. Or completely ignore seasteading for the rest of your life. The choice is yours!!