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New 'floating' cities

FRIZZE / What began in the 1950s and 60s as converted cruise ships, adapted oil platforms, anti-aircraft bases, floating radio stations and abortion clinics has gained new relevance with digital technology. For the liberalist idea of ​​being 'free', new technology is essential: smart cities, continuous online, use of crypto-currency and direct elections.


30 years ago, an exciting, new internet heralded a future that was free, without borders and identity. It happened in a global context where it seemed almost impossible for the state to control poverty, environmental and climate challenges, international crime and epidemics. The world's financial elites suddenly saw that digital technology could enable 'free ports' so they could avoid taxes and regulations. The 'free ports' have not only ended up on the drawing board, but in the last decade have been attempted to be established both in San Francisco Bay, on an island in the Danube, an oil platform outside Sussex and in French Indonesia.

Digital technology does not like the nation-state. It is, in fact, one technology which is based on libertarian principles. The emphasis is on freedom to act and speak – without censorship. The technology is limitless, decentralized and present almost everywhere. The national state's challenge is that it is based on control. Without control over information, crime, financial transactions, borders or money supply, it stops delivering what citizens expect. When the nation-state was declared dead in 1995, only a few tens of millions of people in the world were on Internet. Today there are more than 4 billion.

The gig economy

Millions of people are already using bitcoin– and blockchain technology to wrest control of money supply away from central banks and governments. The processes create new identities and value bases that are not national. More and more see themselves primarily as 'global citizens'. App technologies such as Uber and Deliveroo have created a sudden growth in the so-called gig economy – based on short-term rather than permanent contracts. The development was estimated before 2020/21 to have cost the UK government £3,5 billion in lost tax revenue.

"Power in the 21st century belongs to those who solve problems."

according to Bruce Katz, urbanist and director at the Brookings Institution think tank, the world is now moving 'beyond' the nation state. It has to be rethought because we are in an 'in between' state. He writes: "Cities are not inferior to nation-states, they form powerful networks of institutions and actors that drive economic development. Power in the 21st century belongs to those who solve problems. National authorities speak most of the time. Cities act. The power comes increasingly from the cities and up. It is not delivered from the national state down."

But the national state does not voluntarily give up power, tax revenues and resources. Distinguishing new forms of sovereign exercise of power means creating completely new city statuses, believes Paul romer, former chief economist at the World Bank. He has long advocated the creation of 'cities with charters' – i.e. special, administrative city zones that largely operate independently. Cities that work are the right size, he claims. A city with its own charter, preferably built on uninhabited land, will provide the opportunity to experiment with innovative rules and systems that attract investment and people. Romer's ideas are based on the cooperation that China and Great Britain had on Hong Kong.

Economic export zones that have existed for a few decades are another example. They are geographical areas that are physically secured by the host country, but operate with a different set of economic laws, taxation and labor regulations. The purpose is to encourage foreign investment.

Seasteads og freeland

Building new cities on new land is also necessary because climate deterioration, seas that rise and areas that sink. The big cities in Asia are especially at risk. Some want to build new cities floating in international waters – seasteads – so that they cannot be reached by states and their military forces. Others look for enclaves in the borderland between states, such as Croatia and Serbia, where a freeland is being established on an island in the Danube. 100 people have signed up as citizens, willing to immigrate if Croatia lets them in. A constitution, a currency, a president and a national football team are already in place. "It is a tax heaven, not a tax haven, and a paradise of freedom", according to founder Vit Jedlica.

The term seasteading has been developed in at least two publications: Ken Neumeyer in the book Sailing the Farm (1981) and Wayne Gramlich in the article "Seasteading – Homesteading on the High Seas" (1998). Seasteading- the term involves creating permanent homes at sea outside states' territory. The term is a combination of sea og homesteding. No one has so far created a structure at sea that has been recognized as a sovereign state. Representatives of seasteading- movement claims that such independent, floating cities will more quickly promote methods to "feed the hungry, heal the sick, make the air cleaner and the poor rich". Critics rather believe that seasteads has been developed for the financial elite to avoid taxes, regulations and other challenges.

Autonomous, mobile societies

The collaboration between Patri Friedman – grandson of Milton Friedman – and Gramlich led in 2008 to the establishment of The Seasteading Institute (SDI). The purpose was to promote the establishment of autonomous, mobile communities on floating platforms in international waters. Friedman and Gramlich took the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as their starting point. According to it, a country's exclusive economic zone extends 200 nautical miles (370 km) from land. In sea areas outside this limit, only the jurisdiction of the flag of the ship that is sailing applies. A 'seastead' could therefore, the two believed, take advantage of the absence of laws and regulations and experiment with new governance systems. And also give citizens of existing states the opportunity to emigrate.

The thinking was that if you don't like the governing system in the country you live in, just sail away to another one that you like. That means it's as easy as changing series on Netflix, ordering an Uber or meeting someone on Tinder. Friedman envisions that each seastead will be different and that this will create competition and a need for improvements. Especially if the nation-state begins to decay. New technology is essential: smart cities, continuous online, use of crypto-currency and direct selection. Functions that were not available then, e.g. parliamentarism was developed.

... special, administrative city zones that largely operate independently.

As a basis for establishing the first seasteaden i San Francisco Bay researches SDI on building new communities. Starting small with simple and proven technology was the starting point. Gradually, what was long seen as pure science fiction became technologically possible. Academics, technocrats, architects, even governments – such as China – are now working on prototypes. What began in the 1950s and 60s as converted cruise ships, adapted oil platforms, anti-aircraft bases, floating radio stations and abortion clinics has gained new relevance with digital technology.

The national state – still a prerequisite?

There are several initiatives. On 13 January 2017, the Seasteading Institute signed a letter of intent with French Polynesia to build a first prototype. However, the agreement was not approved as a legally binding document and expired the same year. And outside Sussex on the Hill Fort Roughs oil platform, the self-proclaimed prince Paddy Roy Bates claims dominion. And Croatian police refuse any entry to the Liberland island in Croatia.

The conclusion is then that, as with the economic export zones, a nation state is needed to realize the plans for floating, new cities. It is not enough to believe.


What is one 'by'?

Historically, decisions to build a 'new city' have almost always been based on political decisions made by local or national authorities. It was true of Naples (Neopolis) thousands of years ago, of the last century's New Dehli, New Frankfurt and the British new towns. And that applies to the more than 200 new cities China will build by 2025. Officially, a new city is one that has been built from the ground up and developed in line with a master plan. There are large and small 'new cities' and the degree of independence varies from country to country.

In the book Rising New Towns in the East – Contemporary New Towns (2011), the new towns are classified on the basis of the rationale for their construction:

- Eco-city – to ensure an optimal environmental approach
- The political city – to represent national or local authorities
– The enclave city – a haven in relation to an existing city
- The economic city – attracting investment and giving the national economy a new start
- The technological city – to use technology as an attraction for investment
- Husly-byen – to provide homes for the many

An important question, however, is how many people actually live in planned and designed environments such as cities, towns or neighbourhoods. Today, far more people probably live in urban environments that are not planned by professionals, but organized by the residents themselves. It is the informal city that is spreading rapidly throughout the Global South. The UN estimates that by 2030, 1 billion people will live in slums and favelas. Far more than in planned cities.

Eric Berg
Erik Berg
Erik Berg worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs / NORAD from 1978 to 2013. He now heads Habitat Norway.

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