Pioneers Wanted! Fresh New Cities On and Off Shore

October 17, 2012

Post by regular contributor Rafael Gomes de Oliveira.

The need for civil engineers to become more involved in policy making affairs has been a recurring theme in ASCE publications and communications. CEs can interject relevant data regarding infrastructure development in the political discourse and effect decisions that will impact their profession and personal lives. If participation in the domestic political scene is too mundane for you, a pioneering alternative might be to join the leadership team of new city project, either on or off the continental land masses!

Let us start with the off shore option. While the concept of seasteading, the establishment of fully functioning, self-governing communities at high seas, has been around for a little while, it has only recently picked up steam. Following their foundation in 2008, the Seasteading Institute, a non-profit directed toward research on the seasteading field, received a million dollar donation from the Thiel Foundation and was able to likewise increase their research and publicity efforts [1]. Along with other contributions, this action represents an important indication that the seasteading idea has the potential to be more than just a fad., Floating Ecopolis


Seasteading is not to be confused with offshore work stations, which are also being considered as a way to bypass visa issues and facilitate the acquisition of international entrepreneurial talent. Blueseed, a startup community to be located off the coast of San Francisco, has emerged as the most popular offshore work station example.

Seasteads aim to be more self-sufficient and attract a more long-term population, but they need engineering pioneers in order to solve the required technical challenges and advance their goal of building new models of governance. That’s where civil engineers come in. According to George Petrie, smaller seasteads are expected to appear in the next couple of years while “Metropolisteads” (get it? Like, really big seasteads) are due to be completed in the next 20 to 30 years [2]. If you believe Mr. Petrie, now would be the time to start your research and begin connecting with the seasteading industry. Otherwise …insert generic joke about missing the boat…

Out of all engineering professionals, aside from naval engineers, CEs seems to have the best matching skill set to succeed in this new venture both as designers and as citizen-leaders. So, why not?

Another urban alternate gaining prominence is the concept of charter cities. Charter cities are governed by the city’s own charter instead of state and national laws. The denizens of the new cities have the freedom to elaborate and modify the city’s administration according to the norms stipulated on the founding charter. This type of governance allow the people to choose how they want to be ruled based mainly on preference instead of leaving that important decision to factors such as place of birth and complicated bureaucratic change. Charter cities’ open-governments will compete with each other in order to attract new inhabitants by incrementally offering better working and living conditions. “Rule of law, fairness, and a lack of corruption leads to more economic growth than low taxes,” says Patri Friedman [3].

Paul Romer, economist and entrepreneur, is one of the biggest advocates for this charter city model of governance. He details his ideas in this insightful TED video. Romer identifies the success of Hong Kong as a special economic zone and projects the opportunity for special development to other regions. Again, this is an incredible opportunity for civil engineers to make an impact around the world. They can aid in the conceptualization and execution of the infrastructure and suprastructure of these new cities, while along the way creating better living conditions for current and future generations., Hong Kong Skyline

These ideas are far from perfect. They still need a great deal of developing before becoming truly viable (if they ever become viable at all). Issues range in areas such as environmental impact, non-virtual piracy, dangerous weather conditions, neo-colonialism, engineering and self-sufficiency challenges, untried governing and economic models, cultural shock, etc. Nonetheless, as with the opening of space to private interests, they are exciting concepts that will need research and input from civil engineering professionals in order to overcome severe obstacles.

Almost all of us have at some point pondered the question, “if you could build a new society on a deserted island, what would you do differently?” and daydreamed about the numerous potential outcomes. In the near future that thought can go from being mere conjecture to a startling reality.

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  • To me, the idea of seasteading is a little naive. These complexes are obviously going to be dependent on the mainland for things like electricity, food, and manufactured goods, not to mention the many dangers associated with such a project. Charter cities, however, exist in the real world and in theory could spur innovation, much as places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macau do now.

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