CGI of SeaOrbiter, a €50m robotic ocean vessel designed by French architect Jacques Rougerie
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Critics were not kind when the film Waterworld was released in the summer of 1995. Set in a post-apocalyptic future when the polar ice caps have melted and the earth is drowned, the film’s hero, played by Kevin Costner, attempts to lead survivors to the last remaining land. Much of the filming took place on a floating set off the coast of Hawaii, where the production suffered logistical drawbacks and delays. When it was finally released, critics spent more time on the $175m estimated cost of production — then the most expensive film to be made — than its curious hypothesis of how we might adapt to life on the sea and its prescient point about climate change.

Ever since Jules Verne wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea in the late 1860s, generations of film-makers, writers and wide-eyed dreamers have fantasised about permanent colonies on or under the ocean. The reasons are numerous and compelling, from unparalleled access to uncharted territory to rising water levels and the untapped natural resources of the deep sea.

The ocean also offers the kind of inhospitable environment that can help prepare astronauts for space flight. If human migration to space in the Jetsons era of the 1960s seemed inevitable so, too, did the move to the sea.

In the decades since the space race, an array of scientists, anarchists and tech-utopians have attempted to live out this dream, but almost all efforts, grand and small, were thwarted. Jacques Cousteau, the French explorer who helped establish the first undersea colony, Conshelf, gave up on the idea to focus on conservation. Werner Stiefel, a US entrepreneur, dedicated his life to creating a floating sovereign society he called Operation Atlantis, even buying an oil rig anchored between Cuba and Honduras, only to see it destroyed in a storm.

In 1971, barges piled with sand left Australia and made for two semi-submerged reefs in the Pacific south of Tonga. Real estate tycoon Michael Oliver’s plan was to found the Republic of Minerva, a micro-nation without taxes, welfare or “economic interventionism”, but the government of Tonga had other ideas and six months after the republic’s flag was raised a Tongan expedition dismantled it. A current and wholly more impressive case of island reclamation is China’s continuing efforts on the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Kevin Costner in ‘Waterworld'

But just as investments in commercial space flight by private companies, such as SpaceX and Mars One, have revived the space-age dream, ocean colonisation seems closer now than it has done in decades.

“I think there are two reasons why we are talking about it again today,” says Rutger de Graaf, founder of DeltaSync, a floating urbanisation consultancy. “There’s a sense of urgency to do something because of rapid urban development and land scarcity. The second reason, I think, is that in the times of Jules Verne we did not have all the technology to make floating cities. Today all the technologies that we need — local wastewater treatment, floating platforms, rainwater harvesting — they all exist.”

In different countries across the world there are about 10 enterprises seriously engaged in ocean urbanisation research and development. They are a mix of academic bodies, architecture firms, libertarian venture capitalists and municipal governments, with diverse visions for ocean settlement.

CGI of Shimizu Corporation’s Ocean Spiral

At the extreme end of cost and scale is Japanese engineering firm Shimizu Corporation’s Ocean Spiral, a “deep sea city of the future” designed to exploit the natural resources of the seabed. Resembling a giant bobbing marble, Ocean Spiral’s floating city-sphere has a diameter of 500 metres and comes with a “casual zone” for high-concentration oxygen therapy and deep-sea sightseeing. Winding down below the city is a 15km “infra spiral” to transport energy from an “earth factory” of micro-organisms on the seafloor. Shimizu estimates the city would take five years to build at a cost of Y3tn ($25bn). “The deep sea’s resources are enormous, unlimited,” says Hideo Imamura, a spokesperson for Shimizu. “If we could realise technologies that can develop its resources, [such a city] would pay for itself.”

Jacques Rougerie, a French architect renowned for his grand designs for space and sea, has spent much of the past decade thinking up a habitat with a Verne-esque quixotic vision: to “explore the ocean still widely unknown”. Sea-Orbiter, a €50m “inhabited and robotic drifting oceanic vessel”, is backed by NEEMO, a Nasa mission that readies astronauts for space, and the European Space Agency. When built (in the next few years, with luck) the 51-metre-tall vessel will be kitted out with the latest oceanographic equipment so that the 18 scientists living aboard can seek out new life, monitor climate change and map vast swaths of the ocean floor.

In the US, much of the current enthusiasm for ocean colonisation can be found in Silicon Valley, a place that attracts a certain kind of techno-
optimist on a self-appointed mission to save the world. The idea of a floating city beyond the reach of land-based laws appeals to those who view regulators as adversaries. In 1993 the founders of a planned (but never realised) vast floating settlement off the coast of Panama called Oceania took out an advert in Reason, a libertarian magazine popular in the Valley. It read: “We can break the chains that bind us to land, together with the chains that bind us to government which has become perhaps irreversibly entangled in bureaucracy, corruption, and the free lunch philosophy.”

Submarine Habitat Project by Jacques Rougerie, 1977

While Oceania never took off, the idea of libertarian utopia is alive among some Valley types. At the centre is the Seasteading Institute, a non-profit group founded in 2008 by Patri Friedman, a Google software engineer and grandson of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, and Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal. The plan is to build by 2020 the first semi-autonomous homestead on the sea, or “seastead” — a city-state on floating platforms.

By giving people the legal and ideological freedom to experiment with new models, the hope is that seasteads will become hotbeds of innovation. What they will look like has not been finalised, but the joint-winning entry of a design competition earlier this year, “Artisanopolis”, shows a sprawling snowflake-shaped settlement with aquaponic greenhouse domes and yacht-parking space.

“Seasteading is not a plan for society, but a technology for any group to start their own society,” says Joe Quirk, self-described “seavangelist” and co-author, with Friedman, of Why Seastead? How Floating Nations will Liberate Humanity to be published in 2016. (Among the “eight great moral imperatives” featured on the institute’s website are claims that floating cities can feed the hungry and enrich the poor.) “If you have a better idea for society, don’t force it on people. Persuade people to join your seastead by offering them a better deal.”

An artist’s impression of “Artisanopolis”, a ‘seastead’ created by Gabriel Scheare, Patrick White and Luke and Lourdes Crowley

In this vision, the ideal human habitat can, like an app, be conceived in a boardroom, seed-funded and rolled out to the market en masse. But the most convincing steps towards ocean settlement have arisen more organically, driven by social, ecological and economic forces — an imperative to serve human needs, not fantasies.

In the past century the sea along the coast of the Netherlands has risen by 20cm. “We’re a densely-populated country living in a flood-prone area,” says de Graaf of DeltaSync. “We have a long history of fighting against the water.” As a civil engineering student at Delft University, de Graaf studied the country’s sophisticated network of flood barriers and dykes. In 2006 he co-founded DeltaSync on the belief that instead of fighting the water we should learn to adapt to it. The technology to urbanise the sea exists but is fragmented, says de Graaf. “What we try to do is to put all those different fields of knowledge together into a working concept that can be applied in reality.”

Next year de Graaf plans to move the headquarters of DeltaSync from Delft to the port of Rotterdam. Lying six metres below sea level, Rotterdam is among the first cities in the world to incorporate “floating development” into its urban planning policy. Last year it built Aqua Dock, a floating tech testing ground.

Rotterdam is not, of course, the only city that should be alarmed by the rising sea. De Graaf says that as they grow, many cities would be wise to expand on to water, estimating that increasing global population, rapid urbanisation, rising food demand and environmental degradation will lead to a global land shortage of 22m sq km by 2050. “There are many high-level reasons to invest in floating cities,” says de Graaf. “But we should not forget it would be a lot of fun too, I think, to live on a floating world.”

Photographs: REX/Shutterstock; Patrick Jarnoux/Getty Images

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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