Historic Seasteading agreement to see floating city built in French Polynesia

A landmark agreement has been signed between the government of French Polynesia and the Seasteading Institute that lays the foundations for the establishment of a floating city in the country’s waters.

Signed on Friday, 13th January, the agreement will see the government and non-profit cooperate to develop a legal framework for what they are now calling The Floating Island Project.

Although located within the territorial waters of French Polynesia, the floating island will have its own governing framework and economic regulations, allowing it to attract businesses with offers of low – if any – taxation and little red tape.

However, it should also offer significant benefits to the nation, by not only bringing jobs and preventing a brain drain on the archipelagos, but also offering resilience to rising sea levels associated with climate change.

“Our seasteading collaboration with French Polynesia was initiated by the Tahitians themselves and will bring jobs, economic growth, and environmental resiliency to the region,” explained Randolph Hencken, executive director of the Seasteading Institute.

“Signing the memorandum of understanding with French Polynesia is an important first step, and a huge milestone for seasteading.”

Images courtesy of The Seasteading Institute

The agreement is a vital step in what has already been a long journey towards the development of such a floating city. Back in September, a delegation from the Seasteading Institute examined multiple sites around French Polynesia, as well as meeting with several of the nation’s senior ministers.

Now a memorandum of understanding (MOU) has been signed, the next steps will be to complete and extensive environmental assessments of the ocean and seabed, as well as the completion of an economic analysis by the Seasteading Institute to demonstrate the financial benefits to the nation.

“The Seasteading Institute and the government of French Polynesia will draw from the best practices of more than 4,000 existing Special Economic Zones around the world to create a ‘Special Economic SeaZone,’” added Hencken.

“The SeaZone will combine the advantages of French Polynesia’s geopolitical location with unique regulatory opportunities specifically designed to attract businesses and investors.”

When construction finally begins on the floating islands, it will be funded by investors in the Seasteading Institute, with a total anticipated cost somewhere between $10m and $50m. The floating platforms that will house the city have already been designed by Dutch engineering firm Blue21, meaning the focus now is on making the concept work for the area.

The organisation plans for many businesses on the floating island to be areas of clean-tech, meaning there are likely to be numerous skilled jobs available to the people of French Polynesia.

“We need to create new clean-tech and blue economy jobs for our youth, and this project has the potential to be a real game-changer locally,” said Marc Collins, former Minister of Tourism for French Polynesia. “This project could help us retain our bright minds, who would otherwise emigrate for work.”

However, with many of the country’s islands under threat from rising sea levels, the project also could provide a long-term survival solution for the nation.

“Polynesian culture has a long history of seafaring across the Pacific Ocean that will contribute to this ambitious project. More than most nations, our islands are impacted by rising sea levels, and resilient floating islands could be one tangible solution for us to maintain our populations anchored to their islands,” added Collins.

“For many Polynesians, leaving our islands is not an option.”

Unfortunately, we’ve chosen to build our cities out of two completely unsustainable materials: steel and concrete. If we want to lower carbon emissions we are going to have to invent new materials pretty quickly. Could looking to nature hold the key? We find out more

Pretty much ever since we stopped using branches and twigs to build homes, we’ve thought of concrete and steel as the materials of choice when it comes to construction. But these materials are responsible for as much as a tenth of worldwide carbon emissions, so we have two choices: either we start producing steel and concrete in more energy-efficient ways, or we create new building materials to take their place.

Ask the US’ Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) or University of Cambridge bioengineer Michelle Oyen what they think the cities of tomorrow will be made of, and they might answer bone, bark, egg shells or spider’s silk.

DARPA and Oyen are part of a growing movement that sees biomimicry, or the principle of seeking sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies, as the future of construction.

The benefit of letting nature guide our construction techniques is obvious. For example, despite knowing its cost to the environment we use steel because it’s really good at taking tension, but spider’s silk is stronger than steel and more flexible – because it is a perfectly designed composite of proteins. It makes sense then that we stop using steel and prop buildings up with spider’s silk; apart from anything else who wouldn’t want to live in a city that looks like Spiderman has had a particularly busy night of webslinging. The reason we don’t is because the construction industry is set in its ways, and we believe we can ‘green’ steel. But why bother when nature has already given us a better alternative?

Disrupting construction

“The construction industry is a very conservative one,” said Oyen in a statement. “All of our existing building standards have been designed with concrete and steel in mind. Constructing buildings out of entirely new materials would mean completely rethinking the whole industry. But if you want to do something really transformative to bring down carbon emissions, then I think that’s what we have to do. If we’re going to make a real change, a major rethink is what has to happen.”

Featured image courtesy of eVolo

Featured image courtesy of eVolo

If we want to move to a more sustainable future then some of our preconceptions about construction are going to have to be disrupted. The principal assumption that has to change is: just because we can make buildings out of concrete and steel, doesn’t mean we have to or we should. The cement industry, for example, is one of the world’s most polluting, accounting for 5% of man-made carbon-dioxide emissions each year, as making and transporting concrete puts a massive burden on the environment.

There seems to be little desire to change. Retrofitting old kilns to improve thermal efficiency could lower concrete manufacturers’ energy usage by two-fifths, according to the Carbon Disclosure Project, but even this would only represent symbolic greening.

What is needed is drastic change, and what could be more dramatic than replacing concrete and steel with bone? While bone cities may seem haunting at first glance, bone is stronger than steel, and just one cubic inch of it can bear a load four times greater than concrete. Bone gets its strength from having a roughly equal ratio of proteins and minerals – the minerals give bone stiffness and hardness, while the proteins give it toughness or resistance to fracture. Bones also have the advantage of being self-healing, which is another feature that engineers are trying to bring to biomimetic materials.

DARPA’s living materials

The US’ research agency, DARPA, has already realised that living materials provide many advantages, as they can be grown where needed, self-repair when damaged and respond to changes in their surroundings. The agency has recently launched the Engineered Living Materials (ELM) programme to create a new class of materials that combine the structural properties of traditional buildings with the added benefits that living systems provide.

Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources

“The vision of the ELM programme is to grow materials on demand where they are needed,” said ELM programme manager, Justin Gallivan. “Imagine that instead of shipping finished materials, we can ship precursors and rapidly grow them on site using local resources. And, since the materials will be alive, they will be able to respond to changes in their environment and heal themselves in response to damage.”

Being able to construct with living materials could offer significant benefits; however, DARPA has commenced its ELM programme because it concluded that scientists and engineers are currently unable to easily control the size and shape of living materials in ways that would make them useful for construction. But Oyen and her team at the Oyen Lab (which came into being in 2006 at Cambridge University’s Engineering Department) have been constructing small samples of artificial bone and eggshell, which they believe could be scaled up and used as low-carbon building materials.

Oyen’s laboratory

“What we’re trying to do is to rethink the way that we make things,” said Oyen. “Engineers tend to throw energy at problems, whereas nature throws information at problems – they fundamentally do things differently.”

Oyen cites eggshells as an example of nature doing something totally different that we can mimic. “If you look at a chicken, they go from zero to eggshell in 18 hours,” said Oyen in an interview with the Guardian. “It’s almost a millimetre thick, 95% ceramic and it has this organic component that makes it very tough. The whole thing has been put down in an extremely short period of time, at an ambient pressure and at body temperature, barely above ambient temperatures.”

Nature has already given us an idea of the kinds of resilient and sustainable materials that could be used to build the cities of the future. Oyen’s eggshells are already much more resistant to fracture than manmade ceramic. The experiments being carried out by Oyen and DARPA will hopefully contribute to the construction industry taking the way nature creates sustainable structures and putting this knowledge into practical use. Then we may well see skyscrapers made out of bone and eggshell.

factor-archive-28“From a timeline perspective,” said Oyen, “for the last 10 years we’ve been trying to figure these things out. We’ve probably still a few more years to go and then maybe the following decade will be taking all the things we’ve learned and being able to apply them to making new materials.”