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The Seasteading Institute and French Polynesia have developed an innovative co-operation agreement that may signal a way to bridge the divide between tech and regulatory bodies.

From ecological co-operative housing to repurposing shipping containers for use as floating student housing, there is no shortage of innovative housing ideas. Perhaps most innovative was the Seasteading Institute’s 2008 proposal to build artificial floating islands in the middle of the ocean, as a place free of heavy handed government interference. The project quickly attracted financial backing from venture capitalists such as Peter Thiel. However, after six years, it failed to bring in enough investment to build a safe and self-sustaining society in the ocean. According to Seasteading Institutes’ recent vision statement, “The high cost of open ocean engineering serves as a large barrier to entry and hinders entrepreneurship in international waters. This has led us to look for cost-reducing solutions within the territorial waters of a host nation.” Now, the Institute may have found a new way forward with an innovative deal.

In January 2017, the Institute secured an agreement with French Polynesia to co-create a seazone with “a special government framework” in the protected waters of a Tahitian lagoon. The Institute simultaneously announced creation of a startup company, Blue Frontiers, to administer the seazone and build floating islands designed to adapt organically to sea level change, by 2020. The project has since attracted considerable criticism from the people of French Polynesia, who are concerned that the islands would simply become a floating tax haven for the wealthy, and do nothing to bring economic benefit to the island nation, which suffers from a high unemployment rate and has a GDP of just USD 5.6 billion. There is also concern that the project could end up degrading the ocean eco-system in an area already under threat from global warming.

The change in direction of the Seasteading Institute’s project may be a sign that Silicon Valley is starting to reconsider its anti-government stance. In fact, there seems to be a new acknowledgement that government regulation, far from hindering innovation, can provide important support. Energy startup UPower, which hopes to build small, efficient reactors that can recycle nuclear waste, is limiting its testing to countries that have a strong nuclear regulatory framework in place. And without SEC regulations to limit financial losses from identity theft, Thiel’s Paypal might have found it difficult to find people willing to give their credit card information to an online company. It seems that Seasteading may indeed be a solution to a problem that does not, in fact, exist. In what ways can government and technology work together in the future to build bridges to innovation?