Why Peter Thiel Wants To Build Floating Cities
Peter Thiel is one of the most creative philanthropists on earth. While the Indian government wants to build smart cities across the country, billionaire philanthropist Thiel wants to build permanent settlements at sea.
To accomplish his mission, Thiel funds Seasteading Institute, a non-profit organisation that intends "to establish permanent, autonomous ocean communities to enable experimentation and innovation with diverse social, political, and legal systems”. Why? These floating cities, as conceptualised, will be built of modular blocks that would allow rearranging, separating and joining neighbourhoods and blocks.
As Union Urban Development Minister M Venkaiah Naidu announced the winners of the smart cities challenge today, it may be interesting to look at why Thiel wants to build cities on water when there is no inherent shortage of land.
Those who support this venture think that with a floating city made of modular blocks will open the option to try out different urban layouts by separating and joining blocks and neighbourhoods whenever necessary to create a new urban layout. They also think that floating cities will give them more spacious platforms than what they find on earth.
The underlying concept behind floating cities is that as the policies in the existing large cities change slowly, people may be quite willing to move into such floating cities if they become prosperous. Some believe that the world's first floating city is just a few years away, but they have already run into constraints, like finding the waters which do not fall into a nation's territory. Floating cities may or may not become a reality, but the underlying concept behind it is illuminating. The Narendra Modi government's smart city mission has much to learn from “seasteading” and other initiatives that Thiel funds.
Thiel Foundation, for example, offers $ 10,0000 and other resources to students who drop out of school to start businesses. Why? It is almost impossible to change human behaviour by philosophising. But, people change when you offer them strong incentives to change. Ideology may not change them, but incentives will. This is true not just of firms, but also of cities and people. Currently, even when policies in cities are antiquated, people do not have strong incentives to learn more about those policies and change them. The concept of floating cities assumes that if you prove that a city has popular policies, more and more people would want to be a part of it.
Thiel, the founder of Paypal, thinks that floating cities will influence policy across the country, like the successful cities and states do. The Narendra Modi government has already come to grips with this concept, and is trying to improve public policy by asking Indian states to compete with each other. The government, for instance, has asked Indian states to make business dealings easier, and had urged them to learn from the best practices of each other. Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis thinks that cities having more autonomy will improve public policy, not just in those cities, but also throughout the country.
It is possible that floating cities may never become a reality. But, the concept highlights a truth. It takes a very long time for a consensus to emerge, and this is especially true in a large, diverse nation like India. But, technological progress is much faster. The smart city mission emphasizes technology. But, developing countries have done a fairly good job of importing technology from the developed countries. We do not hesitate to buy the sophisticated devices developed in the First World. But, this is not true of the policy.
Subash Chandra, the chairman of Zee Media recently said that when he launched his first TV channel in India, it was illegal, according to the laws then existed. TV channels are now widely popular, and they no longer face such resistance. When you show the world what is possible, the resistance weans. This is because technology progresses faster than human beings do. This is why even though Gurgaon has many of the best technology firms on earth, civic infrastructure in the city is woefully inadequate. For civic infrastructure to improve, policy needs to change, and for policy to change, voters, politicians and policy makers needs to change. This takes generations. A prosperous city like Gurgaon needs the consent of the large majority of voters to implement policies that would improve civic infrastructure.
Will technology allow cities to try various urban layouts, circumventing such political constraints? It is hard to tell.