Offshore floating complexes

19 August 2022


Offshore floating complexes

Reported by Nick Cosstick, Policy Researcher, Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP)

CSaP partnered with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s (Dstl) Defence Science and Technology Futures (DSTF) programme for a series of workshops on ‘offshore floating complexes’ (OFCs)––theoretical floating settlements.

OFCs (sometimes referred to as ‘seasteads’) might be made from existing offshore infrastructure or purpose built. They have the potential to be very large in scale––floating cities––but could also be relatively small. In a future where more people can choose to live and work sustainably at sea, the rise of OFCs may become a reality. Migration to OFCs might be motivated by climate change, natural disasters, war, or even ideology. From a defence and security perspective, the interest lies in four questions. What happens if large-scale OFCs become a reality? What would that look like? What issues might the government need to respond to? How could––and should––the government respond to those issues?

CSaP convened a series of workshops for DSTF, which brought together a group of experts in defence, engineering, technology, law, commerce, urban design, and history to discuss the potential future challenges posed by OFCs and to generate solutions to them.

Reflecting on the workshops, Melissa Dawon, Senior Principal Consultant, Dstl said:

The collective knowledge, enthusiasm and sharing of perspective in the room was fascinating and hugely valuable to me.

The first workshop was held online on 27 January 2022. Its purpose was to scope out the challenges posed by OFCs and generate ideas for a larger workshop to address them. Attention was paid to the feasibility of OFCs––technically, financially, legally, economically, and strategically. The workshop began with a consideration of the technological feasibility of large-scale OFCs. It was generally agreed that OFCs are technologically feasible, as evidenced by the ‘very large floating structures’ already in existence––such as the Mega-Float airport in Japan. Their financial feasibility is a more complicated issue. Building an OFC, in line with standard safety regulations, would come at an enormous cost. This raises questions regarding the practicality of such a venture.

OFCs also face legal issues regarding their internal governance and their interactions with states. There exists a richly developed law of the sea, codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UCLOS, which provides certain limitations on the legal development of large-scale OFCs. For example, OFCs could not interfere with lines of transit or with the maintenance of peace. The economic issues thrown up by OFCs are partly dependent upon their legal status. The economic incentives for moving to a large-scale OFC might depend upon it having some sovereignty. For example, having autonomous taxation power might lead to an OFC becoming a tax haven. The strategic feasibility of OFCs was also questioned, since they would be very difficult to defend.

The first workshop concluded with an outlook towards the second. Four models possible scenarios of the conceivable forms which future OFCs might take––based on the attendees’ contributions––were outlined: a billionaire’s project, a criminal enterprise, a state-sponsored political provocation, and a grassroots undertaking.

The second workshop was held in Cambridge on 10 May 2022. Its purpose was to flesh out the four models in terms of what they would look like and how they might be responded to. Attendees were split into four groups. Each was tasked with developing a clear picture of the most likely incarnation of each scenario. This included its design (from an engineering and city planning perspective), legal status, and an explanation regarding how it might come about. Next, groups reconvened to outline the most likely consequences of, and responses to, each scenario. In general, it was agreed that the best solution to the problems posed by OFCs would be to catch the problem early and use the methods of diplomacy to keep international law up to date with technological advancements. It was argued that further work is needed to map out all the possible forms OFCs might take, the consequences they might have, and the preventative measures required to deal with them.

Image credit: Joel Ambass on Unsplash

Nick Cosstick

Centre for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge