When innovation must rhyme with inclusion ... Or when Rabelais was still right!

Case study: the failed development of floating islands in French Polynesia

Some information will not be published in this article or only vaguely mentioned because of the moral duty (but not contractual) of confidentiality that binds us to the organization


“Science without conscience is only ruin of the soul” Rabelais told us in his masterpiece Pantagruel in the16th century. Long before the current fast-evolving era of technological innovation, the famous French author warned us against a science, knowledge (and by extension, technological development) without moral frame, without any other motive than mere profit or mathematical progress.


His injunction may therefore be formulated this way: to become wise, know that you should know.


Through our Blog, we had offered you several times the elements of reflection around innovation, progress, artificial intelligence... as much of an element that makes us think first of all about our actions and visions as human beings and about the role of technology in our daily lives.


And in the context of this necessary reflection at a time when technology sometimes becomes faster than the ability of the human mind and our collective social intelligence to integrate it into our daily lives, a local case study enlightened us on this "pantagruelic" problem!

And in the context of this necessary reflection at a time when technology sometimes becomes faster than the ability of the human mind and our collective social intelligence to integrate it into our daily lives, a local case study enlightened us on this "pantagruelic" problem!

In 2017, I was contacted by the Seasteading Institute as part of a project it was planning to conduct in French Polynesia. This contact arose thanks to the local representative of the Seasteading Institute that I know and with whom I have the pleasure to regularly exchange and collaborate since 2013.


The purpose of this exchange was to have an approach and a summary assessment of local institutions, legislative processes and overall the socio-institutional environment in French Polynesia (having navigated myself for several years in the local institutional environment).

Before going any further, it's important to understand what the Seasteading Institute is and where it comes from. The foundation (non-profit) was created in 2008 by two individuals: Patri Friedman (grandson of the American-born Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman) and Peter Thiel (CEO and billionaire investor of Silicon Valley).


The goal of this foundation is to “bring a startup sensibility to the problem of government monopolies that don’t innovate sufficiently. Obsolete political systems conceived in previous centuries are ill-equipped to unleash the enormous opportunities in twenty-first century innovation. Seasteaders envision a vibrant startup sector for governance, with many small groups testing out innovative ideas as they compete to better serve their residents’ needs.

Currently, it is very difficult to experiment with alternative social systems on a small scale; countries are so enormous that it is hard for an individual to make much difference. The world needs a place where those who wish to experiment with building new societies can go to test out their ideas. All land on Earth is already claimed, making the oceans humanity’s next frontier.” (Find out more on their website).


This goal is influenced by the philosophy of the project's founders and many of its members: Libertarianism.


We will not dwell on the content of this socio-economic doctrine but we will remember that, although the roots of the movement are found among European thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the libertarian ideology is today mainly carried out and disseminated from the United States and is strongly imbued with the situation and the current social organization of the United States, notably inherited from the Reagan years.


The influence of this ideology is clearly visible on the foundation's website when the presentation mentions who the members of this foundation are and what they plan to do: “We are credentialed, qualified, pragmatic idealists who plan to apply hard economics, evolutionary principles, and business savvy in order to create the first nations not to aggress against any people.” Three elements: hard economic principles, evolutionary science (or what some would call social Darwinism).


This is not to judge the value of this ideology but to make our readers understand the strongly contextual nature of this ideology within the framework of the members of this foundation, many of them being socially well-off people (even privileged), steeped in the Silicon Valley environment, strongly infused with fierce belief in the social utility of technology but also highly impacted by a highly competitive environment where money is the major decision-making element and where individual freedom (the pioneering spirit of conquest) is taken to the paragon of the social model in contrast to other (more European) models where social solidarity is an important element of institutional organization.


With their project to create spaces of housing outside of any state jurisdiction in a spirit of liberal economy, the foundation went in search of a site to establish their prototype, define the necessary technological tools and start the implementation of their idea.


In this context, the idea of ​​settling in French Polynesia was retained by the foundation, which saw several advantages in terms of available maritime space, geographical location, existing infrastructure…


It was after that that I was contacted by the organization. At that time, in April 2017, I had brought to the organization's attention the need to understand the local socio-economic and cultural context for a successful installation: French Polynesia has its specificities and one should not consider to settle there with a pre-defined model, without seeking to know, understand AND accept the local context.


One element that was particularly problematic was the identified risk of reaction of local trade union organizations in the event that the foundation solicits from the local government facilities, exemptions or even exemptions from the local Labor Code.


The members of the foundation did not view this positively as they were coming from an American culture where unions are seen very negatively. They were also influenced by a pre-defined image of the French social context, which necessarily influences local labor law given the legal status of French Polynesia.


But, moving on despite this local context, the foundation decided to continue its implementation, counting on the local government to collaborate.


Over the months, the organization has set up in Tahiti the 1st "Seasteading Gathering" which took place in May 2017 at the Méridien hotel.


During this event, I was asked to speak as a speaker on the subject, precisely, on the legal regime applicable in the development of this new "unidentified legal object" to which the local legislation was to give an existence and a frame.


On the occasion of this presentation, and beyond the purely legal aspect of the problem, I took the opportunity to recall the basic elements related to such an innovative project: “Given the technological novelty and the potential for development of the project, I am convinced that a minimum basis of checks and legal obligations guaranteeing a sufficient level of security, social and environmental guarantees, a constrained tax frame would be a major asset to ensure the sustainability of the project.”It seemed important to stress that, beyond the strong ideological foundation of the project, it was important to remember that “that the objective of the floating islands is to participate in the response to the current challenges of mankind. They should therefore conform to standards corresponding to the humanistic and futuristic objectives they wish to challenge.” In this case, it was a question of passing the message that “it is right from the outset to engage these floating islands in an ethical and oriented approach towards human development and not the pursuit of purely financial interest. (...) Innovation for both French Polynesia and the rest of the world will be a positive and promising project in a constructive, clear, transparent and dynamic legal framework for the benefit of all.

Innovation for both French Polynesia and the rest of the world will be a positive and promising project in a constructive, clear, transparent and dynamic legal framework for the benefit of all.

In the wake of this conference, the project has grown in scale and concrete implementation work has taken place.


But in parallel, many discussions and situations came to question whether the project's core team had understood the need to integrate into the social, economic, institutional and cultural environment of French Polynesia. And I'm talking not only about participating in cultural discovery workshops ... but to understand and integrate the local element into the workgroups' workflow.


At the time, teams of volunteers who wanted to invest in the project collaborated through the application "Basecamp" project management. Quite quickly, during the exchanges, it became clear that the project was still strongly influenced and steered by the same ideology that had seen its birth and that the potential future occupants of these floating islands planned above all to benefit from an oasis of freedom without really integrating the local population or making it benefit, other than by the traditional (and mostly recognized as inefficient) capillarity. So much so that certain elements completely foreign to the local culture (like the question of the right to carry a gun with you every day) became elements of the conversation.


From these exchanges, the local members of the project began to gradually move away from the project. The local member of the organization (now Blue Frontiers, a for-profit company) has steadily steered the conversation back to the heart of the project: the technological element while raising awareness among the rest of the board about the need for the understanding and integration of the cultural element.

Many things could have been envisioned in this context

Many things could have been envisioned in this context: partnership with the city government in which territory the project would be set up to transfer the tools of new governance for free, establish a partnership with local fishermen to create a fishing base on the artificial island, establish a research and training center to train local engineers ... All ideas pushed by the local representative of the Board of Directors of the company Blue Frontiers but constantly rejected by other members who focused on the expectations of investors and the ideological nature of the project.


Over the months, as the project began to become reality and the population began to realize the imminence of the project without having a real impact, a reaction of rejection began to be felt: online petition, distortion of facts on social networks ...


Unfortunately for the project, this popular rejection came some time before the territorial elections, while the company Blue Frontiers hoped that the government (then officially supporting the project) passes the various legal instruments granting them the expected benefits. Therefore, politically logical, this project has become the issue of political debate and has been caricatured to better serve the interests of each other.


Gradually, after the elections, the project became more and more silent until May 2018 when the local press echoed the announced departure of the project towards less turbulent waters and more "open" ports legally speaking.


Today, the Seasteading Foundation pursues development in Thailand.


What can we take away from this experience for every innovation project?


The Seasteading project, whether it succeeds or not, obviously carries many potential sources of technological innovations that could prove to be beneficial tools for any community.


But like any tool, it is necessary that this tool is used according to the state of mind, the expectations and the local traditions. It is enough to see how other tools (technological such as firearms, socio-economic as the market economy ...) were devastating when implanted without adaptation in cultures that had values ​​or habits different from those having initiated these tools.

As it stood, Polynesian culture and society seemed to be relevant hosts for such a project. The history of Polynesia is that of a people of navigators, living on islands (naturally formed) for generations and having understood the issues of insularity. And so having developed consistent social habits and behaviors.

As it stood, Polynesian culture and society seemed to be relevant hosts for such a project. The history of Polynesia is that of a people of navigators, living on islands (naturally formed) for generations and having understood the issues of insularity. And so having developed consistent social habits and behaviors.


If the Seasteading project had been interested in these elements of the local culture, they would have found many solutions useful to the development of their project.


Unfortunately, they chose to impose a vision and a foreign ideology whose values ​​and foundations (extreme individual freedom, ultimate influence of money ...) were clearly the opposite of the values ​​and foundations of the Polynesian society (family solidarity, respect for the environment and traditions ...). The conflict was inevitable!


This case study allows us to remember how innovation must reconnect with the fundamental elements of the human being: cultures, values, traditions, social links...

This case study allows us to remember how innovation must reconnect with the fundamental elements of the human being: cultures, values, traditions, social links...

It is not a matter of innovating to innovate and then hoping to impose a tool on all humanity. It is a matter of thinking of solutions adapted to each social and cultural space so that the tool is at the service of the population and not that the tool imposes on the population habits and lifestyles unsuited to who they are.


At a time when we are predicting intelligent machines will replace many of our jobs, are we wondering about the cultural impact of these advances? At the time of instantaneous communications without a real filter, are we measuring their impact on naturally insular societies where the retention of information is sometimes the best way to guarantee survival?

It is important for all entities looking for their next innovation to consider the following elements:

  • To be interested in the environment in which they evolve or wish to evolve;

  • To engage social science professionals to help them understand the impact of their creation;

  • To never forget to frame their innovation in clear values ​​and within a clear ethical space to ensure that science will not be without conscience.

Floating islands could have been a great opportunity for inclusive innovation, established in cooperation with the local population and in order to help solve the challenges of all humanity (climate change, global poverty) not only to help a few privileged ones to escape the problems of the vast majority.


And in this story, it is not necessarily the one who is believed to have lost big in this affair (French Polynesia), but perhaps the one who thinks that they have found a more welcoming space in the short term but missed an opportunity to give their idea a global and relevant future.


Five centuries after warning us, Rabelais resurfaces in the turquoise waters of the Pacific to invite us to think about the future we want and not the one the ogre of uniform technology wants to impose on us.

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