Back in the 1990s, a team of visionaries started planning a floating city of 50,000 to 100,000 people, with shops, restaurants, and other amenities, that would travel the globe and let people spend their entire lives at sea.
Named Freedom Ship International, the project was the brainchild of a Florida engineer named Norman Nixon. “As soon as we get this joker built we're going to retire and live on it for two years,” he bragged in 2002.
That never happened. The ambitious project struggled to attract venture capital and was abandoned after the financial crisis. Nixon himself passed away last year.
Things could be about to change for Freedom Ship International, however. Roger Gooch, part of the original team that worked with Nixon, recently sensed a change in the economic climate and decided to try to revive the idea. Gooch, 60, is a marketing man by training (he also formerly owned an insurance company and worked in the travel industry), so he thought he'd do what he did best and get the idea some press. After a few interviews, the idea was back in the spotlight again.
“It's gone viral on the Internet,” Gooch told Business Insider with a laugh. “In the last three or four days we've been inundated with emails and responses and stuff, most of them have — quite truthfully — been very favourable.”
The press is important, Gooch explains, as the company needs to get past the biggest hurdle — the truly astronomical price tag of the Freedom Ship. Gooch estimates that the project would have a budget of $US9-10 billion ($9.93-11.0 billion), but he says it would provide a good return on investment.
Thanks to the new-found attention, Gooch says, a number of private investors have contacted him about the idea, though no venture capital firms have reached out so far. He says his team is now interested in partnering with “notable or established private maritime entities” and has also floated the idea of what he called a “constructive equity capitalisation” — wherein the vendors he would use to construct the Freedom Ship would be given equity in the finished product for discounts of services and goods.
The plans for the Freedom Ship are certainly audacious. The 1.6km-long and 25-storey-high ship would circle the planet every two years, spending roughly 70 per cent of its time moored outside major cities and ports (it will be too big to enter most ports, so residents can fly to and from the shore from the Freedom Ship's onboard airport).
On board, the floating ship would have its own economy, with tens of thousands of people working in shops, bars, and other businesses, and everyone on board paying a maintenance fee to support infrastructure such as security services and fire fighters.
Gooch is adamant, however, that the project is feasible, and points out that technically the idea of a city on a boat is a misnomer — the Freedom Ship is actually a “super platform”.
“There are super platforms now in the world, they're just not mobile platforms or floating cities,” Gooch explains. “There's a large platform Japan uses as an airport. Super platforms are not the question, the question is whether an autonomous city circumnavigating the world can be economically viable, and we truly believe it can.”
(Exactly who “we” is at this point remains unclear: Gooch admits that much of the team that was working on Freedom Ship International 10-15 years ago is no longer involved, and that he needs a project manager and marine architects, but he does say he is one of five currently working on the project.)
Even before its comeback, however, the Freedom Ship project had endured a good amount of criticism, and it seems unlikely that the critics will be satisfied by Gooch's claims.
Back in 2001 Patri Friedman, an American activist and political economy theorist, collected criticism of the Freedom Ship project. Friedman is a supporter of life on the sea (he co-founded the Seasteading Institute, dedicated to studying and promoting floating cities, with Peter Thiel in 2008), but he was forced to conclude that “the project is unrealistic”.
“I am still quite pessimistic,” Friedman said when contacted via email.
For example, he pointed to the struggles of residential cruise ship The World, operated by Residensea, which has struggled financially, despite being 30 times smaller than Freedom Ship.
Friedman likens the idea to a startup tech company. “Here in Silicon Valley, you can raise a million dollars with little more than a good resume and a cool idea that could become the next Google or Facebook,” he writes. “But even Facebook didn't raise a billion dollars until January of 2011, when the company had 600 million users and was worth $US50 billion.
“Rather than trying to build a huge product and then sell it, startups now focus on creating the 'Minimum Viable Product'. This is the smallest thing they can build and get users or, even better, customers to start getting market traction, feedback, and of course revenue.
"The results of that MVP test determine whether venture capitalists will fund their next stage of development. When your Minimum Viable Product is a mile-long city at sea that costs $US11 billion, it's time to go back to the drawing board.”
Even if Freedom Ship can raise the money, there are a lot of complications. For example, CNBC's Roger Gooch points out that the floating city might be considered a tax haven. While Gooch himself acknowledges that some passengers might be able to work out some tax benefits, that isn't the intention of the boat, and he expects most will have to pay taxes in their country of citizenship. The question of legality onboard is a little murky too, though the Freedom Ship will likely have to operate under the laws of the country whose flag it flies.
Still, Gooch remains hopeful. “The question is if there's enough interest globally,” he says. “On the first ship we really only need about 50,000 interested people out of 3 billion, and we've run the numbers and believe there might be a need for 2 or 3 ships down the road. Is the timing now, in this decade? That we're not sure of, and that's why we are exploring it as we are right now to see if there is the demand and the interest.”
And does Gooch want to live on the Freedom Ship himself? “Absolutely,” he replies immediately. “I've been sold on the concept. The first time I heard about it, I thought, if you guys can build this I would live on it.
“I would like it to happen in my lifetime,” he says before laughing. “It better hurry up.”