Political Innovation in Patri-Dishes: Building a Start-up Sector for Government

Two hundred nautical miles from the US coastline, purposefully located outside the ‘exclusive economic zone’ – the UN-prescribed area over which a state has special rights – eccentric tech billionaire, Peter Thiel and the grandson of Nobel prize-winning economist, Milton Friedman are sowing the seeds for a movement which if successful, could threaten the very notion of government worldwide.

Seasteading picThe Seasteading Institute, which takes its name from the ambiguous concept of creating ‘permanent dwellings at sea’, has embarked on a project of particular relevance to organisational scholars. Proposed structures for ‘seasteads’ have included modified cruise vessels, refitted oil platforms, decommissioned anti-aircraft carriers and even custom-built floating islands (pictured). But besides some hidden motive to replicate notorious Bond villain, Karl Stomberg’s plan to destroy the world and create a new ‘Utopia’ at sea, (the premise of The Spy Who Loved Me), what could possibly be the reason for backing such a Quixotic endeavour? And what can history tell us about humankind’s enduring search for utopia through experimentation with different organisational forms as the very structures which determine collaboration and cohabitation?

The objective outlined in the Seasteading Institute’s mission statement is to question assumptions on which modern organisations are based. This has become a recent preoccupation amongst the Silicon Valley literati who socialise in the same circles as wealthy tech entrepreneurs such as PayPal founder, Peter Thiel. In his book Here Comes Everybody (2008), the oft-quoted US author Clay Shirky, argues that new forms of communication are making once impossible forms of group action possible, giving humans ‘the power of organising without organisations’. In a similar vein, ‘seasteaders’ seek to challenge the current thinking developed within highly ‘institutionalised’ contexts, on how to improve organisations, as the structures which give meaning and coordination to our lives. Elaborated in an interview with the Director, Patri Friedman (below), proposed improvements range from social and environmental benefits to more favourable conditions for doing business which foster innovation and entrepreneurship by removing regulatory interference and government red tape. This in turn, it is argued will lead to a happier, more prosperous society and act as a ‘model for the rest of the world’. A tall order, but the initiative has already received large amounts of funding and support from Google CEO Larry Paige and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, whilst slogans on t-shirts and bumper stickers are now being adopted by residents of Silicon Valley and New York.

So why is this relevant to organisational scholars? As academics across all disciplines continue to question the very building blocks on which society is constructed (the theme of this year’s Academy of Management Conference is ‘Capitalism in Question’) not only does the Seasteading movement capture a certain curiosity towards ‘organisation’ amongst leading business figures, but it proposes a unique testing ground, a ‘patri-dish’ on which to develop new models for government, innovation and business ‘ecosystems’. The same curiosity is reflected in the field of management. A session on ‘real utopias’ during last year’s meeting of the American Sociological Association, produced some fascinating perspectives. Most relevant to management scholars was a paper by Jerry Davis lamenting the rise and fall of ‘The American Corporation’, a structure which essentially took on welfare functions of the State throughout the 20th century. He reviews its history, its failures and draws on alternative organisational forms (e.g. mutual societies and co-operatives) to set out his vision of how local solutions for producing, distributing and sharing can provide a functional alternative to corporations for reducing inequality and improving economic security.

Similarly, organisational scholars are showing a renewed interest in organisational design, which is currently emerging from a hiatus as a result of some important trends, including: 1) the rapid transformation of organisational infrastructure in emerging economies such as India and China; 2) advancement of information technologies resulting from new, big and open data, which has led to experimentation with new business models as well as ‘new forms of organising’; 3) the professionalization of the not-for-profit sector and 4) the relentless attempts of multinationals to enter developing and emerging markets. These phenomena have led scholars to call for new organisational theories which are more relevant to contemporary ‘modes of production’, to the extent where a new online journal devoted to the subject has been established. Renewed interest in fundamental questions related to ‘organisations’ and ‘organising’ gives hope to grad students that contributions are yet to be made as a result of new and emerging phenomena.

With regards to the Seasteading Institute and the question of whether an ambitious social experiment such as this might actually work, the answer I believe lies in the annals of history. There are remarkable parallels between ‘seasteading’ and the Utopian Socialist movement of the 19th century. Early utopian socialists Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon and Robert Owen – all of whom inspired the writings of Karl Marx – presented their own visions of imaginary, ideal societies, which competed with the revolutionary social-democratic movements of the time. Most were dismissed as naïve and ungrounded in the material conditions of society. Yet in 1825, Robert Owen, a Welsh businessman who made his fortune in the Silicon of the day – the cotton industry – collaborated with notable economist, Jeremy Bentham to build physical forms of the ‘ideal society’ (sound familiar?) Together, they founded a series of communes, called ‘Owenite communities’ outside the jurisdiction of the British Imperial State. While some were started by disciples closer to home, such as New Lanark in Scotland, the most famous was founded in New Harmony, (pictured) in Indiana, USA.

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‘Any and all’ were invited to the New Harmony society, and while it attracted a critical mass of enlightened thinkers seeking reform through education, science and technology, it also brought ‘crackpots, free-loaders, and adventurers’. The town was run by committee with its own constitution, under which members ‘would provide their own household goods and invest their capital at interest in an enterprise that would promote independence and social equality’. But after travelling back to England to manage his Manchester cotton mill, Owen later returned to New Harmony to find it in chaos, following the hasty departure of Owen’s business partner and leading committee member, who also took with him most of the capital participants had invested in the project. While ultimately the project failed due to what management scholars might recognise as ‘self-seeking with guile’, The New Harmony project made long-lasting contributions to the fields of natural sciences, education and public policy.

It would be too easy to conclude that the experiment was ‘doomed’ or at the very least premature, and thus likely to fail. But many years before the welfare state, Owenite communities questioned the role of government in providing essential social welfare services, and more specifically the organisation of activities which contribute to human development including education, science and technology. Despite the possibility of seasteaders suffering a similar fate in years to come, our relentless desire for self-improvement and our curiosity to question taken for granted notions by which we live our lives, is at the heart of what concerns us as organisational scholars. Indeed, the challenges that confront us are captured in the words of Josiah Warren, a participant in the New Harmony society, who later said of the project: “We had a world in miniature… we had enacted the French revolution over again with despairing hearts instead of corpses as a result. It appeared that it was nature’s own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us … our “united interests” were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation”. Even today, despite the many checks and balances and nearly two hundred years of evolution, the same issues are as relevant to organisational scholars as they were to the participants of the New Harmony experiment.

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