Over the following decades, this concept of modularization of floating units was further refined. Current designs have utilized only mobile floating units that together would form a growable structure. Examples include one by the Bjarke Ingels Group, which was a result of the 2019 UN roundtable. The designer considered the Pearl River Delta as a possible test site. At the roundtable, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who was Nigeria’s minister of environment from 2015-16, spoke of the planned autonomy of such structures. She suggested that the adaptive floating structure could rely on its own solar power to mitigate climate change and fuel an electric vehicle-based transportation infrastructure.
The ocean and global communications networks
The growing number of high-tech floating and elevated offshore structures, the large-scale expansion of communication networks to marine surfaces, and new applications of AI such as machine learning and computer vision are important factors in amphibious transformation. Such communication networks create what in this article is understood as urbanization, meaning not the concentration of a number of people in a certain area but access to networks that realize global urban connectivity.
Marine urbanization is a topic that will shape the 21st century. After all, the number of unconventional offshore settlements and industrial facilities, as well as their footprints, are rapidly growing. Since the 1940s, thousands of floating or fixed oil and gas platforms have enabled humans to work permanently offshore while remaining connected to global communication networks. Other floating or fixed structures include harbor facilities, liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, helipads, oil storage, bridges, huge mariculture (marine organism farming) operations, military installations, nuclear power plants, breakwaters, dairy farms, gardens, hotels, and mass-produced high-tech floating homes. One can also add vessels that provide residential and industrial facilities for people such as cruise ships, aircraft carriers, and factory ships for freezing and processing fish.
In near-shore regions, cables and radio towers may connect structures to high-speed communication networks. Further offshore, communication satellites, which were first launched in the 1960s, provide low data rate-based network access including telephone, TV, radio, and (very slow) internet. For decades, navigation systems on ships and platforms have also relied on the Global Positioning System (GPS) and its predecessors. Some of the very recent transformations on and partially below marine surfaces illustrate the tremendous expansion of communication networks.
Smart offshore structures
With demand for server space rapidly increasing, driven by cloud applications and gaming, blockchain technology, streaming and other uses, underwater server farms could become a major ocean industrialization project, adapting to marine conditions to become more autonomous in terms of electricity supply. Microsoft in 2020 stated that a two-year test of an underwater server farm off Scotland was successful, enabling seawater-based cooling that strongly reduced power demand, which was covered by renewable energy. Chinese companies this year began to test underwater server farms off the Hainan free trade port. If constructed at scale and in combination with other offshore structures, underwater server farms will likely become a matter of debate.
While internet-based communication systems rely on server space, they depend on connectivity even more. Space exploration company SpaceX’s ongoing Starlink satellite internet project provides the company’s growing number of offshore rocket launch and landing platforms with high-speed internet access. According to CEO Elon Musk, Starlink promises eventually to enable high-speed internet access even further offshore on ships.
Hearkening back to Tange’s and Fuller’s early cybernetic ideas in marine urbanization, present smart offshore structures connected to the internet constitute artificial communication systems. They still replicate the biological communications of human organs such as eyes and muscles, which are connected through the neural network, allowing humans to recognize and adapt to changing environmental conditions.
Integrating new smart offshore structures into the “internet of things” makes them more autonomous by enabling them to collect real-time data on damage and to make calls for repairs, or to receive meteorological information and respond automatically by shutting down offshore wind turbines during an approaching storm or adjusting floating solar panels according to movement of the sun. In the long run, ride-hailing services may extend to ocean surfaces and support remote work, one of the digitization trends that the pandemic accelerated, which allows people to earn a living from any place where there is online access.
Satellites also extend communication networks in other ways beyond granting offshore access to the internet. Earth observation satellites, for example, help to study Chinese island reclamation projects and the military build-up in the South China Sea. Since the 1960s, satellite images have been providing weather data and capturing marine conditions, ranging from fog, icebergs or the extent of oil spills to surface temperature and, based on the color of the water, the amount of phytoplankton in the sea. Machine learning and computer vision AI tools are now being applied to analyze satellite images to spot illegal activities such as piracy and trafficking, to support autonomous ships, and to recognize approaching natural disasters. Combining the historical data provided by satellite images with real-time “internet of things” data will be relevant for both the design of offshore structures as well as to take out insurance for them, usually a precondition for construction.
Given the amphibious transformation driven by marine urbanization and industrialization, climate change adaptation and mitigation approaches of coastal cities should not be evaluated exclusively with a terrestrial mindset. Vulnerability to floods and storm surges, subsidence, and other disasters is a fast-growing challenge. The anthropogenic rise of sea levels will only intensify their impact, and they are problems that cannot be fully dealt with a terrestrial mindset and its exclusive focus on controlling and removing water. Amphibious or floating adaptation approaches are easily ignored, denied outright, marginalized, or branded as utopian, even though the earth’s surface has continued to experience amphibious transformation through communication network expansion as well as advances in amphibious and floating architecture.