Essay

Blue Ocean Strategem


Blue Ocean Strategy is the name of a famous disruptive innovation strategy, proposing a 6 path framework for the capture of so-called blue oceans, new markets where the blood of competitors hasn’t turned the ocean red.  The metaphor of the ocean in this strategy is not incidental, rather the ocean in its reception historically represents a “smooth” space of innovation and experimentation, which not only promises a new market without competition, but also without regulation. Increasingly, the ocean itself is becoming a space for deployment of blue economy business models, disrupting the sensitivity of oceans ecosystems and their temporal, scalar and relational chains of cause and effect.

The ocean as projection surface reflects back on us the question of how we can structure planetary governance beyond territory, without leaving it to the disruptive strategies of private multinational companies. Historically interwoven with the emergence of the free market and notions of risk and uncertainty and conceptually placed as a contested space between smooth and striated modes, the ocean becomes a powerful negotiation zone for planetary governance and desirable change.




Frontiers & The Free Market

In the colonialist narrative, the ocean functioned as a frontier, a liquid passageway revealing a terra nullius (nobody’s land) only ‘waiting’ to be discovered (Frost 1992). The frontier, unlike the boundary, is directed at areas outside of the center, framing them as ‘places of experimentation (and even lawlessness) where settled patterns of the center are challenged and manipulated’ (Dixon and Monk, 2014). The ‘blue ocean’ of disruptive innovation is such a frontier, which comes into existence through experimentation and lack of regulation, breaking with the standards and approaches of established markets. In a lot of ways, the ocean as frontier has shaped the notion of innovation and disruption, with the opening of the world oceans creating “the cultural context in which the universe could be conceived of as an infinite, empty space” (Carl Schmitt, quoted in Bratton 2015, p.30).

The ocean can also be understood as the birthing place of a global free market economy. In 1609, the concept of the ocean as a global commons was formulated by Hugo Grotius in the mare liberum treatise. The direct trade on the seas lead to similar developments on land, stimulating the emergence of a free global market (Mare Amoris, X). The concept of the ocean as global commons was itself guided by geopolitical intentions, aiming to dispute the Portugiese *mare clausum,*which would have locked out the Dutch from trading in the ‘East Indies’.

Smooth / Striated

The legal argument of the mare liberum linked the ocean to airspace, arguing that both are not susceptible to occupation, and that their use is ‘destined for all men’ (Grotius 1609/ 2005). Most of the arguments that followed focused on the ability or inability to effectively occupy ocean space. In the reality of most people, oceans exists solely as a mediated phenomenon (Silva 2020) - more often than not, they are imagined as flat surfaces, even more so than the earth. The oceans main component is unruly, it circulates and crosses over boundaries in the way that land does not, and it is volumetric, not flat. It is when we shift away from flat surfaces such as the seabed or the ocean’s surface and instead consider the ocean a volumetric space that we can avoid “the trap of treating geopolitics as a flat discourse that privileges claims to territory” (Hannigan 2016).

The ocean conveyor belt - as Thermohaline circulation is sometimes called - describes the phenomena of ocean currents that unite four of the five oceans into a global system. Ocean currents move both horizontally and vertically between layers of different heat and salinity. The ocean is a dynamic space, which defies the compartmentalisation of land-based exploitation, letting plastic waste surface far beyond the site of its original disposal:  “the vast ocean confronts us with the memory of all our industrial sins, which can no longer be repressed” (Gabrys 2019). In The Stack, Benjamin Bratton traces the metaphor of water in connection to platforms, citing Buckminster Fuller who argued that “the fearful sovereign nation politicos will find that trying to arrest networking is like trying to arrest the waves of the ocean.” (Fuller, quoted in Bratton, 2015). The ocean represents an unruly space beyond territorial governance, but it is increasingly encroached on by technological developments and their associated forms of governance, such as remote sensing, deep sea mining and bio-probing.

More and more, the seabed is placed in analogy to the land, with states starting to claim seabed outside of their territorial zone, arguing that it represents an extension of their land. Through technological and governmental developments and sparked initially by the invention of navigation, the ocean is increasingly becoming what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call a ‘striated space’ (Adkins 2015). Originally understood as a smooth space that is fluid, nomadic and outside of territory, the ocean as ‘striated space’ becomes susceptible to regulation, governance and territorial claims (Adkins 2015). The ocean as a smooth Other, invokes anxiety and disorientation, to which striation is a reaction intended to make sense of what is perceived as alien. However, the systems that originally striate smooth space have themselves become a form of ‘smooth space’, smoothing out boundaries, opening up markets and deterritorializing production, with capital tending "towards a smooth space defined by uncoded flows, flexibility, continual modulation, and tendential equalization"(Hardt, Negri 2001).

Extractivism & Resilience

The mare liberum treatise, while formulating the ocean as a space of non-territory and beyond national governance, also reduced the ocean to a resource. It set the stage for an increasing striation of the ocean in the name of the commons, and found its modern day conclusion in the Law of the Sea passed at the 1958 Geneva convention. The ocean was split into three different areas - the territorial sea which encompasses waters 12 miles of land, a so-called contiguous zone which ends 200 miles from land and finally the rest of ocean space, coined only The Area. The Area was designated the “heritage of mankind”, marking it as a potential zone outside of territorial conceptualisation, while solidifying it as an area of human activity and resource extraction. The deep sea is increasingly envisioned as a treasure trove of resources, not just of ‘classic’ resources such as rare earth metals, oil and gas, but also of miracle drugs and cures developed through bio-prospecting of ancient lifeforms of the deep, advertising its potential to save humanity and its resilience in a turn to a blue economy (Hannigan 2016).

A familiar form of resource extraction can be found in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone which lays outside of national territory. So-called deep sea mining functions by sucking up manganese nodules from the sea floor with automated vehicles steered from a platform on the water surface. Together with the nodules, small particles are sucked up as well, separated from the nodules and returned not to the seabed, but pumped out in the oceans middle layer instead. Disruptive technologies such as deep sea mining are literally disrupting marine ecologies and their sensitivites which are still unknown to scientists. While these technologies are praised for being minimally invasive in comparison to their land counterparts, the specific chains of cause and effect in deep sea ecologies are still unknown to us and function at different temporal and physical scales than on land. Whereas disruptive innovation requires a pre-emptive immediacy that acts almost as a self-fulfilling prophecy, ocean ecology is organised by a form of geological deep time.

Regulation

To regulate mining of manganese nodules containing rare earth metals in the zone, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) was established in 1994, with a provisional regulatory framework for so-called exploration contracts. What is interesting about the ISA from the perspective of planetary governance is its position as an independent international body overseeing ‘The Area’. It was established in order to protect the Area from sovereignty claims, assure the use of Area resources for peaceful purposes as well as the equitable share of economic benefits “on a non-discriminatory” basis, with special consideration for the interests of developing states such as the pacific island nations around the Area. It is through the strategic acquisition of exploration contracts and national companies from the Republic of Nauru, the Republic of Kiribati and now the Kingdom of Tonga, that the Canadian The Metals Company operates its testing of a deep sea mining system in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone. At public presentations, TMC CEO Gerard Barron is proud to pitch their deep sea mining efforts as an “America First” rare earth supply chain, with nodules going directly to the US for processing and implementation in electric car batteries (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQ8l6RxfTXQ&t=394s).

The ISA still operates on provisional regulation and without a finalised mining code. In 2021, the Republic of Nauru triggered a section of the Law of Sea Implementation Agreement which sets a two-year deadline for a mining code, a deadline which passed in 2023 without a final agreement. Now, the ISA has to provisionally consider and approve deep-sea mining contracts without an overarching set of regulations, with The Metals Company and Nauru intending to begin mining in 2024. More importantly, the ISA is a regulatory body without the technological means to enforce its provisional regulation. Without any submersibles and monitoring technologies, governance through the ISA remains on paper. The situation represents an important example for the problems of governance outside of territory and the ocean as a negotiation zone for planetary governance.

Risk & Strategy

The exploration of the oceans as well as the deep sea requires technological innovation and often involves the notion of risk and uncertainty. It was in the context of marine trading that the first forms of insurance emerged, in order to diffuse the concentrated risks of marine trade according to agreed upon levels of uncertainty (de Roover 1945). The ocean has since become a test-bed for innovative and risky business models, framed as the ‘last frontier’ on earth (Hannigan ****2016). When James Cameron piloted the DeepSea Challenger down the Challenger Deep, the deepest-known point on earth, he stated: “Exploration comes with Risk, but it's a risk that is worth something”. While Cameron was successful in his mission, the more recent example of OceanGate as a disruptive startup tells another tale. OceanGate’s Titansubmersible, used in its fatal mission to dive down to the Titanic shipwreck, promised “a huge, vast opportunity”according to its founder Stockton Rush, and was send down on missions with Rush as a passenger despite safety warnings regarding the hull’s material, the use of a video game controller as the main piloting instrument, equipment that was bought at Camping World and other safety concerns (Cox et al. 2023).

Tickets on the Titan were priced at 250.000€, and OceanGate surrounded itself with wealthy costumers and donors (Cox et al. 2023). The Titan as an example for the ‘Blue Economy’ represents an interesting convergence of ocean tourism and commercial business and scientific ocean exploration with cameras, oceanographic sampling equipment, mirroring the continuous privatisation of space exploration. It was further revealed the Titan was intended to be used in order to survey the ocean floor for oil and gas reserves. The quintessence of the disruptive approach to innovation is staying ahead of regulation - a dogma which OceanGate proudly advertised, arguing that it would stifle innovation. OceanGate used both narratives of safety and of risk and danger in its promotional material, sometimes arguing that submarines were “statistically the safest vehicles on the planet”, sometimes emphasising the riskiness of true exploration (Cox et al. 2023). In this sense, the company mirrored the contradiction engrained in disruptive innovation strategies such as the ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’: proposing unlimited blue markets that require novel and uncertain business decisions, while at the same time offering a clear-cut and ‘safe’ strategy to achieve disruption.




Strategies are inherently contradictory, they form out an environment of control out of something that is constantly shifting and adapting (Certeau 1984). They striate spaces from a place of power, becoming self-referential and self-fulfilling in the process. As strategy, disruptive innovation has turned into a “state of permanent management” which has removed the possibility of actual innovative and desirable change (Halpern 2017), instead looping old concepts anew in the search for new frontiers. Instead of strategies, we might find new concepts in the ocean’s tactics, its local and opaque trickeries and interventions way past the representational spectacles of strategies of disruption.


Adkins, B. (2015). Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus: A Critical Introduction and Guide (Critical Introductions and Guides) (1st ed.). Edinburgh University Press.

Certeau, M. D. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life (English and French Edition) (First Edition). University of California Press.

Cox, J., Marchman, T., Gault, M., & Pearson, J. (2023). ‘It Is A Huge, Vast, Opportunity’: How OceanGate Went from Disruptive Startup to Catastrophic Deep Sea Failure. VICE. https://www.vice.com/en/article/qjvjdb/it-is-a-huge-vast-opportunity-how-oceangate-went-from-disruptive-startup-to-catastrophic-deepsea-failure#

de Roover, F. E. (1945). Early Examples of Marine Insurance. The Journal of Economic History, 5(2), 172–200. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0022050700112975

Dixon, A. D., & Monk, A. H. B.
(2014). Frontier Finance. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 104(4), 852–868. https://doi.org/10.1080/00045608.2014.912543

Frost, Alan (1992). Old Colonisations and Modern Discontents: Legacies and Concerns, in: The Samuel Griffith Society Proceedings, v.1

Gabrys, J. (2019). Ocean Sensing and Navigating the End of this World, in: e-flux Journal Issue #101.

Grotius, H. (1609/ 2005). The Freedom of the Seas: The Right Which Belongs to the Dutch to Take Part in the East Indian Trade. International Law & Taxation.

Hannigan, J. (2016). The geopolitics of deep oceans. John Wiley & Sons.

Halpern, O. (2017). Hopeful Resilience, in: e-flux Architecture, Accumulation.

Hardt, M., & Negri, A. (2001). Empire. https://doi.org/10.4159/9780674038325

Silva, M. (2020). Mining the Deep Sea, in: e-flux Journal Issue #109.