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Alex Berkowitz: Protecting Communities From the Threat of Rising Sea-Levels

Alex Berkowitz: Protecting Communities From the Threat of Rising Sea-Levels

Hello! My name is Spiffy, I’m an interplanetary journalist. I’ve been speaking with innovators from around the world who are working on the issue of climate change. One of those people is Alex Berkowitz, the founder and CEO of Coastal Protection Solutions, Inc, who joins us today from Somerville, Massachusetts.

Spiffy: Alex, it’s great to have you with us today. Let’s dive right in, so to speak. What challenge is Coastal Protection Solutions, Inc addressing?

Alex: Thanks for having me, Spiffy! Coastal Protection Solutions is focusing on creating systems that decrease flooding and protect communities against the threat of sea-level rise and climate change. We’ve invented two systems that help communities survive the future with the effects of climate change. The first system is called the Wavebreaker, which is a 300-feet wave speed bump that stops people’s homes and businesses from getting destroyed by reducing the strength of big waves. The second is an Artificial Marsh System that takes grasses and sediment and expands the shoreline outward by hundreds of feet, which protects people against sea-level rise.

Spiffy: What motivated you to do it?

Alex: About ten years ago, in 2012, there was a very big storm along the east coast called “Superstorm Sandy”. The epicenter of the storm was around my neighborhood called Rockaway Beach, a part of New York City. The home I grew up in was flooded with nine feet of water. On the night of the storm, all the land in the community was covered by water from the storm, and sadly, many people died and many homes burned from electrical problems due to the water. I worked for many months to help my parents rebuild their house and also worked for five years to help the community rebuild as well. I vowed to find solutions so that other communities like mine would never have to face such terrible destruction and hardship as we did on that day.

Spiffy: How is your organization working towards a more equitable world?

Alex: We believe that everyone has a right to live in a safe neighborhood, which also means safe from climate change and sea-level rise. By 2050, the water along the US coastline will rise by one foot which is much more than was originally estimated. There’s a big wealth divide between cities and countries that are facing these problems. Many cities like NYC, have lots of money and can afford to pay millions of dollars to protect themselves from sea-level rise and storms. But many cities and towns don’t have that money and face the same problems, and those places are vulnerable to a lot of destruction if they are not protected. We design systems that are significantly more affordable to communities to be prepared for the future of climate change.

Spiffy: Tell me about a recent Coastal Protection Solutions milestone or initiative and the impact it makes on your work.

Alex: We recently received an award for Ingenuity from the Harvard President’s Innovation Challenge. We were so excited to win the award, and at the end of the ceremony, the president of Harvard read a letter congratulating us—from President Joe Biden! His words were to “keep dreaming big”. The milestone that we are gearing up for is that we will be conducting a series of testing of the Wavebreaker. The first test is in a wave flume, which is a 100-feet water tank that you can program to make waves as big as you want. After that is complete we will be building and launching a 100-feet prototype (which is about a third the size of a football field) into the ocean and monitoring it with high-tech sensors.

Spiffy: Wow, all the best for that; here’s to favorable outcomes! Next, can you please share an experience when you faced failure and didn't give up?

Alex: At CPS, we dream big because we’re at a moment in time when we can’t afford to think small. We are facing one of the greatest challenges to mankind with climate change and we must bring all the creativity and the courage to think outside of the box. Recently I was interviewed for a fellowship where I was told that my ideas were “too ambitious”, and I wound up not getting the fellowship. I found myself questioning how there are people that have the authority to make great changes, ones we need to survive as species, but they lack vision. I vowed to never give up on trying to help people because we need all the ingenuity that is possible from humanity so that we may continue to live on this planet.

Spiffy: What is something you've unexpectedly learned from someone recently?

Alex: This past weekend I made a new friend whose name is Evan. Evan is almost seven and is on the autism spectrum. I had the great pleasure to hang out with him at the Boston Museum of Science and I learned that imagination comes in infinite forms. Imagination can do great things in the world and help us with life. Imagination leads to ideas, and ideas lead to changes in society. We need imaginations of all kinds to solve the future on this planet, especially the climate crisis that we’re in. So we need to celebrate our imaginations because each of us has a special role to play in the world and humanity.

Spiffy: Thanks for speaking with me today, Alex—it’s been an honor!

Alex Berkowitz integrates design and engineering into the creation of solutions for climate change. She is currently pursuing her Master's in Landscape Architecture at The Harvard Graduate School of Design and previously received her B.A. from The University of Chicago. She is a climate activist and is a member of a group called See Rise which uses Virtual Reality to educate the public about sea-level rise in their communities. She is the founder and CEO of Coastal Protection Solutions, Inc. (Nominated by Alex Parks at Harvard Innovation Lab. First published on the Ladderworks website on July 18, 2022.)

© 2022 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Anushree Nande. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Corner here.