After receiving this year’s $100,000 Ray of Hope Prize®, we sat down (virtually, of course!) with ECOncrete® co-founders Shimrit Perkol-Finkel, Ph.D. and Ido Sella, Ph.D.. These scientists have a vision: transform the way our future coastlines look and function by building marine infrastructure projects that benefit the environment and humans. Through a myriad of product offerings, ECOncrete emulates local marine habitats, allowing for native species to thrive, and creating more robust marine infrastructure in the process. In this interview, we wanted to learn more about how these innovators connect with nature, and why they are focused on protecting and regenerating ocean life.
How were you originally inspired by the idea to create concrete solutions for marine habitats in order to make them more resilient?
Shimrit: I think this idea really started after having many opportunities to dive, learn, and explore a variety of man-made structures in different marine environments. We saw a lot of low density, low biodiversity marine life developing on the current solutions for conventional coastline restoration projects. On the other hand, we’ve had opportunities to see that when you make some really small changes to infrastructure complexity and texture, you can suddenly induce an incredible variety of organisms on a structure that was lifeless before.
We had our real “aha moment” when we were diving near one of Israel’s power plants, and saw a concrete cast seawall that was completely blank and barren. However, on a portion of it, we could see a distinct “line” between one batch of casts and the other. The “line” separated the barren segment of seawall from a segment that had more life on it, and this caught our attention.
This juxtaposition made us think more life could be supported on concrete, and drove us to ask: “What concrete conditions allowed life to grow here?” The power plant said both seawall segments were from the same contractor, and had probably been cast on different days. We thought, maybe we can do something with concrete to make it a more attractive material for marine life to attach and grow, and do so without losing strength and operational capacity. That was really where we pivoted the company from a general concept of enhancing infrastructure to exploring solutions for problems caused by the main material in the marine construction industry: concrete.
Our mission became: “How can we mimic the functionality and textural complexity in marine ecosystems, as well as other components to which marine life is sensitive? How can we do this in a way that not only the structural design becomes active in encouraging life, but also the materials are commensurate with organisms’ biology and chemistry?” After many years of development and field testing, we are able to emulate the way nature maintains structural and biological integrity in undisturbed natural environments.
How do you think your solution offers opportunities for communities to reconnect with nature?
Shimrit: That’s quite inherent for us, because we work on intertidal and shallow areas — places that are the interface of people and urban environments. At the waterfront, we, as a civilization, need to engage and understand that the ocean is more than just the end of land and a blue, smooth surface extending until the horizon. Our solutions offer a way to open communities’ eyes to a beautiful and diverse universe that’s right under the surface.
By introducing different layers of coastal ecosystems, for example, with designed concrete armor units that can mimic tidal pools and control the elevation of water retaining features, we can make urban marine environments accessible — like creating a touch pool aquarium with sea stars and little fish. We can add educational signs that share the marine inhabitants’ stories and how they live within the ecosystem. This kind of “experiential engineering” offers local residents and visitors a way to learn about the natural world, connect, and understand that it’s important to preserve it. Maybe in the future they won’t throw that plastic bottle on the beach, they’ll pick up their trash, and rethink the plastics they use and where they end up.
We hope that by experiencing nature first hand, younger generations can also learn to love and care for our oceans. Interacting with nature up close is a great way to raise awareness: parents can spark their kids’ curiosity, or maybe after playing in the tidepools, kids themselves will encourage more eco-friendly behavior in their parents. I think there is a lot of capacity to scale, allowing us to create more equitable opportunities for communities of all backgrounds, especially communities which have historically been exposed to more pollution and environmental injustice, to reconnect with their natural surroundings.
How do you personally reconnect with nature?
Shimrit: Unfortunately, I don’t do that enough now that we’re running the business, not to mention the COVID-19 lockdown… I was in Hawaii exactly a year ago, and I was able to reconnect through one of my favorite activities: diving. There was amazing biodiversity there around the islands. Whenever we can, Ido and I go ourselves and look at the site where we’ll be implementing a new ECOncrete product, and it offers a jumping off point for the project with a clear outcome. It (literally) puts our heads into the local conditions, and that’s essential in order to get a feel for the ecosystem.
We’re facing a digital overload as a human community, so when we go out and experience nature, like taking a walk on the beach and picking up rocks to see what’s underneath, it helps us understand the implications of healthy and unhealthy natural systems in a real way — while also supporting our innate curiosity and connection to the natural world. Direct experiences help inspire us all; we use that inspiration every day to tackle big environmental problems. I think when given the opportunity, anyone can look at nature and become motivated to take action: fight against climate change, change personal habits, design the next technological solution, or vote for environmental progress.
Ido: I second what Shimrit says and would add that when I can, I really enjoy hiking, diving, and sailing. These are my favorite time off activities, and they offer plenty of opportunities to reconnect with the natural world, and inspiration for how to bring nature back into the solutions we offer.
What does biomimicry mean to you both?
Shimrit: We’re directly inspired by the natural coastal habitats we’ve studied and appreciated our entire careers. To me, biomimicry means taking natural processes and natural components and using them for other types of applications. It’s about borrowing inspiration from ecosystems, organisms, and habitats, and combining the lessons with practice at industrial and applied levels. In its purest form, biomimicry actually adds value, because when you’re innovating products that are inspired by nature as a whole, and even harnessing natural processes, there’s much more gain than if you were to just design each component separately without the full ecosystem in mind.
Ido: Biomimicry is the backbone of ECOncrete — after all, the technology is based on observations we made on rocky shorelines that cope with high forces while providing ecosystem services, specifically abrasion platforms that are a unique feature in the eastern Mediterranean.
What is the practical application of ECOncrete?
Ido: The company provides applicable solutions for ecological enhancement of marine and coastal infrastructure, like breakwaters and seawalls, that meet all concrete and engineering standards. Our technologies help prevent erosion due to sea level rise, and also buffer against storms and flooding. ECOncrete is more effective than standard solutions for these applications, because our designs encourage nature to grow — making the products, and the ecosystem, stronger. Thus, we can bridge coastal development with sustainability.
How does ECOncrete improve the health of marine ecosystems?
Shimrit: From our experience as marine biologists, we knew that to improve the health of a whole ecosystem, we needed to design a solution that is suitable for the environment at every level. We knew that instead of building featureless or flat concrete units, we had to design different complexities in order to grow a diversity of life, because diversity of habitats equals biological diversity.
The design features of the 3-D structure were a no-brainer, for example, creating nooks and crevices inspired by natural ecosystems. A biomimetic 3-D structure was a given, but we also understood that the material was crucial, because even if you have a great texture or design, but have the wrong material, you’re not going to get the best ecological results. That’s part of what we revolutionized — the bio-enhancing concrete admix at the core of our innovation is chemically optimal for marine life. We also added roughness to the surface of the concrete. Together, these three components, 3-D structure, texture, and chemistry, induce greater biodiversity and abundance of marine plants and animals.
The design uses the ocean’s natural processes to strengthen over time and gain structural support from the environment. Organisms that thrive on the structure continuously build and grow the habitat complexity, further enriching the ecosystem. As time goes by, more marine invertebrates attach to the surface and grow into oysters, corals, and other calcitic structures. The organisms add weight and a layer of bioprotection that makes the concrete armoring more effective, and longer lasting. This approach of designing for a confluence of structural and environmental benefits aligns more and more with people and organizations interested in alternatives to, and solutions for, the often harmful ways we currently build and create.
Ido and I were quite sensitive to ecosystem health at the onset, because in our region of the Meditteranean we have abrasion tables, which are natural coastal barriers that buffer storms and waves, and are full of intertidal life forms. It seems straightforward to us now to look at the abrasion table habitats that originally inspired us, because they’re all-in-one systems. They’re structural barriers that depend on biological activity to retain their effectiveness and functionality, and also provide a variety of micro and macro habitats that support a flourishing, biodiverse, marine community.
From the macro to the micro level, there are many complexities to consider in crafting an ecologically effective design, such as including shelter places for fish to hide in the structure, substrate chemistry, or hydrodynamics. Anyone who knows anything about molding concrete understands this is a real challenge. It’s not easy to create undercuts, overhangs, and holes without losing structural strength. Firstly, load-bearing capacity must be maintained so that engineers can quantify performance and be happy with the product. Secondly, the entire unit must be manufactured in a practical and replicable way to allow mass production without costs getting insane. This was the real balance to walk, but our driving motivation was to emulate the structure of abrasion table habitats, because we dive there and see the value of a functioning ecosystem — coastal defense and healthy marine life.
How is the solution cost effective?
Ido: Although the technology increases the cost of concrete, there’s a large return on investment. Projects benefit from direct cost relief, such as less required maintenance, reduced mitigation costs, and a faster permitting process. They also benefit from indirect cost relief due to the creation of ecosystem services like nursing grounds for juvenile fish, storm buffering, and biodiversity uplift that increase the strength of the ecosystem. Together, these direct and indirect cost reliefs make the technology very cost effective.
Why did you choose concrete as your material? It’s been said that concrete is inherently problematic and a high contributor to CO₂ emissions. How do you balance those challenges or improve upon them with your processes?
Ido: Our main drive for developing ECOncrete was to make a real change in the way marine and coastal construction impacts the coastal environment, and to do so, we focused on the most common material for marine construction. 70% of all marine infrastructure is based on concrete. Despite concrete’s tremendous carbon footprint, its structural benefits make it widely used, especially in the marine environment, and that is not going to change any time soon. Even new solutions that directly address the associated CO₂ emissions of the concrete industry will not prevent the direct disruption of concrete-based marine construction on natural habitats and local biodiversity.
We created a solution that takes the existing standard, and transforms the baseline. By slowly changing the metrics of a “successful” marine technology, we can deploy ecological solutions where development has already occured, or will inevitably occur. ECOncrete technology can also be easily applied to low-carbon concrete solutions. From the start, it was created to be a complementary technology.
Were there challenges you faced in bringing your product to market?
Ido: The main challenge, after we figured out the technology and proved its efficiency, was penetrating into a very traditional, conservative industry. Getting marine engineers, contractors, concrete manufacturers, and project owners to adopt a technology “that makes the slimy creatures happy” within an industry that builds structures with a 30-120 year lifespan, was, and is, a heavy lift.
Shimrit: It’s important for us to make a big impact, and to inspire a very traditional industry with a lot of reservations to think differently. Because we’re talking about structures that have to last for decades, it’s a challenge, but we’re happy to take it on.
This is Part 1 of a 2-Part article series about this year’s Ray of Hope Prize® recipient, ECOncrete.