With resources scarce, bridge-builders cultivate creativity
June 15, 2017
Innovation means different things to different people. For Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), a nonprofit that builds footbridges in the developing world, it’s a way to help people thrive despite limited resources. By encouraging volunteers to think creatively and incorporating successful ideas into its standard plans, B2P continually improves its ability to help people in remote areas access healthcare, education, and jobs.
Learning from failure
According to Alex McNeill, B2P’s program manager for Nicaragua, this approach goes back to the organization’s earliest days. “Our founder was reading in the National Geographic about a community in Ethiopia that undertook a dangerous river crossing every day,” he said. “He was an engineer and got some of his friends together, and they went down there and came up with a solution.” Three months later, a new steel bridge was in place.
When erosion led to high water levels that destroyed the new bridge a few years later, the team rethought its strategy. “They decided they would absolutely rebuild it, but what they would do is look into new innovations and speak more with the community and get their ideas,” McNeill said.
The resulting bridge is still standing today, and the organization that grew out of the experience has since built hundreds more around the world.
Standardization and replication
In the early years, volunteer teams designed each bridge individually. Today, an in-house engineer works from standard drawings that can be used in a wide variety of conditions. The drawings are available for public use, packaged in a comprehensive construction manual that offers guidance on everything from pouring concrete to working with local governments.
The manual serves two important functions: streamlining B2P projects and helping groups with similar missions. “We’re not trying to build every single bridge in the world,” McNeill said. “Our idea is that we create a system that will allow others to construct our bridges as well.”
These standard design materials, along with B2P’s on-the-ground practice, have evolved over time to incorporate ideas from volunteer project teams. Consisting of community members, government officials, and industry professionals, the teams unite international expertise and deep knowledge of local conditions.
The constraints imposed by limited budgets and challenging sites provide further spur to invention. An early breakthrough in developing B2P’s standard bridge design, for example, came from a Zambian mason who suggested replacing an expensive custom part with a typical car wheel well — a far more affordable and convenient solution.
Genevieve Webster, who works in human resources in Arup’s Los Angeles office, witnessed this idea-harvesting and transfer when she helped build a bridge in the remote village of Las Calderas, Nicaragua.
“We’d be doing something, and Alex from B2P would call over Leonel, the local foreman, and say, ‘Watch them do this. What do you think?’ And the same thing from [Leonel’s] side; he’s done this many times and has a lot of experience. There was definitely a lot of knowledge sharing and teaching one another.”
The volunteers included a core group that B2P requires on each of its projects: communications manager (Webster), project manager (Arup bridge engineer Dawn Harrison), construction manager (Ugo Del Costello from specialty contractor American Bridge), and logistics coordinator (Ronald Crocket and Kwadwo Osei-Akoto, also from American Bridge). According to McNeill, this team structure promotes innovation by uniting construction and design, and by bringing together different backgrounds and experiences — creating a melting pot of ideas.
Before the volunteers’ arrival, the local community had worked with B2P to build the bridge’s foundations and abutments. Because the team’s visit coincided with coffee-harvesting season, however, the villagers had little time to spare for the main bridge structure’s construction.
Facing the need to carry heavy and unwieldy steel components across the river themselves, the volunteers devised a creative solution that used the two available trucks to push and pull large-scale construction materials.
“It sounds really simple, but when you’ve got 20 people that have to shoulder this huge 7-meter-long steel piece across a river, it actually is a big deal if you find a more efficient and safer way,” Harrison said.
This method won’t work on every B2P site, McNeill said, but he is keeping it in mind for projects with similar conditions.
The Las Calderas team was also the first to help B2P verify the design loads on a new type of scaffolding system, creating a safer method for lifting the heavy towers and reducing risks associated with working at heights.
The old scaffolding system had no external stairs, forcing builders to climb up the outside; the new system’s stairs and adjustable feet make it considerably safer and easier to use.
Having been proven to work in Las Calderas, this system has been employed on all B2P projects in Nicaragua since, McNeill said.