Engineers in Action: Eswatini Suspended Bridge; Building Equality: A Holistic Approach to Rural Transport Infrastructure Development

Beavers, Mackenzie, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Neeley, Kathryn
Gomez, Jose

My best friend is scared of bridges—so much that we have to switch seats when driving if one appears in our shared path. On the other hand, I’ve been fascinated with the way bridges connect people and societies since my childhood. My technical project focused on working with the non-profit organization Engineers in Action to create a suspended footbridge design for the Maphoveleni community in Eswatini, South Africa. One of the benefits of this project shared by Engineers in Action was reduced gender inequality in the assisted communities. From here, my STS research explored the capacity of rural transport infrastructure (RTI) in reducing gender inequality in developing nations, and the potential approaches for maximizing this relationship. RTI is more than the mere physical systems it presents as, it is a tool for enhancing the sociotechnical system it impacts and thus must be evaluated as such.

The technical portion of my thesis produced a comprehensive suspended bridge design as part of a multi-collegiate competition sponsored by Engineers in Action. Our team was tasked with developing a detailed design for a suspended cable footbridge to help provide year-round access to resources and services located across the Mtilane river from Zombodze and Boyane. There are seven desired objectives for the ultimate bridge design (listed in order of decreasing priority): safety, durability, serviceability, maintainability, constructability, economy, and aesthetics. Major components of the produced bridge design include a detailed drawing set (with plan, section, and profile views of the design), verified calculations of load capacity, geotechnical foundation analysis, hydrological erosion analysis, and more. In addition to the design of the bridge, our team was responsible for delivering an in-depth construction plan and schedule to provide guidance for the construction of the bridge in-country. Our final completed design meets all 7 of the design requirements set forth by Engineers in Action, and spans a total of 111.4 meters. This bridge will directly serve over 2000 individuals in the Maphoveleni community, to include roughly 1200 children who will have increased access to education services.

The STS research portion of my thesis produced a new framework for evaluating and implementing rural transport infrastructure (RTI) in developing nations in order to maximize social co-benefits. In this model, the central goal of rural development is defined as the center of three intertwined components: infrastructure, productive sectors, and social/economic services. Specifically, this research utilizes agriculture as the productive sector, RTI as the infrastructure component, and gender equality as the social/ economic service. Using this model, it was discovered that maximizing rural development requires maximizing all three of the sectors. By identifying a productive sector that is experiencing a social/economic issue, an infrastructure solution can be implemented if the addition is treated as part of the larger sociotechnical system, thus requiring changes in organization and implementation at all levels of authority to be effective. To produce changes in the initiation and development phases of infrastructure, changes in internal organization of the agencies that undertake these projects must occur. A holistic approach to infrastructure development to include participatory planning, citizen centered approaches, the devolution and redistribution of power, as well as multi-level system analyses has the potential to aid in the resolution of social/ economic issues, thus increasing productivity and finally, maximizing rural development.

By completing both these projects simultaneously, I gained a greater understanding of the interdependent nature of social and physical systems in engineering. As a result, I learned that rather than treating infrastructure as a physical system to be implemented in society, the way we as engineers implement infrastructure must be evaluated in the context of the sociotechnical systems impacted. Thus, transport infrastructure in both developing and developing countries are not mere additions, they are complex systems themselves that subsequently must be understood before implementation. Completing these projects together only furthered my understanding of the engineers’ duty to the welfare of society and the impact our decisions can have on future generations. Bridges should not be scary—however, implementing infrastructure without understanding the impact physical systems can have on our social environment is.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
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