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Bechtel’s Impact Report

Human Design and Systems Thinking for Social Impact

  • By
    portrait of Tam Nguyen
    Tam Nguyen, General Manager,
  • 19 December 2022

In the remote Andes mountains, thousands of indigenous Peruvians are impacted by Heladas, or extreme frost, contributing to thousands of respiratory illnesses and hundreds of related fatalities each year, especially among children and the elderly. Climate change is intensifying the adverse effects, putting more than half a million Peruvians at risk. A contributing factor to these adverse health outcomes is the traditional Andean family dwelling, which is unable to maintain a safe and healthy temperature when temperatures drop below 20 degrees Celsius.

In the Sumaq Wasi project,, Bechtel’s social enterprise, along with the government’s National Rural Housing Program (NRHP), the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP) School of Engineering, and Cambridge Research and Technology, is working to deliver a comprehensive solution as this is much more than a housing issue – it’s a health, adaptation, and scaling challenge.

To futureproof hundreds of thousands of people, the solution needs to be sustainable, social, and durable, which is easy to say but much harder to do. The more we examined the factors complexifying the wider problem, the more clear-eyed we became. And because this is a national issue, at the end of the day, the government, PUCP, local businesses, and the communities will be the “eco-system” to sustain this effort beyond the project.

Our approach  

As we approached the project, we had the benefit of an intuitive “Peruvian plus global team” with backgrounds in engineering, construction, logistics, law, social development, and political science who could break down the challenge into clusters of issues and make connections. We also benefitted from Bechtel’s long presence in Peru, enabling us to leverage relationships, resources, and cultural knowledge.

During the ideation phase, human design (putting people at the center of the innovation) and systems thinking (connecting institutions and relationships that will affect the innovation) became more apparent as an overall method. To put it into perspective, we considered a range of issues. For example, how do we localize the solution? This includes appropriate technology to capture, store, and transfer heat energy; using native materials; gaining social acceptance and adoption by families; and ensuring preventive maintenance of the technology. Then, how do we logistically and sustainably deliver this? The families are in some of the most remote places in the Andes. If you are manufacturing the system in Lima and transporting to Cusco or Puno, it can take up to 30 hours by truck. How do we scale to reach everyone? There’s currently no standardization of the system or value chain to support it. The total cost of the system also needs to be cost prohibitive. Finally, we need to internalize external events like frequent changes in political and government leadership, along with community issues related to these transitions. Disruptions, delays, and “starting over” with new government officials are just some of the effects.

Besides the technical connection we all have to the project, we also have an emotive one. This was a common thread among the team and our partners that helped us to stay the course during the project’s many twists and turns.

A “pilot-test-position for scale” framework was devised to guide the project’s implementation. We felt it was the best way to position a new solar harvesting system as a national-level solution. Three strategies continue to steer our work:

  • Reorient the conventions of “appropriate technology” (i.e., simple, small scale, localized). A new solar harvesting system to keep families safe and healthy not only must be fit-for-purpose, but also scalable and replicable to meet a broader societal need.
  • Keep the stakeholder eco-system integrated, engaged, and enabled – not just people, but also institutions. NRHP is delivering the houses in which the system will be installed. They are involved with budgeting, planning, implementation, quality assurance, etc., and will oversee this effort beyond the immediate project.
  • Don’t put the impact at risk. We need to ensure the human design and systems thinking is integral throughout the project’s delivery and part of the overall playbook for scale-up.

Positioning for impact

In the pilot phase, we worked closely with PUCP and NRHP to engage many affected families to demonstrate early proof of concept for a new solar harvesting system. The system not only achieved the living temperature of 16-18 Celsius (61-64 degrees Fahrenheit) when –20Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) outside, but it’s close to being pre-validated by the NRHP as the technical standard for Peru. The design and performance of the system was based on family input and early acceptance and adoption, as well as the capabilities and resources of local institutions. Safe trials were conducted at the PUCP’s Lima campus before piloting in Cusco over 11,000 feet above sea level. The system uses native materials and local supplies, but the design continued to be enhanced to optimize the capture, storage, and transfer of thermal heat. The design is now the basis for fabrication by a Peruvian manufacturer to determine the true cost of the system, as well as generate alternatives to improve cost efficiencies and sustainability. Finally, given the remoteness of the families, preventive maintenance training is being developed so that adult family members can understand how it operates and perform basic upkeep to prolong the system’s performance.

In parallel, because NHRP is the project management organization, we trained and supported their technical professionals to help improve both the quality and pace of delivering the housing.  They went from 1,000 houses delivered in six months to 9,000 in the same timeframe, which is a significant achievement given the government’s target to reach nearly 300,000 people in some of the harshest terrain on Earth.

The next phase involves testing the system with thousands of people in different locations, altitudes, and climate zones. Once this is completed, the system should be ready for a national scale-up.

We’ve developed an impact measurement methodology that we’ll road test on this and other projects and refine along the way. Because many external factors are out of our control, it may be tough to attribute our technical contribution alone, for instance, to a 50% reduction in respiratory illnesses on the Sumaq Wasi project. There are reasons for this, such as multiple stakeholders, interventions, and other cause-and-effect relationships. Moreover, because of our business model, we may not be on the project long enough to see the long-term impact, which can take years to occur. Yet, we can be there long enough to help position the project and enable others to achieve that 50% reduction. Human design and systems thinking is about being able to shape and influence in order to design and build. This may be an overlooked attribution when we talk about impact measurement, but instinctively, we know it matters.

We’re applying a similar pilot-test-position for scale approach to our canal regeneration project in India, which aims to demonstrate proof of concept using nature-based solutions to reduce flooding, improve health and safety, sequester carbon, and generate productive and sustainable livelihoods like eco-tourism.

As Bechtel’s social enterprise, is challenging itself as an organization to improve the social impact of infrastructure delivery. Can we make social impact central to the development, design, and build? How do we prevent social impact from being diluted when you factor in political externalities, return on investment, collective capacities, etc.? We don’t have all the answers, but through our projects, partnerships, and Bechtel’s unique experience, we have an opportunity to facilitate a new body of knowledge to help the social impact sector originate and deliver better infrastructure projects.

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