The Bridge to Nowhere
I recently came across the story of the Choluteca Bridge. The Choluteca Bridge is a suspension bridge located in Choluteca, Honduras. It was first constructed in 1930, then rebuilt in 1996. The Honduras government, recognising that the bridge was likely to face extreme weather conditions, brought in some of the world’s best architectural minds to build a bridge that could withstand even the most powerful hurricanes. In 1998, two years after the reconstruction of the bridge, Honduras was hit by Hurricane Mitch, a category 5 storm and the second deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record, which left a trail of death and destruction in Central America and the Caribbean.
Hurricane Mitch caused massive infrastructural damage in Honduras and while every other bridge in the country was destroyed, the Choluteca Bridge stood its ground and survived in almost perfect condition. By any objective measure, this bridge was an architectural marvel.
However, there was one problem. While the bridge survived a powerful storm in near pristine condition, hurricane Mitch caused the river over which the bridge was built to carve a new path, meaning that the river no longer flowed under the bridge. Because the river changed course, the bridge that was a major architectural feat was suddenly rendered useless. Therefore, the Choluteca Bridge soon got the moniker “The Bridge to Nowhere.”
The Choluteca Bridge is an excellent metaphor for the endlessly changing dynamics of the world. When it was rebuilt, it was built to last and it has certainly stood the test of time and bad weather. However, the bridge was not built with adaptation in mind. This latter point is a cautionary tale as we look back on the lessons of 2020 and plot the way forward in 2021 and beyond.
One year ago, very few people would have imagined that a little-known virus at the time would have brought the world to its knees. Today, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has wrecked lives and economies around the world. Even closer to home, a year ago or even a few months ago, no one would have expected that the La Soufrière Volcano in St. Vincent and the Grenadines would have rumbled to life and put an entire nation on edge.
As sure as death and taxes, change is also a surety in life. However, change can happen quickly and with such force that it overwhelms and renders obsolete some of the things that we once took as given.
Like the Choluteca Bridge, the COVID-19 story and other disruptions and unforeseen circumstances in life remind us to plan with adaptability and agility in mind. There are more pandemics on the horizon and other shocks which will prove to be disruptive. Therefore, we must build nations, businesses and organisations to adapt.
Many of us will remember when personal computers (PC) dominated the technological space. Then came mobile phones and tablets which disrupted and revolutionised the market. Firms in the PC space, whether they had the strongest computers, had to learn to adapt their business models or perish. There was also a time when news and information was largely available in printed format. However, the advent of the internet changed this, and media houses had to learn to adapt to both the challenges and enormous possibilities afforded by the internet.
Similarly, many countries, especially small island developing states, have come to accept that overreliance on a single or very few sectors is a recipe for trouble, especially when those sectors face disruption. Therefore, economic diversification is now widely recognised as prudent economic management.
As we look back on the past year and look ahead to the challenges and opportunities in a new year, we should be mindful that even the most basic assumptions about the state of the world may prove to be incorrect. In planning to solve current and future problems, we may actually come up with the most sophisticated ideas and solutions. However, problems can change and circumstances may also change. Therefore, we have to place a premium on being adaptable, because we may build a bridge, but the course of the river might change.