Tapiwa Chiwewe, Research Manager at IBM Research Africa, has some excellent lessons for us on applying your existing skill base to an entirely new area. Born in Zimbabwe, he’s a computer engineer by training, with a PhD from the University of Pretoria in South Africa.
Even if you're not an expert in a particular domain, your outside expertise may hold the key to solving big problems within that domain. Sometimes the unique perspective you have can result in unconventional thinking that can move the needle. But, you need to be bold enough to try. That's the only way you'll ever know.”
Struck by the scale of air pollution in Johannesburg, Tapiwa “felt an urge to do something... [and] couldn't just stand idly by”, so he looked to apply his knowledge and experience to the problem. His main challenge, despite describing himself as a “bit of a jack of all trades, a master of some”, was that he didn’t know much about environmental science, air quality management or atmospheric chemistry. But, he didn’t let this lack of specific domain knowledge hold him back: “What I knew back then was that, if I was even going to try to make a difference, I had to get smart about air pollution first. And so, I became a student again”.
He also realised that “...given the scale of the problem, it was necessary to do it in a collaborative way. So I decided I’d better get to know some people working within the field.” He adds that “the process of engagement I embarked upon helped me to develop a deeper understanding of the problem”. And, he approached the challenge with humility: “I started by simply asking myself how I could bring together in some meaningful way my skills... and the expertise of the people I'd reached out to.”
And the conclusion of his learning in a completely new area? His team, working across countries, designed an air pollution forecasting model, incorporating major causes of air pollution like emissions from cars, domestic fuel burning, industrial emissions, and toxic dust from mine dumps in Johannesburg.
Watch his TED Talk “You don't have to be an expert to solve big problems” (roughly 8.5 minutes long) below:
The specific air quality modelling and management project he describes is driven by IBM’s Green Horizons division in collaboration with the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Green Horizons’ work began in China, and expanded to India and South Africa, and uses algorithms that enable machine learning and predictive analytics. It uses historical and real-time data from environmental monitoring stations to measure air pollution and quality, and assess which pollution prevention methods are effective. It also feeds satellite and weather data into forecasts.
Tapiwa describes himself as always “fascinated by technology”. More on his extensive computing background: he began his career in the academic world as junior lecturer and scientific researcher at the University of Pretoria. In parallel, he was a software developer coding in areas like fleet management, Voice over IP (VoIP), and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). He was then a computer engineer specialising in virtual reality training simulators for the construction, mining and military industries, before moving to the CSIR as a senior engineer. In his current role, he manages the Advanced and Applied Artificial Intelligence group of IBM Research Africa. He is a member of the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), and the IEEE Industrial Electronics Society (IES).