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Rethinking the future with Victoria Bunyard, CTO IBM Benelux

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In July 2020, IBM Benelux welcomed Victoria Bunyard as their new CTO. British by birth, Ms Bunyard moved to the Netherlands in 2004 and has found her second home close to the beach in Noordwijk. Her biggest passions? Rowing on the Amstel, skiing, and, of course, driving innovation.

When you ask Victoria Bunyard about her childhood, she’ll tell you she grew up in the heart of the English countryside where the latest developments hit about 10 years after anywhere else. But don’t let this rural setting fool you: her father was an engineer in the Royal Navy, and Ms Bunyard herself has a background in systems engineering.

“I grew up with this real strong understanding that technology is the way you change the world”, she says. “People of my generation, we grew up with these amazing new technologies that you could keep in your hands. I remember the first time – and this is dating me terribly – we saw a Sony Walkman and thought ‘oh my, I can carry my music with me’ and now I’m sitting here with this thing (picks up her smartphone) and I have access to every music piece under the sun. Just mind-blowing, frankly.”

The importance of being impactful

Seeing the possibilities of all these novel technologies wasn’t the only thing that inspired Ms Bunyard to pursue a career in innovation.

“If you go all the way back to the school I went to, they were very focused on the fact that you need to understand who you are in the world, and the fact that you have an impact on the world. And you need to make a choice yourself about what that impact is going to be.”

Understanding the role of technology as an enabler and determined to have a positive impact on society, Ms Bunyard decided to pursue a career in systems engineering and complemented her studies with qualifications in systems thinking. This has enabled her to approach challenges holistically, which is not always a given in the world of technology.

“What you see happening often, particularly with deep technologists, is that they see a problem and say ‘I know how to solve this’. They don’t necessarily think about ‘what are you actually trying to solve, what is the real problem’”, Ms Bunyard explains. “To me, the answer isn’t always technology. What’s really interesting to me is: what are you trying to achieve, and how do we make that work?”

To illustrate this point, Ms Bunyard refers to her favorite NGO: APOPO, a Belgian organisation that trains rats to detect mines. And successfully, so.

“A landmine goes off if you put more than 5 kilograms on it. A rat weighs less than 5 kilograms; they sniff out the mines; and clean out minefields dramatically faster than anything else. There will be thousands of companies on the planet who are trying to design technological solutions for mine detection.”

APOPO decided to train rats instead. “Your supply chain is really simple: if you’ve got rats, you’ll get more rats. They work for bananas, and you can train anyone to train them. It’s brilliant in its simplicity!”

“Sometimes you do need the technical solution. But when I talk about thinking differently, that’s what I mean. It’s about not assuming you know the answer to the question because you have an answer to the question. Go back, understand the question and find the good answer to the question. And if the good answer to the question is ‘go breed rats’, go for it!” (laughs)

Fueling a massive engine for innovation

This holistic approach is a perfect match with IBM’s philosophy as well. Victoria Bunyard explains: “I think that’s something people don’t often understand about IBM. They tend to go ‘oh, IBM does computers’, and I think ‘yes, we do, quantum computers!’” (laughs)

“We are a massive engine for innovation. And the way you drive that kind of engine is you look at real-world problems and you try to solve real-world problems.”

One of those initiatives (and, coincidentally, one of Bunyard’s favourite projects), is IBM’s 5-in-5. Once per year, the IBM Research department highlights 5 ways in which technology could help society address 5 key challenges over the next 5 years.

IBM’s 5-in5 : Building the yellow-brick road towards an improved future

In her own words, Ms Bunyard describes 5-in-5 as imagining what a better future would look like and building the yellow-brick road that will take us to that end goal. It’s about setting the (often technological) scene that will enable IBM’s clients, as well as researchers and universities, to accelerate innovation processes.

One of last year’s key projects has been a fully homomorphic encryption toolkit that’s now freely available online to help boost data protection. “To me, that’s huge”, explains Ms Bunyard. “We talked about it last year, and this year, we’ve done it.”

In a nutshell, the homomorphic toolkit aims to tackle one of the biggest challenges with data protection and data encryption: i.e., the moment someone wants to process encrypted data or perform some analytics on it, they need to decrypt data. This implies opening the data up to all kinds of vulnerabilities.

But with fully homomorphic encryption, the data no longer has to be decrypted, and therefore there is no longer the risk of opening up to any additional threats. While this innovative technology still requires further development, the first results are promising and demonstrate its true impact.

What’s next: rethinking materials at a molecular level

In line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, this year’s 5-in-5 focuses predominantly on driving sustainability by rethinking materials.

Ms. Bunyard has felt quite passionate about this particular angle of approach for years: “What really excites me about this one, is that it’s all about materials. And I think even in 2017, I was busily saying to people ‘if we really want to achieve sustainability – we have to address the materials that we use every day.’

“Plastic is the obvious example, because people are really worried about plastic: they are worried about it getting into the food chain; they’re worried about it getting into the environment; you see all the pictures of the big ocean rafts of plastic and you see the damage it’s doing and the effect it has.”

However, simply not using plastic anymore might also not prove to be a sustainable solution: changing from one material to another might indeed merely move the problem. Instead, the key lies within rethinking materials at a molecular level.

“We have to think differently about materials. We have to think from
designing with the end in mind and designing the molecular level for the properties we desire,
not the properties we don’t.”

 

Aside from focusing on plastic, rethinking batteries is another item on this year’s 5-in-5 list. At present, most batteries rely on cadmium and nickel, two materials that go hand-in-hand with far from sustainable mining processes and a myriad of health issues for the workers in the field.

“Once you think about the whole supply chain, there’s so much in there you can do if you can find an alternative to nickel and cadmium”, according to Ms Bunyard.

Even capturing and transforming CO2 emissions fits the philosophy of rethinking the way we use, and more importantly, reuse materials. In this case, it’s not about redesigning material from the molecular level, but rather asking ourselves the question: how can we repurpose said material?

“Because on one hand, I might be pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, but if, on the other hand, I’m taking that out and reusing it in a way that’s effective, that really starts to be a circular economy. That starts to close the loop.”

But whether the concern is plastic or CO2 emissions, it’s all about understanding “the whole life cycle from cradle to grave”, she concludes. “If you don’t have to design for disposal, if you can design for reuse from the very beginning – that is massive. You can change the whole world if you can do that.”

 

Maureen Soenen

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