Back to the F**kture: Dr Catherine Nakalembe

type - podcast
In this episode of our Back to the F**kture podcast, The Future Laboratory co-founder Martin Raymond speaks with Dr Catherine Nakalembe, Africa programme director at NASA Harvest, scientist, remote sensing expert, a machine learning specialist, and winner of our Futures 100 Innovators Awards.

In my latest Back to the F**kture podcast with Dr Catherine Nakalembe, she name-checks one of her favourite films, Queen of Katwe. It’s a Mira Nair film about a young girl growing up in one of Kampala’s poorest areas who learns how to play chess and becomes a Woman Candidate Master despite the hurdles that block her path. But to the innovative, determined and openly curious, as the biopic demonstrates, these same hurdles become stepping stones to a better tomorrow. 

Reading the plot and listening to Catherine’s story ¬– from Kampala classrooms where she regularly raised her feet for rain water to rush beneath to the campuses of Johns Hopkins University and the University Maryland – I’m amazed that Nair didn’t abandon her original film and record Catherine’s life journey instead.

Now a scientist, remote sensing expert and a machine learning specialist, perhaps remembering those flooded classroom days, she currently uses drones, satellite data and the latest AI technologies to map the impacts of everything from climate change to developing risk assessment strategies and finance packages that can drastically improve a community’s ability to insulate itself against floods and other adverse weather conditions. 

This is foresight at its most effective and trend analysis at its most potent, as I discover when I delve deeper into her work. As she says: ‘If there’s going to be a flood you can get notification before the event. You can also assess risk areas before and after the event, and use this data to plan for the future in terms of where you need to concentrate your efforts going forward.’

Published by:

5 January 2023

Author: Martin Raymond



Left: Testing a newly installed IOT weather station in Mt. Elgon with officers from the Office of the Prime Minister and Uganda Wildlife Authority. Image courtesy of Tula Honkola. Right: Dr. Catherine Nakalembe.

Hugely pragmatic, she nonetheless describes herself as a pessimist by nature, but regards this as a positive when it comes to her work, and her ability to think and plan ahead. ‘That became a lot clearer to me after I had my sons. I used to travel with them for my work, and I would prepare for every possible thing that could go wrong. From them puking three times on the plane to the three changes of clothes needed as a consequence… And really that’s all about knowledge and experience and using what you know to prepare… but you also need to remain open to change and to learn from the unfolding moment itself.’

Such curiosity and love of knowledge led to her appointment as Africa Program Director for NASA Harvest, the space agency’s food security and satellite mapping arm, as well as to a research professorship at the University of Maryland’s Department of Geographical Sciences where she rekindled her ongoing love affair with all things tech and IT.

Regular followers of The Future Laboratory will also know that she is the winner of our prestigious Futures 100 Innovators Award 2022, a modest show of appreciation, I tell her, for such a stellar body of work that criss-crosses so many fields, disciplines and technologies – the latter intersections being the very ones that appealed to our international panel of judges because they exemplified the growing need for innovators and entrepreneurs to work across disciplines as they harness knowledge in more effective, consilient and collaborative ways.

But this openness, she tells me, needs to be tempered with an ability to communicate the most complex academic manuscripts in stories and ways that ordinary people can relate to, and as a consequence, can respond to.

Stories, she believes, help us to build better tomorrows, but only if you place people, rather than processes, at their heart. ‘That way around we have a vested interest in wanting things to change – and for the better.

You can find out more about Catherine and her work here. And details of our 2023 Futures 100 Innovators longlist can be found here.

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