“Now is the time for technology to connect us back to our humanity”

ARYZE interviewed Domhnaill Hernon of Nokia Bell Labs why companies should take more attention to people-centric thinking about technology.

Domhnaill Hernon is the Head of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) for Nokia Bell Labs global activities, working with the artistic and creative community to expand the boundaries of technology and solve the greatest challenges of human needs.

Why should companies have more human-centred thinking of technology development and research?

“Having a more human-centric approach and perspective is critical for companies because the pace of change in modern society caused by digital technology development in the last couple of decades has resulted in a general trend where emerging technologies have taken hold so fast that they have moved society away from our humanity. What I mean by that is that we have evolved for a few hundred thousand years in a certain way as humans and we have drastically disrupted that in the last few decades. Think about how important it is to the human condition for humans to be in real social networks in physical proximity to other humans throughout our evolution and compare that to modern society in the last decade where we have largely replaced that in person real social network with virtual social networks mediated by technology. This gap between our modern existence and our humanity is putting pressure on society. I believe that technology has done great things to connect humanity and now it is the time for technology to connect us back to our humanity.”

Why is it in your eyes important to develop innovation at the intersection of art and technology?

“I am a trained engineer and I have worked with many engineers and scientists throughout my career. There is great power in the reductive, linear and logical reasoning of an engineer of the scientist; however, this approach to problem-solving is inherently limited owing to the way that we are trained and expected to function post our education. We are expected to conform to norms, apply frameworks and equations in exactly the same way as those that came before us and this approach limits our creativity. In my view engineers, artists and most designers are similar in this regard owing to the similarities in their approach to problem solving and creativity.

On the other hand, you have an artist who generally has a divergent, non-linear and illogical (from the perspective of an engineer) approach to problem solving and creativity. The mode of an artist is for the most part exactly opposite to the engineer and with that difference comes great tension and a great opportunity. These two worlds (engineer/science and arts) don’t mix well usually owing to different ways of thinking and communicating; whoever, if you can bring them together with purpose and vision there is great potential for true forms of innovation that will transform society. Overcoming the barriers is not easy but the outcomes are spectacular with respect to the potential for true innovation and creativity. “

Nokia Bell Labs artist in residence Sougwen Chung drawing collaborations with robots called “Omnia per Omnia”

How can startups overcome problems around the innovation valley of death?

“The innovation valley of death is a region on the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale between 4 to 7. At 4 is where you have an initial proof of concept usually out of university and at 7 is where you have built the product/solution to a level of maturity that it can be tested at scale in the field. At a TRL of 4, the solution is barely known, not well designed or thought through and there is practically zero information on how the product will scale or how much it will cost or its real performance in the market place. So the challenge for a startup is to come up with the unique ideas with low TRL and somehow derisk them and convert them into something with a higher TRL that can be put in front of customers and tested in the market and ultimately go-to-market and generate revenue. The main challenge is finding that unique idea and derisking it in many different ways.

You need to derisk by thinking about the customer and the market, you need to design for cost, design for scale, design for reliability, design for manufacturing and obviously put together a strong business plan. You need to test and retest and restest and learn and iterate and put the concept in front of customers as much as possible. Of course, many startups pivot and this can be necessary after a process of derisking if you learn that the product/solution or business plan in its current form it not gaining customer or market traction.

I think the above on the face of it is obvious but many startups learn very late in the process what the value of their solution really is, who is willing to pay for it and how much and what their business plan is. Some of that uncertainty is just part of the startup environment but there are ways to derisk your startup if you are extremely strategic and purposeful at every stage of the process and applying some simple techniques like future back thinking and a premortem can help derisk your offering very early in the process. I believe most startups fail because they do not understand the intensive process of derisking on every level.”

How do you see the innovation and tech sector evolving in the next 10 years?

“There is a current wave of interest in adding design skills, new design departments and Chief Design Officers to many large and medium-sized enterprises across many different industries. This is a good move and very good for the design community. I think this wave will reach a peak in the next 5 – 10 years and companies will look for that next source of differentiation. In my view, this is where the artistic community will play a critical role. I believe that in 10 years’ time artists will be viewed as critical to business success because they will bring new levels of creativity which will tend to differentiated offerings in the market and hey will introduce human-centric thinking will be required by the consumer.”

How can startups derisk emerging technologies to ensure market success?

“I believe how startups can derisk emerging tech is very similar to how I answered the question above on overcoming the innovation valley of death with one major addition. For emerging technologies, there can be a lot of uncertainty and fear with investors and consumers and therefore there is a major education and demystifying strategy required to ensure success. You need to take a lot of time to educate your investors and potential users on the new technology and you need to educate your potential customers to reduce fear but also create demand for this unknown product. For emerging technology, it can often be the case that there is no existing market and therefore no benchmarks to compare against and this adds to the uncertainty of an already uncertain startup process so educating all key stakeholders is critical. Also, the education process should NOT be technical but rather human-focused to aid in the understanding and to reduce the fear factor.”

Nokia Bell Labs artist in residence Lisa Park work on haptics connecting people called “Blooming”

Domhnaill Hernon’s passion is to turn ideas into reality and to explore the limits of creativity in order to expand the limits of technology and has already won in 2013 and 2015 at the Irish Lab Awards in various categories. For more exciting insights about this topic, follow Domhnaill Hernon’s LinkedIn profile.  For more interesting insights stay tuned on our ARYZE blog and website.

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