Business Spotlight: Engineer Calls for Fusion of Arts and Technology in Human-Centered Design

Posted by Domhnaill Hernon, May 07, 2020

The following is part of our Business Spotlight series that highlights the work of some of our key business partners. Here, we interview Domhnaill Hernon, Head of Experiments in Art and Technology at Nokia Bell Labs (a 2019 Arts + Business Partnership Awardee). Keep reading to learn about this business leader and his connection to the arts!

Do you have a background in the arts? Are you currently a practitioner of the arts?

Domhnaill Hernon holding a violin backstage at Inspirefest.I come from a musical family in Ireland. We all play traditional Irish music and as a teenager I played a lot of music—not just at home but in public also. When I was young, I was extremely nervous and used to feel like getting sick every time I had to play in public. I found ways to overcome that and I also paid attention to how great musical performers connect with an audience. I have no doubt that this experience helps me in my public facing duties in my current role.

I have a BEng and a PhD in Aeronautical Engineering; I specialized in aerodynamics and during my PhD I pioneered new measurement and statistical analysis techniques that elucidated the origins of a type of turbulence that is critical to industrial applications. I also completed an Executive MBA in 2015 so that I would have a more solid grounding on aspects of business such as strategy, finance, and economics.

I currently lead the art and technology program at Nokia Bell Labs. We call it Experiments in Art and Technology in honor of the seminal bringing together of engineers and artists in the late 60s and 70s within which Bell Labs played a crucial role. So, in my current role, I wouldn’t say that I am a practitioner of the arts, but I am a champion of the arts—especially new media art, art that involves emerging technology, and musical composition and performance. I lead our artistic collaborations and projects and act as a “curator” and “matchmaker” bringing together the very different worlds of art and technology.

Music has always been a great mental distraction and rejuvenator for me when I get tired doing other things like study (when I was younger) or working on complex documents or project proposals that take hours of effort. I have also seen my curiosity manifest in my musical taste and in my professional work. There is always more to a story and so much to learn from other people. I recently started to upload some music to YouTube.

What was your most recent arts experience?

Two that jump out from late last year left an impression.

One was work by Ed Atkins on a show at the Gavin Brown Gallery in NYC. We were there to see his work as we are collaborating with him in 2020 in partnership with the New Museum. It was great to get inside information on the motivation for the piece and the technical approach to realize it.

I believe that the future of innovation lies at the intersection of art and technology. Therefore, I also believe that the future of humanity lies at that intersection.

I also attended the Ars Electronica Festival which is the largest bringing together of the worlds of art and science. It was impressive and I got to see a lot of diverse work there all in one location. One piece blew my mind—it was called “Model 5” by Akemi Takeya and it leveraged granular synthesis techniques matching the audio and the visual. The piece itself was spectacular and so too was the setting in an underground concrete passageway under a gigantic post office in Linz, Austria.

Do you believe the arts are transformational — personally, professionally, and/or in your community?

I believe that the arts could be (should be) more transformational in the way they inform more human-centric design. I believe that the arts should be deeply integrated into all companies but especially technology companies. I believe it is critical that the voice of the artist be heard and taken seriously in the context of business and in understanding the role that technology can play in influencing humanity.

It is the role of companies to understand and embrace the unique perspectives of the artists, and it is the role of the artist to better understand the needs of industry.

How have you or your company integrated the arts into your business to engage, inspire, or train your employees?

We established a new initiative a few years ago where we designed and grew an artist residency program. We designed the residency to be different to those already out there in that the residency is deeply collaborative, purpose driven, vision led, and enables a deep bi-directional exchange of knowledge between the artists and our engineers/scientists.

Through this new initiative we are championing a new culture around humanizing technology and we are enhancing our cognitive diversity with the deep fusion of art and technology. I love probing the artistic mind and trying to understand how they make connections and view the world in ways that I can’t replicate.

In recent times our program has had to shift direction owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. All of our external facing projects have been postponed and that frees up our time to focus on internal projects. We apply our creative technology backgrounds and our diverse thinking and human-centric perspectives to our internal projects while we are waiting to see how things stabilize post-pandemic. We are leveraging the knowledge and insights we gained working with artists to develop solutions that perfectly fuse the physical and the digital, and that leverage emerging technologies like XR to immerse and compel you to engage with our technology—while at the same time ensuring that the technology has been researched and developed with the human experience at the core.

How have you or your company leveraged the arts to set your business apart?

Our artist residency program has provided us with a differentiated approach to our research and thought leadership in the areas of humanizing technology. This happened through the long-term collaborations (over one year) where the artist effectively becomes an extension of our research teams. We have commenced new areas of research and developed prototype products based on the deep collaborations with artists.

For example, we developed a range of new wearable devices that were inspired and informed by our artistic collaborators. These devices have since gone through a range of iterations and are being employed in our large-scale technology demonstrators today. This technology is showcased to our customers and external visitors (like government agencies) daily.

Other collaborative projects involved developing new control algorithms for drones to enable more intuitive means of gesture control, new machine vision algorithms and ways to visualize complex data through the collaboration between human and machine, and insights into the creative potential of AI and how AI could be a tool to enhance humanity’s creative potential.

How has your company partnered with the arts to enrich community life and/or advance civic and social priorities?

We held several exhibits and performances at our campus in New Jersey, all over New Jersey and New York City, and around the world. We do this to share our vision for the ways in which technology can better humanity. We program panels and talks around our exhibits and support our artistic collaborators in sharing their perspectives with the audience in the hope that these new ways of thinking (and doing) can have a broad and lasting effect on humanity.

Silhouette of two people facing a lit electronic “tree” by artist Lisa Park at New INC.

I believe that the future of innovation lies at the intersection of art and technology. Therefore, I also believe that the future of humanity lies at that intersection.

Who is your artistic inspiration?

On a personal level my artistic inspiration is my father, who plays Irish traditional music, and an Irish traditional fiddle player from Chicago called Liz Carroll. Their music lifts my soul and I wish I could create music at their level.

On the professional side I love working with people who are collaborative, adaptable, and know their discipline inside and out. I have been lucky to work with so many great people in the artistic world that I couldn’t possibly mention just one.