Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Domhnaill Hernon, EY

Domhnaill Hernon is global lead and co-founder of the Cognitive Human Enterprise, a new initiative at EY to help businesses combine multi-disciplinary collaboration and full-spectrum diversity to solve global-scale human and business challenges.  Prior to joining EY he spent 15 years at Nokia Bell Labs, where he is credited with launching a new initiative to fuse art and engineering/science to develop solutions that humanize technology. Hernon, who earned an undergraduate degree in Aeronautical Engineering and a PhD in aerodynamics from the University of Limerick and an executive MBA from Ireland’s Dublin City University, is a scheduled speaker at 4YFN, an innovation conference taking place during MWC Barcelona February 28-March 3. He recently spoke to The Innovator about how to make companies more diverse and products more human.

Q: Tell us about your background and how this led to what you are doing now

DH: I am a trained aerodynamics engineer with a PHD in fluid dynamics who has had the privilege of working in, and leading teams, across a range of scientific disciplines. A few years ago, while I was working at Bell Labs, I started to do research into creativity and attended some events in NYC where I got to meet the artistic community and it blew my mind. Every conversation I had with an artist opened new ways of thinking about the world and the intersection of humanity and technology. I thought ‘How could I have not been exposed to this immensely valuable perspective?’ It made me realize that my colleagues and young people coming out of college with STEM educations are not being educated to have deeply human-centric perspectives. This is what brought me to EY with the support of the Chief Customer Success Officer Edwina Fitzmaurice. Our mission is to build this new Cognitive Human Enterprise initiative, which embraces and leverages more divergent and creative ways of thinking and building technology to bring full-spectrum diversity to the enterprise and enhance the cognitive diversity and innovation of teams.

Q How Is EY integrating artist’s views in its thinking?

DH: The team is leading the design and build out of the strategy and roadmap for how EY will do business and create value in the metaverse. Building mirror worlds and virtual worlds – a kind of extended reality – is a natural evolution of the Internet from 2D to 3D. In these dynamic, immersive worlds people will interact in new ways so it is important for us to build an understanding of humans and the human condition into the design as early as possible. If we compare this to how the Internet was created it is clear that the human element was not considered early enough – resulting in global pandemics of digital loneliness, fake news, and trolling. We have the opportunity to do things differently in the metaverse. EY is informing clients about developing a human-centric approach, which requires asking questions about what it means to be human and what it means to be human in a virtual world compared to the physical world. Trying to answer these questions through just one lens – technology – is too limiting.

As an example, at EY we are working with an artistic collaborator, Kate Machtiger, on creating new sensory experiences in the virtual world. Kate is neurodiverse and experiences hyper-sensory perception to certain stimuli in the physical world and this makes her hyper aware of certain aspects of human experience that others might not be aware of. We are looking at how we can use that knowledge to create better human experiences in the virtual world. We are also working with another artist, Laura Splan, whose interdisciplinary work explores the intersections of art, science and technology, to define the best possible hybrid existence for humans. Through this collaboration we arrived at the understanding that all virtual experiences are in fact hybrid physical/digital experiences. What she means by that is if you put on a headset to enter the metaverse, you have just had a physical experience. The fact that your body is present in the physical even though your eyes might be submerged in the virtual is an important design element to consider. Is putting on that headset a good experience? Is it comfortable? Does it remove you from your humanity or bring you closer?  As we move from the physical to the virtual and the virtual to the physical, we need to find ways to stay grounded and augment our humanity and creativity.

Q: How does working with artists benefit companies?

DH: In my previous roles I created an initiative that involved artists collaborating with our engineers and scientists across a range of fields. One artist, who was helping us with a future of wearables project, made a profound observation. He told us ‘You realize that most people spend more time with their smart phones than with the person they love the most in the world.’ That is one of the benefits of working with artists. They see things at a human level.  We brought his insights into new wearable concepts and prototypes to make them more a part of the human body and to make them interact with people in human and intuitive ways.  Another example where the artist added immense value was in the area of machine vision for smart city applications. The artist helped us realize that these patterns could also tell us about how people are moving around in relation to the cars and to capture not just the motion but the emotion of the city. She would take the output of the algorithms and would live draw with robots a human interpretation of how people were moving in relation to each other. She visualized the data in a different way and posed questions that made us move our research in a totally different direction. The way artists see things can be of immense value to technology and business. Today this value is completely untapped. We need to translate the value of the art world’s understanding of humanity to the business world and integrate it deeply into how we develop products.

Q: How would you advise companies to go about this?

DH: The standard way of doing it today is through design thinking, which does include human-centric design – the idea of putting the human at the center of everything you are doing and embracing empathy and experimentation. However, in my opinion, the human-centric part of design thinking does not go far enough. There is not a silver bullet approach to how to integrate these different ways of thinking into organizations.  It depends on what the culture of your organization is today, how open the company is to other perspectives and the extent to which the company is used to innovating and creating. You need to think deeply about the reasons why you would integrate artists into your organization and how they might help with your diversity and inclusion, innovation, and creativity initiatives. If you try to do this randomly it is going to fail. To have truly human-centric design you need to have a very inclusive organization with diverse points of view and understand how to diffuse the points of tension to bring people with differences together. If you can achieve this it can lead to deep collaborations that can change the culture of the company and the way the company innovates, creating immense value.

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About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.