Ogilvy Labs technologist Gemma Milne took to the Innovation Stage at Cannes Lions in the annual Tech Off, a battle of wills, wits and ideas. The subject being discussed was to whom the future belongs; the creatives, or the coders? Milne won the debate (and a pretty gnarly wrestling belt) with her argument that mathematics and the sciences are, in fact, highly creative.
While she works in the advertising industry, Milne has always made her background in mathematics a selling point, even talking at length about her love of Pi during job interviews. “I always believed if I could sell something mathematical, I could sell anything,” she says, and it is this infectious enthusiasm for her subject that helped get spectators on board during the Tech Off.
At the heart of Milne’s talk was Euler’s Identity, a mathematical concept which she acknowledges is not interesting in itself, but poses questions such as whether something can equal nothing (the short answer is yes). “These are philosophical questions, not mathematical,” says Milne. And then there’s the fact that Euler’s Identity includes the imaginary number ‘i’. Milne reckons that making up entirely new numbers is pretty creative, especially when you consider that planes, cars and computers wouldn’t function without this imaginary number.
Milne describes herself as “on a mission” to communicate this sense of wonder to people. Part of the problem is that the established scientific curriculum in schools isn’t especially exciting; “there’s no way to make differential equations sexy.” And while teachers already go out of their way to explain how certain principles can be applied to the real world, Milne feels this focuses on the mundane rather than the mind-blowing.
“For me, it’s not about conveying why it’s useful, but the wonder behind why it actually happens,” she says. “With art and music, it’s beautiful because it just is… Some people say if you look up at the stars, some of those stars might not exist any more, and it blows people’s minds… it’s not useful information in every day life, but it’s fascinating.”
This issue goes beyond schools, and extends to adults who have finished their education and have a fixed idea of what science or coding are. What Milne loves about the advertising industry is that it’s more likely than many other sectors to bring together people from different disciplines, cultures and markets. But it needs to take more risks and diversify even further if it’s to survive.
“The traditional agency model is dying a death, so we need to do something,” she says. While clients are going straight to small agencies and start-ups for speed of delivery, she believes that larger agencies are still able to come up with better ideas due to a broader talent pool — as long as they refresh their attitude. “I think it’s short-sighted to say someone who likes maths isn’t creative,” she says. “STEM is the one area where we’re really bad at judging people; we wouldn’t do it with someone with a history or philosophy degree.”
Einstein and Da Vinci did great things across both the artistic and scientific fields, but they are overused examples, says Milne, especially these days, when the sciences are so much more specialised. Instead we should look at people working in the arts today who have scientific backgrounds, like comedian Dara Ó Briain, who studied mathematics and theoretical physics, or child-star-turned-neuroscientist-turned-actress Mayim Bialik. Or even Milne herself; “I draw pictures, take photographs, play a couple of musical instruments… sometimes I even write poetry,” she told the audience at the Tech Off.
Stop shunning people outside of the creative disciplines, she urges. It’s not necessarily about finding an analytical mind to work with data, or design a new product; it’s about instilling that all-important sense of wonder. The future doesn’t necessarily belong to just creative, or just coders, says Milne, but to the people who can explore the beauty of a subject that is outside their own realm of expertise. “Far too often,” she laments, “we close our minds before we let them be blown.”
To find out about future Tech Off events, visit http://thetechoff.com/