Ahead of this year’s DotYork we got chance to interview the interviewer for a change when we sat down with DotYork host Scott Hartop from Scout Impact
Rick (RC): Your fourth year in a row MC’ing Dot York – what’s that been like? Have you changed how you approach it?
Scott (SH): Er… it kind of approaches you – pretty much however it likes! You can convince yourself there are through-lines and themes, and of course there are, but then someone gets up and incites the audience to start a new political movement (like last year) or tells a story that’s far more profound and emotional than your typical conference (the year before), or says we’ve all been looking at something completely wrong – actually it’s like this… (pretty much every year) and then you’re stuffed really. The format MCs itself and you just have to try and keep up. It’s too much its own animal to be approached!
RC: OK, do you think it’s changed – how has the ‘animal’ evolved?
SH: The first one I was part of – the second Dot York – definitely felt different; I was kind of top-and-tailing with quick Q&As. Then we changed the format to bring out more discussion, more exploration of the ideas, and ever since it just gets more innovative every year. This year I think you’ll see it take another big leap.
RC: What would you say a first-timer should expect?
SH: A stream of big ideas and insights you can’t get anywhere else. Because so much of it is unprepared, live conversation, its default position is new, unscripted territory – you’ve got a group of really smart panellists, and a really engaged audience, colliding their respective fields together in real-time, in the room, on the day. New stuff emerges. That’s what sets Dot York apart I think and why it’s always exciting to be up there in the thick of it.
RC: But being up there on stage isn’t really your ‘day job’, is it – you mention having ‘an approach’ is difficult because it’s unpredictable, so how do you prepare, to be ‘up there in the thick of it’?
SH: No. I think I just kind of switch off any ‘curiosity filters’ it’s normally polite to apply in civilised conversation! You just follow the most fascinating threads, even if that means you dive straight in at the part you don’t get, or the part that’s unbelievable, or controversial. It’d be rude in a pub with someone you’d just met but hopefully there are people in the audience wondering the same, and you can open it up for them so they can come in with the better question. It’s utterly absorbing – basically a series of the most interesting conversations you can have, with awesome people, back-to-back for an entire day.
RC: So when it’s over, do you just collapse in a heap!?
SH: Pretty much, yes. You need some head space to process it all. If I can I plan something in that’s completely different for straight after, to give this barrage of ideas you’ve been exposed to a chance to bed in. Last year I tried to go running in the Yellow Mountains in China. And it was probably stunning, but too foggy to tell, or to run – just white-out for two days straight, so I’m trying again this year!
RC: Happy trails for that! You end up fielding a wide range of subjects – what’s your background?
SH: Not a very straight line! I studied literature, then complexity science, then AI… And then for the last 10, 15 years I’ve had these two parallel interests competing with each other: on the one hand I’ve loved working in R&D – mainly looking at decision-making under uncertainty, how that works when there are people and algorithms in the loop. But on the other hand I fell into this whole field of impact – and trying to figure out how to design new ways of enabling it, the new ventures to get behind to have more of it. Once that’s in your bloodstream it’s pretty hard to compete with, so most of my career has been around that. It’s a massive privilege to be able to work in that space – you have to keep trying to earn it.
RC: Hence the name of your company – ‘Scout Impact’. What’s all that about then?
SH: Scout’s a tiny outfit, just three of us, doing ‘impact R&D’ – which kind of straddles the border between working out how to put together next-generation impact investment funds and applying new tech to big challenges. It’s taken me a while to finally reconcile those two worlds.
RC: Errr, some examples?? – What’s Scout working on at the minute for instance?
SH: We’re helping a UK bank that specialises in moving philanthropic money around figure out which fast-growing frontier markets they need to be partnering in for the next phase of the global economy. We’re using inference and a bit of machine learning to help a big US impact investor streamline how they gather and interpret impact data from energy projects. We’re doing the origination work – the early deal-flow – for a new kind of impact fund aimed at urban slums. And we’re looking at how satellites, IoT sensors and blockchain might give you more reliable ‘proof of impact’, taking the guesswork out of, say, the environmental effects, or economic benefits generated down a supply chain. Very cool stuff – we’re extremely lucky to get to explore these things.
RC: I can see how that would cut across so many different fields.
SH: It’s very tempting to disappear down research rabbit holes all the time – everything would be great to get deeper into – but the trick is probably staying in that place where you’re putting something real-world together by connecting all these different elements, knowing enough without over-specialising in any one thing.
RC: Well we’re glad you’ll be doing exactly that again for us this year – see you in October!
SH: Wouldn’t miss it. Cheers!