Leaders – Robyn Scott

Robyn Scott is co-founder and CEO of Apolitical. Raised in New Zealand and Botswana, she is a serial entrepreneur and acclaimed author. She is an ambassador for the Access to Medicine Index, an advisor to the Responsible Mining Index, a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a Gates Scholar. She has a BSc in Bioinformatics from the University of Auckland and a Master's in Bioscience Enterprise from the University of Cambridge.

About Apolitical: Apolitical is a global technology platform and community that helps governments find and share solutions to the common problems facing our societies. The platform is used by public servants in 140 countries, from mayors and ministers to millennials bringing new technologies and ways of thinking into government.

Potolicchio: Why did you found Apolitical and what are you trying to do?

Scott: In finding solutions to all the urgent challenges we face — from climate change and migration to job automation, inequality and cyber security — government is a critical actor. It is also the sector least well-armed with the 21st century tools and ways of working needed to tackle mutating, borderless problems. Good ideas exist but are buried or siloed: a third of World Bank reports are never read a single time. Experts who can help you avoid reinventing the wheel exist, but are hard to find: when public servants look for new policies they often phone a friend or someone they met randomly at a conference. Talent exists, but is demotivated within government or discouraged from joining government, not least due to the media’s desire to pounce on government's failure. And public trust, eviscerated for the same reason as talent, dwindles steadily. We created Apolitical to put the best ideas, experts and partners at the fingertips of public servants everywhere. Harnessing 21st century tech and product know-how, we want to make it as easy to find the best policy solution as it is to find the best hotel for your holiday. We also want to help change the negative narrative about government. Without being panglossian, we focus on bright spots and highlight the committed men and women behind what’s working. We want to show that policy can be sexy and public servants can be heroes. In doing all this we aim to accelerate the transformation of government.

Potolicchio: How do you convince young people, an increasing percentage of whom are cynical about governments’ efficacy, to get involved in public service?

Scott: Silicon Valley — magnet for today’s young talent — loves to fetishise scale and impact. It’s also amongst the voices most contemptuous of government's efficacy. This is ironic. For all its faults, government’s size means that it offers almost unparalleled opportunities for both. Government controls around 40% of GDP and through its spend and legislation touches every citizen and every sector. Yes it might be hard to change a policy. But if you do, there’s a good chance that policy will impact millions of lives. Yes the work might be hard and slow, but if you have impact, it’s probably the kind of impact you’ll want to tell your grandkids about. You won’t end up optimising an algorithm to sell millions of people ads. The Valley also gets excited about timing. And timing is one of the things that makes government so interesting right now. Rarely has it faced such pressure from complex problems, squeezed budgets and existential criticism. This might make it look less appealing, but it is also causing disruption. And here lies opportunity. If you join government now, there’s a good chance your boss is a millennial who is as frustrated with the broken parts of government as you are. If they’re not a millennial, there’s a good chance they’re faced with problems — how to regulate AI or work with the gig economy — where you know as much as them. Finally, in government, you get to tackle problems at their roots. Before Apolitical, I’d done a lot of work in South Africa’s violent prisons and townships, teaching coding to vulnerable youth. Inspired by our work, talented young people flocked to join us or volunteer in our organisation. The work was inspiring. But the reality was we were dealing with consequences: a young man who wouldn’t be in prison if he’d had a good public education, a teenage boy who wouldn’t have failed his exams if he’d had food on the table, a young woman who wouldn’t have dropped out of school if she’d had access to contraception. These were all consequences, the causes of which government was often best placed to fix.

Potolicchio: What's a book you would gift the UN Secretary General?

Scott: Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem Trilogy. This sets the UN in a strikingly different context: a multilateral in a world where China is a long term dominant power, where space has been colonised by humans and where humans are alternately brought together and torn apart by threats from other civilisations. At one level very futuristic, it also points to some of the ways in which, on a shorter time scale, bodies like the UN might need to evolve. I’d also recommend all three of Yuval Noah Harari’s excellent books.

Potolicchio: What's a book you would have a young leader embarking on their career read?

ScottWinners Take All by Anand Giridharadas. I haven’t yet had the chance to finish this but I’m gripped. I think he makes a critically important distinction between changing the world at the systems level and telling yourself you’re changing the world while only putting bandaids on the wounds caused by a system that suits you otherwise to preserve.

Potolicchio: What's something seemingly small that has made a big difference in your life (i.e. advice, book, product purchase, chance encounter)

Scott: Keeping a gratitude journal. I’ve always thought one of the great superpowers is perspective, and forcing yourself to identify what you’re grateful for is the best gym for the perspective muscle.

Potolicchio: What's one thing every leader should do before they have a position of public trust?

Scott: I think leaders should have held positions of responsibility in situations difficult enough to have challenged any comfortably worn ideology, to have tested which values they hold most deeply, and to have fortified them to talk with guts about the messy and uncomfortable trade-offs involved in any position of public leadership in a diverse and evolving society. There’s a rife squeamishness today about explaining that important things aren’t easy. This might be a shortcut to power but it doesn’t deserve and can’t sustain trust.

Potolicchio: You have described yourself at certain points in your life as an outsider because of your somewhat unconventional early childhood education. Do you think this perspective has helped you to think more imaginatively or critically? If so, what advice would you give to cultivate this mindset?

Scott: It helped on both fronts. When you’re an outsider, people judge you all the time. To survive this, you learn not to worry very much about what people think of you. And you come to take all received wisdom with a big pinch of salt. This is a great foundation for imaginative and critical thinking. In the absence of a bizarre and wild childhood in the African bush, I think there are lots of ways to cultivate this: by becoming friends with outsiders who naturally shrug off convention, by spending time with people who treasure critical thinking, by travelling to and living in different places, and by reading books set in contexts that radically and uncomfortably challenge your worldview.