I remember when I first met Mike at HATCH. We were heading to a party with a car load of people, I was driving and Mike was the backseat DJ. He made me laugh the entire way as he picked the music and commentated the journey. That’s what it’s like to hang out with Mike. He’s a ton of fun. He also oozes creativity and imagination and I’ve been in meetings with him where he can’t sit still in his seat because he’s bouncing with excitement.
Mike’s resume is impressive. Instead of listing out all of his accomplishments, I’ll let his interview speak for itself. I am honored to include Doc North in this interview series! I’m sure his creativity will inspire you! Thanks Mike!
In one sentence, who are you?
I’m an inventor, inventing my own systems and disrupting the established, whilst sharing that with the world and putting a few smiles on faces in the process.
What makes you smile?
Usually the little things.
What was your favorite toy or game as a child?
You are no stranger to the toy and game industry. You served as Chief Technology Officer at Nukotoys. Tell me more about this.
I was the founding CTO of an ambitious start-up aimed to disrupt the toy category by creating toys that integrate with digital devices. For us old folks, there is a line between digital and physical. For kids that grow up digital natives, there is no line. Nukotoys blurs the intersection between online and physical and does so with games that add to kids’ lives versus just addicting them to make a profit. For example, Animal Planet Wildlands lets kids become animals by tapping a NUKO to the screen and then driving the animal by moving the iPad. The kids can then tap on the animal to learn more about it and even watch an HD video of the animal in the wild. Truly a transmedia endeavor!
What did you find most gratifying working in the toy and game industry?
We developed a game with PBS for helping kids overcome the 4th grade reading slump (going from learning to read to reading to learn). Mission to Planet 429 was a wonderfully creative and fun game, and was shown to work.
As a part of the project we did testing in a Title 1 elementary school in Chicago. The teachers in this school were amazing and certainly had one of the hardest jobs on the planet. So much of their job was just maintaining order in the classroom. This is where I saw the power of video games. The kids were completely engaged in the game (which at its core was looking for books, posters, etc. to read to solve problems). With the kids engaged in the game, the teacher could then go around and work one on one with the kids helping them to move forward.
One girl really stood out from the rest at the game. I asked the teacher later about her.
Me: “Wow, she was really amazing. She must be one of your top students.”
Teacher: “Sara? She was held back twice in 2nd grade.”
What advice would you give inventors trying to innovate in the play space?
Spend more time with kids.
Through humor and antics showing different ways of thinking so that others can see it’s possible to rewire their own neural and social networks, to create a life they love.
How do you activate creativity?
I use narrative and storytelling through words, inventions, and video. A story is something that we create whether by doing or in the imagination. Once it’s created, it becomes reality. The bolder and more daring the story the more creative I need to become—both in making it up, and then making it!
Who is or has been your mentor? What piece of advice did s/he give you?
Everyone around me is a mentor which is why I’m very proud of the people that surround me. The best piece advice I’ve been given came from my 90-year-old professor, Leckie (may he rest in peace): “Be careful what you get good at because chances are you’ll end up doing a lot of it.”
What are your passions?
Causing people to rethink the world around them. Whether it’s with an unexpected punch-line or a crazy prototype.
You hosted the show Prototype This! on the Discovery Channel where you led teams of crack inventors, scientists, builders, and engineers to create never before seen spectacles of engineering. What was the most fantastical invention you showcased on the show?
Showcased? Built! The crowd pleaser was the water slide simulator. I thought the custom six-legged vehicle took the cake.
Was there one that didn't make it onto the show but it’s worth mentioning?
We had an un-aired pilot with two prototypes. One prototype was an un-stealable bike that locked the offender to the bike and then disabled the steering, locked the brakes and called the cops and gave them the GPS coordinates. The other prototype was the PooBot which automatically picked up doggy doo doo and threw it over your neighbor’s fence.
What is your Superpower?
Thinking the absurd and turning it into reality.
What is your place of inspiration?
I just make all this up.
Your new show, In The Making, has you traveling the globe knocking down doors to hacker spaces, infiltrating top tech companies, and profiling makers of change wherever they are. What have you seen lately that blew your socks off?
A radical new invention in x-ray technology! The episode aired on July 17th at www.youtube.com/inthemakingtv Go there to see Flyboarding, iPhone controlled cockroaches and more every week!
What are the current trends you see?
I’ll pick one: The digitally integrated self, or as I call it, The Internet of Me. I think this one is very interesting as I foresee an inflection point in our relationship with technology happening. Ask any parent and they’ll complain about how their kids always have their heads in their devices. As someone that has an online life in addition to my physical life, there is a need to be checking with your devices constantly. The tools that we use online are trending for simpler, quicker, and less disruptive to our lives. I think this trend will continue and we’ll see the reemergence of the face from the screen and the technology will start to be less obvious and yet more enabling.
You are the founder of Reallocate, a nonprofit that connects world class talent to social impact projects that create real world solutions. How did this come about and what has it meant to you?
When I was working at Nukotoys, the CEO asked if I’d help out his nonprofit Miraclefeet, a mission to treat kids with clubfoot in developing countries. The braces involved in the treatment were expensive and no one had designed a good low-cost brace. I looked at it and said, sure, it looks pretty straight forward and does a good thing for the world. Little did I know this would change my life forever. I quickly brought on friends, designers, corporate partners, like Stratasys 3D printing, and soon we had developed a new brace. Nine months after starting I found myself in a hospital in Nicaragua testing the brace on children. The moment I put the brace on the kid’s foot, I realized that this kid was going to walk because we were able to reallocate just a little bit of the vast resources we have in the western world. Inspired, I came back to the United States and started ReAllocate.
What is your proudest accomplishment with ReAllocate?
I’m really proud of the open source cooperative innovation platform Kyle Stewart and Scott Leonard built (along with a diverse community of contributing developers). The tool can be used to activate a community. People can create projects, give descriptions, updates, etc. and then can post opportunities for others to be involved. It’s matchmaking to make the world a better place! We’ve been white labeling the platform for a few select organizations, and soon will be opening it up to more organizations and communities. To get on the list fire an email off to firstname.lastname@example.org
How do you motivate yourself to take action?
Cameron Sinclair (founder of Architecture for Humanity) had a great way of putting it: blackmail yourself. It’s a technique I’ve used for years and it works exceptionally well. Tell people you are going to do something, and then do it. If you value your reputation, then you’ll follow through on what you said you were going to do. The more public the better!
Example: One year at Burning Man I wanted to make a huge splash. So I let my creativity go and came up with an idea. Before even really thinking it through, I jump up on a picnic table in a beer garden in San Francisco and told everyone what was going to happen:
“ We’re going to have 2 shipping containers. People walk into one and we do a full 3D body scan of them. The second container has a bank of 3D printers that we’ll print a figurine of the person. But so they don’t have to wait, we’ll give them a GPS transponder and when their print is ready, we’ll load it onto a drone and have it delivered to them.” Pretty bold, especially given this was a few years ago.
Well, we pretty much did it. It took 3DSystems donating printers, some rock star talent looking for a fun project to work on, Ziv with his octocopter and dodecacopter, Sergei from Zurich, and building a camp of 200+ people to fund it, but we pulled it off—mostly! ;)
If you could only have two tools to create with on a desert island, what would they be?
A GoPro and a satellite uplink.
What’s your thoughts on the maker movement?
This could be an entire article, so let’s just leave it at this: The Maker Movement is about empowerment. Following the last recession, people got off plain consumerism and realized that not only is it possible to live with less stuff, but we can create our own stuff, things we really want and fulfill us. Combine that with the rapidly improving ability to design digitally, integrate electronics, software ease, and tools like 3D printing; and you have people with a desire and the tools to be a maker.
This is a part of a larger trend I am seeing, which is the return to the physical community interaction. The Internet brought us back together into communities after the travesty of the suburb, and now we want to go a step further and be present with each other.
When is breaking the rules okay?
“Make rules, but don’t live in a prison.”
What would your DJ name be?
I’ve notice in the past couple of years, the idea of hacking everyday things has become more mainstream. Have you seen this? Why do you think it’s becoming more popular?
I personally feel that we have built all these systems. People are now realizing that you do not have to live within the prescription of the system—you can find gray space within the system and create your own custom solution. Never thought of it, but hacking is very aligned with the mass customization trend that is happening.
If you could hack anything, what would it be?
Right now, my hack is a high quality of life, at a very low cost. Example: At the moment I have a Viking Ship Volvo on display in front of a hotel I check into tomorrow, sipping a complimentary latte and enjoying a lovely lounge with Wi-Fi—all this at no cost to me. Even the three nights that I will spend in the hotel will be covered (I’m giving a keynote free of charge at Tech Open Air in Berlin, and in exchange they got me a nice room). And the last three nights in Berlin my friend is covering, because I’m putting him up in my room for the next three—a week of free hotels in Berlin.
Another way to look at hacking is finding ways to create value where everyone wins. When you step out of the mindset of just paying for everything, and getting paid, then you find very interesting paradigms.
You travel all over the world, what your best piece of travel advice?
Learn hello and thank you in their language, use it all the time, and try to interact with as many people as possible. As a foreigner, you have a huge advantage that people do not expect you to subscribe to their systems. And it’s amazing. Even in the most conservative places, people really want to open up, and they will if approached.
Your life is so full of adventure. What is the most dangerous adventure you’ve had and what did you learn from it?
Hopping buses through Southern India. India is just plain dangerous, the buses are over the top. And then there was drinking the holy water, don’t drink the holy water! Then there were the mosquitos, and of course I had no malaria medication.
At the same time I felt completely alive. Death is present in India, all around, and people are comfortable with it. It certainly helps to believe that when you die you are reincarnated! It made me realize how sheltered we are from death in the west, how afraid of it we are. I felt myself letting go of that fear in India, and really starting to live.
Describe the best day you ever had....
I asked this question to an elderly lady who was absolutely glowing and I have come to agree with her. Every day just gets better and better.
Thanks, Dr. North, for a terrific Interview!