Leigh Christie is a Modern Day Inventor and Artist and Those Things Are the Same

Leigh Christie discusses the maker movement and bridging the gap between art and engineering

Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.

Name: Leigh Christie

Original Hometown: Vancouver

Job: Leigh Christie is a modern-day inventor. He is known for co-creating the Mondo Spider, an electric 1,500 lb walking vehicle, and he co-founded the eatART Laboratory in Vancouver, BC. He holds three patents in energy, robotics, and transportation — including a folding skateboard. He also founded MistyWest Energy and Transport, an engineering and product design company in Vancouver. He was featured in the documentary Generation Why.

You’re involved in the Maker movement. Tell me a bit about that.

In many ways, it started with Survival Research Lab, which is an art collective based out of California. There was a lot of people making stuff for Burning Man. That’s really what caught people’s imagination: This intersection between mechanical engineering and the Burning Man festival.

Once people got that connection, from then on it was large-scale DIY-style making of things which ultimately ended up looking like art. Whether they were art or not is irrelevant. People just loved making them for the sake of making them, and showing them at Burning Man. Eventually, Maker Faire started realizing, “if we just bring all these huge sculptures and mechanical machines out to Maker Faire, more people will come and make bigger, better headlines.” Before you knew it, it was just a natural fit for people from the Burning Man community to go to Maker Faire, and vice versa.

Have you been to Burning Man?

This coming year will be my ninth time.

And how did you first get involved in maker culture?

I’m not going to lie, I was caught a little off guard by the maker movement. I was doing engineering, and I was doing math and physics and science and building and making things using my engineering skills, and being somewhat in awe of machinists and woodworkers and plumbers and electricians — tradespeople that were experts at making things. I was an engineer trying to make things like a professional fabricator. Slowly but surely, I found more and more people to make things with me, who were much better than I was at making things. This model of engineering, design, creativity, art, working with expert builders, it didn’t feel at all like the Maker Movement. When you read the magazine or saw it online, it came across as fathers with their kids making soap box racers. That’s obviously not what it is now, but many years ago, that would be the initial impression some people might have gotten. I didn’t look closely enough at it. As a result, I was blindsided by it.

Now the maker movement is a juggernaut of high technology. Many startup companies started with some of their first demos being shown at Maker Faire. My misunderstanding was not due to my arrogance. A little bit of that tension does exist between professionals and amateurs, but that’s not what it was for me. It was just an fundamental misunderstanding of the power of enabling vastly more people to make things from scratch — to build things and then leverage that to push things ahead in this new industry.

If you asked me ten years ago, ‘What’s the best thing we could possibly do to push North American industry forward in terms of innovation,” I’d like to think I would have said “education and enabling the youth to think critically and to innovate and make things,” but I don’t think I did understand that back then. Dale Doherty did.

All the people around Maker Faire understood that before everyone else. As a result, the maker movement is probably one of the most powerful, game changing movements we have now in North America.

Would you say you made a career out of it?

I started by making a career out of engineering and then I started to make a career out of art. I was actually a professional DJ for a while. It was fun, but the main reason why I was doing it was because I love music and I loved bringing great people together in the same room. At the same time, I was developing into a bit of an artist. To this day, I don’t identify purely with the term ‘artist’ but I made major motions towards doing things that resemble art. The more I did that, the less I felt like I was an engineer.

Then I steered towards entrepreneurship. It went engineer, artist, entrepreneur. I hit a crossroad where I was like, “I don’t know what I am, I don’t know what to do. My career is super confusing and I’m having trouble identifying.”

I was in my 30’s and I decided to go back to school. I went to MIT, through an art program called ACT — Art Culture and Technology. It’s based inside the same building as the Media Lab Program. My studio was directly above the CBA machine shop, or CBA laboratory. That’s Maker central. Anybody who has access to that can pretty much make anything. I was in the thick of it for two years.

It was really going back to MIT that brought me full-circle, and made me realize that first and foremost, I’m an inventor. I’m a creator of things. That doesn’t necessarily mean I have to make the thing. I wouldn’t call myself a maker first and foremost. In many cases I create things on paper, on a computer, maybe even software, and then someone else implements it.

In many cases, I hire experts to help me implement things. If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have accomplished a quarter of what I’ve been able to do. A lot of artists are pretty dishonest about how they make their art. It’s really common for artists to actually have teams of people behind them making the art for them and they don’t like showing the man behind the curtain because they think it takes away from the art piece.

For myself, it’s the opposite. I want to be able to brag about every single team member and tell the world how great they are. That’s so much more interesting than pretending that we live in a world where every Thomas Edison did everything by themselves.

Do you think you need a team to be a modern day inventor? Can you do it alone?

I think you can. I actually know people like that. I am in awe of them. There’s a lot of unsung heroes. One person that comes to mind is a founder of a company called Grim Technologies in Vancouver. His name is Justin Lemire-Elmore. He’s one of those guys that can invent things and spend long hours in that flow state. In the flow state, you’re so focused it’s almost like meditation. Not just on a design side, but on the actual fabrication side. That still holds a place in our society, this sort of celebration of the individual genius. I think Ayn Rand would have called this person the Uber Man.

That celebration is still there. We almost ascribe supernatural powers to individuals because that way, the engineer, scientist or physicist — in a cultural sense —could compete with the rock star, the actor, the director, and the politician. It was a way of glorifying the sciences and the industry of human progress and taking these STEM rock stars — science, technology, engineering, math — and putting them on a pedestal. Then the stories around these individuals would grow because people would give them more credit than what they actually deserved or accomplished.

My approach is the opposite. If you want to change the world, don’t try to be a one-man show. It’s good to be hardcore and super focused, but try to recruit great people around you and give credit where credit is due. I see a lot of that taking place within startups, the maker movement, and with open source community, which is hugely inspirational. Justin is one example of people who could easily be like that. That mythical human.

There’s a few artists here in New York that have this interesting style that’s like a nonchalant maker style. Making something that is aesthetically consistent from object to object; beautiful in its own right, but if you look at it a little too closely you kind of see the cracks and the seems and stuff. Michel Gondry is this artist who made a film called The Science of Sleep. He makes a lot of stuff out of paper maché. He has a rough style, it looks like diorama style, high school science project style.

These are the kind of people that inspire me. Ironically, I’ve chosen a radically different path in my career, and that is to try to think of the craziest ideas I can possibly think of — the most amazing things I could possibly do — and then find the financial and brain resources that I need in order to make those things happen. Not unlike a film producer or a startup entrepreneur. Except it just so happens I’m doing those things within a corporation.

What have you been working on recently?

Currently my day job is working at a company called Isobar. I run a laboratory with five locations within North America. It is a distributed laboratory called the NowLab. My job is to come up with cool ideas and and then recruit as many people within Isobar to work on these projects as possible. Then of course to build up the labs themselves so we can do more things within the laboratories. Also workshops, brainstorming sessions, hackathons, that ultimately try to take the work that comes out the lab and apply it to the wild with clients as campaign work or commercial activity. The goal for NowLab is to incubate innovative solutions that directly or indirectly support our clients.

The projects that I’m working on right now that I’m most excited about, one of them is called Project White Cane. It’s an electronic cane for the blind, except it doesn’t look anything like a cane. It’s on a platform called Google Tango that has a scanner on it. As you walk around, it detects the walls and chairs around you. It beeps and clicks and tells you what’s around you. You can learn just from feel and sound what is in your environment. Not unlike a bat. In this case, it uses structured light or a 3D camera sensor on the front.

What do you think the Maker movement will look like in 20 years?

I’ll tell you what I’d like it to look like. My preferred outcome is one where kids as young as six or seven are pretty decent at coding, are pretty fluent in multiple computer languages, long before they learn skills that today we consider far more basic. I’d like to think that if you don’t want to make things, you don’t have to. So if you’re a really good coder or really good at computers, you can tell the robot what to do and it’ll make the thing for you or you can tell the 3D printer what to do and it’ll make it for you.

I think robotics and AI are getting so good that making will be similar to making bread from scratch. You don’t have to make bread from scratch, you can buy some from the store or buy a breadmaker, but it’s still really fun. The reason this movement is resurging it there are a lot of things that we love about making that go beyond the efficiencies of industrial productivity. I also think the process of making things makes us more creative. As we make things, we think of better ideas. I think the maker movement should and will continue much in the same way it is now, but with much greater optionality.

You’re talking about art.

There will be many cases where there’s no reason other than the pure joy of it. That optionality tends to create better artists. Look at DJs, for example. Why do DJs use vinyl? Because it sounds better, it feels better, it looks better. When DJs no longer had to use vinyl and it became an option, then it became more of an art form.