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"Making" a Difference: A Conversation with Tikkun Olam Makers' Arnon Zamir

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This article is featured in the May 2016 edition of The Slice, a monthly digest that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunitieswith a Jewish twist. Below, we chat with Arnon Zamir, Director of Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM), a global nonprofit organization that brings together over 1,000 programmers, engineers, designers and developers from around the world to develop assistive technologies for people with disabilities. TOM is known for its innovative global "makeathons," where teams of technology gurus gather for 72 hours of intensive workshopping to find solutions to everday challenges. With help from a recent grant from Google.org, TOM will be expanding its efforts to make these solutions easily shareable across its network of "Makers," and more accessible for the people who benefit from TOM's expertise.

What does a typical TOM Makeathon look like? How does the format of these events help attendees go from a problem, to an idea, to a solution?

TOM Makeathons are minimally-structured, innovation-focused events. When designing a typical, fully-facilitated event, such as conference or summit, organizers tend (rightfully) to meticulously plan each and every interaction in every moment on every day of the event. At the other end of this spectrum, you may find completely open-ended gatherings like regular hackathons or non-conferences—goals may remain vague, and accordingly, there is very minimal planning or facilitation to be done.

TOM is different. We employ a methodology of our own, which we call the "Intentional Makeathon." It is a hackathon-style event structure, with clear intentions. We are here to develop solutions that address specific needs, which are presented by “Need-Knowers” in attendance, and to ensure that these solutions are sustainable after the makeathon ends and can be successfully developed into products.

TOM participants work in combined teams of Need-Knowers and Makers. Each team of 2-10 people works on a specific challenge, and a makeathon may accommodate 5-20 teams at a time. We have found that there is a delicate balance between freedom and guidance that we need to maintain to encourage radical, fast and daring innovation. That is why we plan and facilitate a makeathon using a light touch (a notion that we internally refer to as "Zen Facilitation"—helping the hills to let the wind blow in roughly the planned direction).  

A key element of TOM is each team's sense of ownership over their project. The TOM organizing staff does not assist the teams in defining, owning, planning or building the products they develop. We are a combination tech support group and cheer squad. However, it is well known that creativity takes place in challenging conditions—and TOM is just that.

When a team walks on to the Makerspace floor at TOM, they know the challenge is theirs and the responsibility is theirs. From understanding the challenge, to planning a project that will address it, to dealing with the intense task of prototyping a solution in three days and with limited resources, it is all up to the team. A good measure for this is whether teams come to ask if they are "doing it right" or what to do now. But when teams ask how, or consult with each other to allocate resources, we know have been sending the right message and the sense of ownership is there.

TOM Makeathons are designed to cover a complete challenge-to-market cycle, where “market” for us means getting the product to the end user, not necessarily a for-profit, buy-and-sell market.

What inspired you to start TOM? How did you arrive at TOM’s unique approach?

TOM began as a Schusterman Connection Point in 2014. My co-creator Josh Gottesman and I worked for the Reut Institute (now the Reut Group). We applied to the program with a general notion of using design, technology—specifically, 3-D printing and digital fabrication—for social value.

Throughout the process of designing and planning our Connection Point, we focused on the subject of disabilities. We realized how huge the need is, and that we have an opportunity to make a real, tangible impact on many people’s quality of life. This was what we call “Chapter 1” of TOM.

Creating real life products requires that the work extend beyond the makeathon, and we challenged ourselves—and were asked by our communities—to provide a mechanism to continue product development and generate a path-to-market.

I have been a maker myself since forever—I’ve been programming since I was 10, building RC airplanes and constantly disassembling things to see how they work (if their respective owners are not careful enough). It was natural for me to work among other tech creators and Makers. A major factor in the process was the support of the visionary team at the Reut Group, a great enabler of development processes, and of course the connection with ROI Community, which enabled some critical points in the process to materialize into a reality.

How did TOM evolve into the movement it is today? When did you realize that you had landed on a special concept?

To a large extent, this was a deliberate process. When we first planned the original TOM makeathon in Nazareth, Josh and I decided that we didn’t want to create just one point in time, but that we wanted to start a movement. I am happy to report that we have—and a bit faster than anticipated! I believe that our universally-appreciated mission—making assistive technology accessible for everyone—and our innovative process play a role here. People are basically good, and given a strong enough framework, they can do marvelous things. All we do is create this framework, tweak it and adjust it until people come to play with us. We try to have fun and allow them to have fun along the way.

Me and the TOM team – there are seven of us at the moment—have spent a long time researching models for movement growth, from TED and TEDx, the Limmud model, Pacha-Kucha and even Weight Watchers. We searched for the common denominators of these institutions and deducted some basic principles that we are actively translating into actionable plans: plan, build, test and repeat.

TOM just received a $700,000 grant from Google.org, which is very exciting! What will this new partnership look like and how will it shape your work?

The grant process with Google.org was built to support the creation of a path-to-market mechanism. We are thrilled to have this opportunity, as this is nothing that was tried before and definitely not on such a massive scale. Path-to-market means that when a project is ready to serve people who need it, there is a way to let them know it exists and help them access it—including testing and fitting support.

In a commercial market, most of these steps have got textbook solutions. But for a nonprofit, open-source market, it’s much less straightforward. The guys at Google.org were kind enough to support us in building a system that supports this process and includes Developer Groups and our upcoming Open Makers Market. The endgame looks like this: when someone needs an assistive product, they can go online and choose what they need and tell us where in the world they live. We will then be able to give them the 3-D printing, design and assembly files, and then connect them to the Makers in their community who will help them build and use the product. Our makerspaces in San Francisco, Tel Aviv, New Delhi and Brasilia usually carry very similar supplies, which is how we plan to manufacture and distribute assistive technologies.

How do you see the next five years unfolding for TOM? How do you see the movement growing?

We are looking to expand the community and extend our global reach. In our five-year-plan, we are looking at Makeathons running around the world on a weekly basis, and developer groups in every school with engineering and design departments. We want our websites and communities on and offline to become the go-to places for advanced assistive technology: customized, open and low cost.

At some point in time we want to try and expand to other fields. We have been approached to utilize our products to address sustainable living issues, water-saving agriculture and more. While at the moment we are maintaining our current focus due to organizational bandwidth considerations, at some point we won’t be able to hold ourselves back—which will mean expanding the TOM brand to new fields and communities!

TOM gets its name from the Jewish charge to repair the world. How do you see that charge play out in the work of the Makers in your community?

For me, tikkun olam is a privilege. This is the opportunity we have been given to leave a mark by making the place around us a bit better than it was when we got it. Makers are naturally high-energy people, with a tendency to put countless hours into building projects and programs, from homemade 3-D printers to DIY drones, from cupcakes to jet-packs. Our tikkun is to channel some of this innovation to places that are benefitting society. Quite simply: we identify needs, and then ask makers to participate in mending them.

Do you have a favorite project that TOM has helped make happen?

I have 100 favorites!  Right now, my top three are:

  • Communicate!, an open-source communication board for children on the autistic spectrum. It’s low-cost and it supports RTL languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Urdu, Persian), which are not normally well-served with these products. The project is led by a magnificent team of Tel Aviv-based Makers and Need-Knowers.
  • Kicker Helper, a pedal for wheelchairs that allows children with disabilities to play ball at recess. This Berekely, CA project just raised $12,000 on Indiegogo!
  • Dual Vision, a project started just this week that aims to compensate for and fill in the lost visual field of a child that lost an eye to cancer. This project is truly global—it’s based in San Francisco, Israel and Singapore.

Any message for readers and tech gurus looking to get involved?

TOM is the simplest way to use your skills for doing good. If you give us just four weekly hours, we'll make sure they are dedicated to making a person’s life significantly better. We are actively looking for community members worldwide to join TOM teams, organize makeathons and lead a change in their communities.

No product can be developed by one person alone. Teams, on the other hand, are practically limitless in what they can achieve, and we are there to support them with knowledge, resources and connections.

Learn more about TOM by visiting their website.

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or program participants.