‘Tikkun Olam Makers’ turn technology into solutions for people with disabilities

‘Tikkun Olam Makers’ turn technology into solutions for people with disabilities

This system developed at a Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) “make-a-thon” allows people who are paralyzed from the neck down to turn pages in a book.
This system developed at a Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) “make-a-thon” allows people who are paralyzed from the neck down to turn pages in a book.

From cyber-security to medicine to agriculture, Israeli innovators are coming up with ideas that make life safer, easier, and more efficient. These creations, in turn, simultaneously fund the Jewish state and yield profits for their overseas investors. A new organization is taking this entrepreneurial ecosystem to a new level, merging technological savvy with tikkun olam, the Jewish value of repairing the world, to solve societal needs.

Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM), a project of the Reut Institute and ROI Community, is bringing together strategic thinkers, engineers, designers, and project managers to solve unmet social challenges in disadvantaged communities. TOM is built on six core values: scalability, community integration, collaborative competition, affordability, smart development, and innovation.

In March, TOM held its second “make-a-thon” in Tel Aviv (an event dubbed TOM: TLV), partnering with the Ruderman Family Foundation to harness cutting-edge technology to design affordable aids for people with disabilities. The goal was to create solutions that increase integration and inclusion.

“The event was a direct meeting ground for people with special needs and the people with the ability to help solve [their challenges],” TOM Founding Director Arnon Zamir says of the 72-hour program, which produced 25 technological prototypes.

Zamir explains that for-profit companies are often able only to invest in projects with strong demand that are marketable to the masses. People with intellectual and developmental disabilities often have unique needs. The solutions must be tailored to the individual, which takes time and money.

“We are not a technology company and we do not aim to be one. We are connectors,” Zamir says.

Eran Tamir, an employee at IBM Israel whose son Guy has cerebral palsy, took part in the recent make-a-thon and describes TOM as “a miracle.” When Tamir arrived at TOM: TLV, he was swept away by the powerful teams that stayed and worked until midnight, or even dawn. The next day, which happened to be Israeli Election Day, he brought Guy. The makers took time to get to know Guy and to understand him. One group, led by industrial designer Nurit Greenberg, invented a prototype specifically for Guy. They call it “GidiGuy.”

Greenberg says her team was charged with developing a game for children with special needs to be able to play and interact on an equal level with mainstream youths. Guy, for example, cannot use his hands, so the solution centered on his most easily-moved body part: his head.

Greenberg’s team, which consisted of a mechanical engineer, economic consultant, architect, and others, designed a game similar to “Simon Says,” using sensors and colored lights. The system recognizes the direction in which Player 1 turns his head. If the player moves right, a red light turns on, while a yellow light is activated by a move to the left, and so on. Player 2 must mimic Player 1. As the players engage, the color sequences get longer and more difficult. Now, Greenberg is in touch with one of Israel’s major hospitals for youths with disabilities to determine if this is something that could be further developed and brought to market.

Tomer Daniel works in the Wi-Fi division at Intel Israel. At night, “I build stuff,” Daniel says.

Daniel got involved in the maker community a few years ago, entering make-a-thon/hack-a-thon contests on weekends and evenings. He says he created several gimmicks, including a PAC-MAN® helmet that players wear to direct the joystick, using their heads.

“You nod left, down, up, right, and the PAC-MAN moves,” Daniel says. “It is so funny, it only moves when you open and close your mouth, too. But this is something that is smart but useless.” But TOM, says Daniel, is “smart and useful. It is helping people.”

Daniel and his team created another helmet during the TOM competition. This one assists a blind person in navigating his home. Using sensors like the ones in a cell phone, it gauges the distance between a person and walls or other objects, keeping the blind person safer from harm.

“We tested it on ourselves. That was really neat,” Daniel says.

Daniel says that when it comes to using technology for tikkun olam, expertise is not a barrier to entry.

“You don’t have to be an engineer, you don’t have to build stuff,” he says. “Some people are good with their hands, some with their minds. The greatest teams are those composed of people with golden hands, golden minds, and golden eyes.”

TOM’s Zamir notes that the organization has already held a competition in Brazil, and that he is in contact with 11 other countries about running these programs. TOM: NY is planned for New York in March 2016. Even Kosovo has expressed interest in the initiative. In this way, says Zamir, TOM can help Israel be “a light unto the nations.”

Zamir says he sees the TOM model, much like the TEDxTalks, as something that can be replicated elsewhere without the direct involvement of TOM’s Israel-based team. TOM is in the process of building a website, which will house information about the organizational concept, but also images and assembly directions for the prototypes the competitions have produced. This way, companies might see solutions they want to explore taking from prototype to market. Alternatively, a visitor to the website might consider replicating one of the innovations for a family member or friend in need.

TOM is considering focusing its next make-a-thon on solutions for the elderly, according to Zamir.

“I always say that if each person could give one minute to another person, our world would be a better place,” says IBM’s Tamir. “I don’t think this is something that could have started in any other country but Israel.”

Maayan Jaffe is a Kansas City, Kan., based freelance writer.