Alexandra Greenspan

Makers, Tikkun Olam, and the World of Tomorrow

You take your world for granted.

Do you ever worry about reaching a door and not being able to open it? How often do you miss out on conversations because you don’t see people talking? When was the last time you were concerned about being able to use a toilet? (Unless you are a baby who is still potty-training; in that case I am impressed by your reading abilities.)

These are probably not issues that you deal with on a daily basis, but to so many people around the world, this is their life. People with disabilities have needs that are looked over simply because we don’t. Don’t have those same needs, don’t take them into consideration, don’t build for the universal.

This past weekend I was lucky to volunteer at the Bay Area Makeathon for Assistive Technology, hosted by TOM (Tikkun Olam Makers),, and United Cerebral Palsy of the North Bay. Here’s how they explain the event:

During the 72 hour makeathon we will develop hardware and software product prototypes designed to meet needs that people with disabilities identify are important to them. By bringing together people who understand the needs (‘need-knowers’) alongside engineers, designers, developers and makers, and providing a space for innovation and prototyping, we will create solutions, make new connections and share unique experiences. Join a group of talented individuals for 3 amazing days to experience how tinkering and technology can impact lives.

I volunteered through Google to be the emcee at the final awards ceremony on Sunday. But I wish I could have been there for all 72 hours, even simply basking in the warmth of the collaborative maker environment. The event took place in the TechShop in SF, which looks a little something like this:

front office of techshop And that’s just the front office.

The actual makerspace is amazing — floors of machines, laser cutters, 3D printers, and tons of other tools. Not to mention the people who bring the energy to the space. Here’s one team presenting their disability-friendly kayak to the judges:

kayak team picture The paddles have added grip support, and a seating device provides support for people to sit safely in the kayak.

In total, 19 teams spent a month pre-planning, and a weekend building amazing new assistive technology prototypes. Winning a split prize from both and the Techshop were two teams, Smart Ass and Now Mobility, who the judges hope can come together to create future iterations of the “21st century wheelchair”.

I’ve been to hackathons, I’ve led designathons, but what really makes this event the most moving -thon I’ve ever been to is the simple power the need-knowers were given by being involved in the design process. Power to shape their lives, and power within their own lives by using the new technology they helped create.

As the impartial emcee, I was lucky to sit in on part of the judges’ deliberations. These judges (full list on the website) are the leaders of the maker movement — Dale Dougherty, founder of Make Magazine and creator of MakerFaire, was a judge, for crying out loud! Hearing them discuss the impact of these creations, beyond prizes, beyond winning a competition — it was a surreal experience.

We just gave her an arm.

The quote above came from one of the judges, Michael Dubno: co-founder of Gadgetoff, past CTO of Goldman Sachs, and a man with many other titles to his name. He referred to a need-knower on the team called Grabber, a woman born without arms who could use the device iterated on via 3D-printing over the weekend to now grab things with her mouth. When I spoke to her later about the first thing she looked forward to “grabbing,” she had one simple delight in store: being able to easily take an empty plate to the sink after a meal. Just let that sink in.

She and her team literally created an arm that fit her ability and her life, not the lives of those around her.

TOM, the main host of the event, is short for Tikkun Olam Makers. Tikkun Olam is a Hebrew phrase that means “to heal the world”. Though this was but one event, the impact of what people created will ripple through the world. No doubt about that.

teams talking to Michael Dubno Participants from the Smart Ass and Now Mobility teams speak with Michael Dubno after the awards ceremony about future work on their projects.

Sunday evening also happened to be the start of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Shana Tovah — wishes for a good year. This whole experience, albeit my small role in it, has been my most meaningful Rosh Hashanah ever. Because now a good new year to me is to continue the movement I witnessed this weekend, to further combine the human-centered design process and the maker movement of rapid prototyping in order to “heal the world”.

We all need to open our hearts to the fact that however different we may look, or however different we may be in our day-to-day lives, we are all human, and this world belongs to all of us. Because the need-knowers are out there, and the first solution is out there too: Simply get started.

We can iterate and improve on that as we go.

Happy new year.