How to Change the World—A Brief Story of TOM 
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How to Change the World—A Brief Story of TOM

Tuesday May 24th, 2016
How to Change the World—A Brief Story of TOM

How to Change the World—A Brief Story of TOM

Tuesday May 24th, 2016 / 0 Comments

When I was a kid, I went through a phase where I boldly announced—to anyone who asked me what I was going to do when I grew up—that I was going to change the world. Maybe I was a slightly over-ambitious kid, but I suspect I am by far not alone, and I know I am not alone in my remaining desire to make an impact, to do something good. The hardest part always seems to be, not a lack of desire, but a lack of knowing what to do. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone just point you in the direction of a concrete and real problem that you have the skills to solve and in doing so improve people’s lives? Meet TOM.

TOM stands for “Tikkun Olam Makers,” or, roughly speaking for those unfamiliar with the Hebrew term: makers that repair the world. It is a non-partisan, non-profit startup that came out of the Reut Group and has “a 10-year vision to positively impact the lives of 250 Million people worldwide” according to their website. TOM’s main operating principal is connecting “makers” with “need-knowers.” The terms designate exactly what you’d imagine. Makers are problem-solvers, engineers, designers and just general tinkerers—people who make things. Need-knowers are people who have a need and clear, specific knowledge of how it impacts their lives—in the case of TOM, these are people with disabilities.

Tikkun Olam Makers Makethon. (photo credit: Reut Group)

A Makeathon in San Francisco, CA. (photo credit: TOM: Tikkun Olam Makers)

TOM organizes a space filled with 3D printers, work stations and general tools where about 150 makers (a number deliberately chosen to generate energy, but to stay manageable) and about 16 need-knowers come together for 72 hours. The prototypes that originate in these aptly named “makeathons” are a remarkable testament to the life-changing solutions that can be created in a short time through a concerted and coordinated effort—such as a walker that helps people go up stairs without the need for a handrail, or an oral grasping device that allows someone without arms to pick up objects. And TEDx Talks by Arnon Zamir, TOM’s Chief Change Maker and Sefi Attias, TOM’s Innovation Shepherd (yes, these are their actual, wonderfully cool titles) best describe how TOM originated and what its operational principles can accomplish. As of today TOM has faced over 540 challenges and created over 112 projects with the help of over 1,193 makers. However, regardless of how impressive this sounds, it alone is not enough to change the world. And TOM knows that, which is why its true focus is on making connections and on scaling.

Sefi Attias, who spoke with me for this piece, best put it when he said that “the technology is the second outcome. The community is the first and the connections that are created because through that you create people who are much more aware and more committed.” If TOM were product-oriented, we’d have a few hundred more gadgets in the world that made the lives of some easier. But what it has created is a connection- and solution-oriented process—a movement. “We’re seeing industrial designers come in and leave as entrepreneurs,” said Attias. “We’ve had five to six startups come out of TOM. That is a much more lasting impact.”

While the organizational logistics and know-how behind organizing makeathons are substantial, Attias insisted that TOM doesn’t really do much. “It’s not easy, but it’s simple,” he said. “It is mind-blowing that we don’t really do much. … Paradoxically we find lots of talented makers who are eager to find something to work on, but they don’t know what.” So the challenge really lies in the organizing, or as Attias put it, “The heavy lifting is in creating momentum and engaging enough people so that [the process] can self-perpetuate. But once you do that, it’s a snowball.” After a few successful makeathons, TOM has stopped producing them and instead is “empowering communities to run them.” In the remainder of this year alone, five makeathons will be held: in Vietnam, Canada, the USA, Argentina, and Australia.

A Makeathon in San Francisco, CA. (photo credit: TOM: Tikkun Olam Makers)

A Makeathon in San Francisco, CA. (photo credit: TOM: Tikkun Olam Makers)

Given this volume, it is clear to see that TOM is successful in making connections and creating the kind of momentum that is needed to sustain ongoing and lasting impact. Also given the global reach and the fact that the very first makeathon took place less than two years ago, one may be tempted to say that TOM has managed to scale its concept, but challenges remain.

For starters, the reason a concept like TOM is necessary, especially in the world of assistive technology, is that markets only invest in the research and development of projects that will be profitable. Attias noted that “in the places where there is a limited market, where only 10,000 or 100,000 people need [a specific product], there is no business model and no money to be made and no incentive to innovate.” In other words, if there are “only” 100,000 people with a specific need, the mainstream marketplace is likely to ignore them. “The ability to scale products in those markets is most interesting for TOM,” said Attias. This, perhaps more than other aspects of TOM is the truly world-changing approach. Those who are excluded by the traditional ways of the world are included by TOM’s vision.

Right now that vision includes a joint project with Google and eBay to create a marketplace specifically for assistive technology. “Part of the challenge is achieving efficiency,” said Attias. “We see the same projects created in different places. Every community has that one MacGyver guy to build something, but then all that energy is re-invested” into a solution that has already been found. Through their collaboration with their partners, TOM is hoping to avoid this repetition and to create greater documentation and accessibility to already existing solutions. They are currently exploring several models that would offer a viable marketplace. If the solutions innovated as a result of TOM’s makeathons do become readily available world-wide, TOM will truly have scaled their vision and will have changed the world as we know it.



Kristina Kopić, better known as Tina, is a former academic, a writer, a martial artist, and a fan of deconstructing all social constructs, especially those of gender, race, and disability in order to expose and challenge their injustices and create a more inclusive and fair world. She is the Advocacy Content Specialist at the Ruderman Family Foundation, lives with her wife, their two cats, and is currently dabbling in rugby.


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