e-NABLE is 4 years old, and our Google Plus community’s enrollment will soon reach 10,000.

I thought it would be useful to sketch the year-by-year history of the e-NABLE ecosystem, and then speculate about our future.  As befits e-NABLE, this is a personal, not an official, commentary.

“A global assistive technology pay-it-forward network built on an infrastructure of internet communications, 3D-printing, and good will”

Ivan Owen and Richard Van As

In 2012, South African Carpenter Richard Van As and Washington State maker Ivan Owen co-developed a simple, body-powered 3D-printable “Robohand.”  After they realized the device could benefit children born with hand abnormalities, they put the design online.

if you know someone who needs a hand….

One spring morning in 2013, I stumbled upon a viral youtube video telling that story.  On a whim, I posted a comment on the video saying, roughly,  “I’ve made a google map.  If you have a printer and want to help put a pin on the map.  If you know someone who needs a map, puta pin on the map”  The map itself bore a simple  message: “e-NABLE is a global assistive technology pay-it-forward network built on an infrastructure of internet communications, 3D-printing, and good will.’  The message became true by nightfall:  there were seven pins on the map;  six weeks later, 70 pins.  When people started asking “now what do we do?” I created the e-NABLE Google Plus Community so we could figure it out.  We did, sort of, and we began making and distributing better devices.  

In 2014, high school student Nick Parker created an e-NABLE group on Facebook. Jen Owen created a website called EnablingTheFuture.org, and another Facebook group for “Enable parents”.

2014 Conference at Johns Hopkins

A “Strategic Planning Committee” (SPC) partnered with Johns Hopkins surgeon Albert Chi to mount a conference that brought volunteers together volunteers with parents, recipients and the press.  Nick’s mother Marla and I founded  the “Enabling The Future Foundation” (soon renamed “Enable Community Foundation” because Jen wanted to maintain her website’s independence).  Marla, Ivan, and I were early ECF Board Members.   News stories about volunteers with 3D printers and children with superhero hands became common.  In 2015, publicity attracted funding. Google.org and the Autodesk Foundation awarded multi-year grants of 500K and 275K  so ECF could build a system for tracking, assessing and improving 3D-printed prosthetics, and for matching makers with recipients.  e-NABLE volunteers Dante Varotsis, Elinor Schull, Caitlin Mcdonnell, and Mohit Chaudhary won 100K from the Genesis Foundation to try to establish a sustainable 3D-printed prosthetics enterprise in Haiti.  The JM Kaplan fund awarded me an Innovation Fellowship and awarded ECF 275K, some of which was used to fund my lab at RIT.  Meanwhile, the e-NABLE community grew, classrooms adopted e-NABLE projects, and e-NABLE teams and chapters emerged in England, France, Israel, and  elsewhere.

But 2016 brought growing pains.  The Foundation’s matching efforts fell behind increasing demand. E-NABLErs demanded  more transparency, accountability and progress,  and support for the community itself. Unfortunately, the Foundation had not obtained funding for community support, and some ECF personnel drew back from an ungovernable volunteer community producing “superhero hands” that did not measure up to traditional medical standards or cultural requirements in places like Haiti.  Others (including me) became increasingly convinced that a global network of volunteers–however ungovernable–could benefit people whose needs remain unmet by traditional institutions. Ivan resigned from the ECF Board. Then Marla. Then me. ECF discontinued funding of my lab at RIT .  My 14 years at RIT came to an end on December 31 2016.

2017 has been great so far. Skip Meetze and I established the  Rochester e-NABLE lab (Re-NABLE) in a makerspace at a Rochester High School we had worked with in the past. A few months later, ECF disavowed support for the e-NABLE community of volunteers and changed its name to LimbForge.  Within weeks the Strategic Planning Committee re-emerged to fill the void created by ECF’s withdrawal.

A badging system by Jen Owen and Maria Esquela began credentialing e-NABLErs and  best practices.  A new website called “Enable Web Central” (developed by Aleks Jones and SPC Chair Jeremy Simon) began providing a voluntary infrastructure for tracking and improving devices, deliveries, follow-ups and data collection.  The now SPC has an official page at e-NABLE.org.   We were just gifted $50,000 by Youtube and Google.org. At the Re-NABLE lab, two spectacular interns are helping a third teach young men learn how to print and build hands, and deliver four  to amputees by the end of the summer; we hope to present their data next month at Open Prosthetics Conference in Portland, where Jeremy, Jen, Ivan, Owen  Albert and a few other e-NABLE leaders hope to convene on August 18.  Please join us, in person if you can, or virtually!

Now what do we do?”

I truly believe that e-NABLE-like ventures can help millions of people who remain unserved by traditional institutions, and can benefit millions more who are rich in material and intellectual wealth but hungry for purpose and meaning.   

But If we are to realize that potential, we need to grow and organize gracefully and sustainably.   How?

The traditional organizational response to growth is to develop hierarchical authority structures…and become a traditional organization.  We tried that once; we might try it again.  But maybe–and this is what I am most excited about–maybe we can thrive by embracing the fact that we are not a traditional organization.

e-NABLE is now a network, not just of passionate individuals, but of “chapters” in over 80 countries.  Chapters are large enough to make a real difference, but small enough to empower individual members, cultivate mentors and leaders, and organize themselves as they see fit.  Because they are localized and diverse, chapters  can develop locally appropriate solutions and specialties.   And with the right infrastructure of “internet communications, 3D printing, and good will,”  chapters can complement each other and share  stories,  solutions and values.

What kind of infrastructure do we need?  An infrastructure that supports and develops autonomous chapters unified by shared values and shared designs while supporting collaboration,  innovation, sustainability, and collective intelligence among individuals and chapters.  

An unrealistic dream?  Maybe not.

In the last decade, a group of social innovators called”Enspiral” has developed open source software and processes for “distributed do-ocracy” (my term).  Like e-NABLE, they envision a  compassionate, human-centered, technology-enabled “caring economy, unlike us they have specialized in software for coordinating the quest.  The tools they’ve built have been adopted by dozens of groups,  thousands of people, and a few governments around the world.  They work.

I’ve been reading up on Enspiral and similar social experiments and want to share a few pithy insights from a recent academic paper about Enspiral.

  •  everyone should lead some of the time, no one should lead all of the time and leadership should be balanced with active followership.”  (OK then!  How are you going to lead e-NABLE?)
  • Volunteers can lose enthusiasm,  run out of time or burn out because they cannot rely on their work to make a living. Enspiral shows how value-creators can create a “collective investment fund, with a social purpose” while maintaining their individual autonomy and voice.  (OK then!  Maybe we should explore and adapt this. )

One of Enspiral’s most important tools is Loomio: an online platform for participatory decision- making.  I’ve established a Loomio forum for Enable called “e-nablio.”   Let’s kick the tires!


Founder, e-NABLE.

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