Ben Shemesh On Dreaming Big & Creating Impact
Ben Shemesh has a vast range of experiences in team based and individual leadership roles, working with people from a different linguistic, cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds. These include working at coexistence schools of Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, working with indigenous communities in the Northern Territory through an Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Care clinic, and volunteering with St. John Ambulance Victoria as a First Aider.
In 2016, Ben was a Maker at the inaugural TOM: Melbourne Makeathon part of a team that developed a pressure sensitive wheelchair mat to reduce the incidence of pressure related injuries.
Following his completion of a Bachelor of Biomedical Science and a Bachelor of Commerce from Monash University in 2017, Ben was appointed the Manager of Innovation and Development at TOM: Melbourne
Ben talks about the international movement that is facilitating open source assistive technology for people with disabilities, alongside key lessons learnt along the way.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Natana Mayer] - Tell me about TOM. What is TOM? [01:49]
[Ben Shemesh] - So Tom stands for Tikkun Olam Makers. Tikkun Olam is a Hebrew word that loosely translates to repairing the world. TOM is an international movement that was born in Israel in 2014 and has now spread around the world to 33 different countries. We've basically established over 60 communities and we create assistive technology for people with disabilities. We have branches around the world and each branch basically performs three different stages. The first stage is a make-a-thon, a 72 hour intense marathon of making, where we go from identifying a challenge to creating a prototype. Then we do stage two, which is developer groups, which is how we take a prototype to product. And then the third stage dissemination is about how we get those products to people. So that's through our platform and our open source nature.
That’s a pretty ambitious undertaking! [03:05]
It is. We've got a very ambitious, moon-shot goal, of impacting the lives of 250 million people within a decade. So 2024 is our big target. But we like to dream big. The TOM Melbourne community was established in 2016. We've had to make-a-thons at Swinburne University of Technology. Since we've established, there's now been a TOM Community in Queensland and hopefully next year communities in Sydney and Adelaide.
Oh Wow. So what countries are you currently in?
So at the moment, the most active communities are in America, Chile, Colombia, Israel and Tokyo, in Japan. Singapore is hopefully going to be established next year. We've also got Spain and Mexico.
How did you get involved?
I studied medical science and commerce and as part of my commerce degree I did an exchange subject in Israel, and I was fortunate enough to listen to the CEO at the time of TOM speak. [This was] back when TOM was being established in Israel and he called for us in the class to be ambassadors of TOM and take it back to our local communities.
And I fell in love with the vision and thought to myself, I could really see this happening in Melbourne. At the same time, a local philanthropist, Debbie Dodon also met TOM and she was inspired by it and decided that she would help bring that to Melbourne and we somehow crossed paths here. In 2016 I helped organise the first marathon and I was also a maker which was very exciting. In 2017 I was a mentor at the make-a-thon and this year I've come on board full time, to help grow and establish the community here.
It’s been very challenging. The whole idea behind my work this year is how do you take a smaller organisation that is event based, to a community based organisation that has an ongoing presence. My goals this year have been establishing the developer groups phase, so taking the prototypes that we've worked on and advancing them to product. So for three months we've also established a university course embedded within the Swinburne University curriculum, which is very, very exciting for Master's level occupational therapists and design students at the design factory and also at the engineering practice academy next year. We’re the first time TOM community to have achieved that, so I'm very proud of that.
That's amazing. Going back to what you said about trying to transition from something that's based in events to a community based thing; for the other social entrepreneurs that might be listening who are trying to do the same thing, do you have any tips or advice? [06:29]
I think my biggest piece of advice is to just do it.
Unfortunately or fortunately, whichever perspective you have, there was no template for me this year. There was no precedent, within some communities and my biggest philosophy is to fail fast and iterate quickly. So I just wanted to get something out there and see what would happen and try and learn as much as I could from the failures, or from the points that didn't go so well for next year.
In everything that you do, don't be scared of failure. Don't be scared of putting something out there and for getting criticism from other people, as long as you know how to take that feedback on constructively and implement it in a productive way.
When building a community, there's so many other things at play. You're dealing with other people as well, especially with TOM where it's dual side; you have the makers and then you also have the need knowers - the people that have the problem. So how do you go about keeping that experimental mindset of failing fast while still dealing with so many people and, and still keeping morale up?
That's a great question. I think it's about building the relationships with other organisations in the community. It's about trying to work together and not trying to do something that's already been done before and once you've established those relationships, I really think a large part of any work you do is about managing those expectations with your clients or with the makers and the need knowers. It’s about being really upfront and clear about what to expect throughout programs. What are the outcomes, what are the deliverables and what are they going to experience during the actual program. It's something that's really important, especially on the need-knower side, ensuring that wellbeing is looked after and understood and acknowledged throughout any sort of process we do. It's very, very important to us.
So what are some steps that you have embedded within that process to help do that? [09:27]
So the best example I can give you is the make-a-thons. So make it fun. The 72 hours is a super environment, lots of noise, lots of running around, lots of excitement. High stress, it's a really crazy space and it's really, really overwhelming for the makers. And you can obviously imagine for the need-knowers that heightened. We recognised that very early on and decided it would be great to have a breakout space for the need-knowers to go into that was quiet, that had appropriate lighting and was a space for them just to relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of the make-a-thon. We also have implemented check in sessions and also need-knower ambassadors, so individuals that are in charge of ensuring that their wellbeing is looked after throughout the make-a-thon. So yeah, little steps like that, I think are really important.
Well there’s a lot of people at play. Getting a whole bunch of people to tackle a really important problem that is very personal and specific to a person when the rest of the team might not be as intimately aware or knowledgeable about all the different nuances of the problem can be tricky. How do you go about that? Because I can imagine that even just understanding the problem is a whole other thing. [11:05]
Yeah. So we usually run a six to eight weeks before the make-a-thon a pre-team event and that's the first time where the team will meet their need-knower and meet the challenge. So from that session and through to the six to eight weeks prior to the make-a-thon are all about building that empathy and that connection and that understanding of the challenge. So that's really important for us. That relationship and that communication between the need knower and the makeup, is really, really important and make sure that the products or the prototypes of the solutions rather that come out of it, are appropriate and actually meet the need and meet the challenge. So they have that time to do, you know, whether that be a visit the need-knower’s home or facility, do testing, do design sketches, CAD files, whatever it may be. So that when it comes to the marathon day one, they're ready to go and they've already formed that relationship.
A lot of these topics are very taboo. You don't really usually have the opportunity to sit down with someone and ask them about all the different details to do with their disability. So how do you have those tricky conversations? [12:44]
So, we ensure as a blanket rule that each team has an occupational therapist or someone to support that person. So if like you said, the makers feel a little bit uneasy asking questions, they’ll know which questions to ask, what's appropriate, what's not. There's always that support and that second option. But before that, we have some sort of guidelines that we get the makers to read over before. For future make-a-thons, we plan on running a disability awareness module before the make-a-thon at the time event and also hopefully some sort of a e-learning, online resource that the makers can access, to help upskill them in dealing with people with disabilities.
So for the listeners that don't have access to those resources, what are some really great tips or advice you have? [13:59]
Don’t be scared to ask questions. Always ask if you're uncertain.
There are definitely some great resources online that are freely available, but I think my biggest tip is just to ask if you're unsure, don't assume anything.
In particular, don't assume preferences or needs of other people, especially those living with disabilities.
Yes. But what about knowing if your question is too direct or how much do you need to try and soften the question? [14:29]
It is a tricky question. I think the bottom line is you can't discount, or you can't talk down, or you can't patronise, or you can't simplify questions for people with disabilities purely because they have a disability, and that's probably the number one rule. So again, I think it's just a matter of asking before whether it's appropriate or not. Then framing the question around that person's response, each person is different as well and respecting that as well. Yeah, understanding going in that deal, previous experiences to do with that don't actually have any bearing on this situation because every single need-knower is completely unique and completely different.
I can imagine the teams going in might have a certain idea as to what they're trying to build, but as they're building it, they realise that maybe they're not building a product, but rather they're building a system because there are so many other elements at play, so it becomes this really big challenge to solve. How does TOM manage that? How's TOM able to scope a problem and to understand what's involved in the problem and make it audacious enough so that it's really helping people in ways that aren't actually that available at the moment, but also not too audacious where you're trying to do a six month project in a few weeks. How do you know that? Is there like a vetting process or do you take that into consideration?
We have a screening process, a system that we use for all of the challenges that we take on. Some of the things we look for are complexity, cost, price barriers or what exists in the market. There's a lot of solutions that exist. Some of them might be too expensive or some of them might be not inappropriate materials for the need-knower. So we have a vetting process that we do at the start, but I guess the second part of that question is what happens when the project is really complex and the team might not necessarily be able to finish it within a given time constraint? And that goes back to the nature of TOM and the ethos of TOM, which is trying to keep everything in the public domain, all open source. So everything that we do at TOM is heavily documented videos, images, text, anything that you can basically to capture the knowledge that created and what that provides is another community around the world, the opportunity to further that knowledge and to continue working on that particular project. So for example, one of the projects that we worked on at Swinburne University is quite a complex wheelchair cleaner. If you can imagine an automatic carwash where you drive on, it washes your wheels and you drive off and continue your day. So there's a lot of mechanical complexity in that, let alone the end design and how it will look. A team at Swinburne University have begun that project and came up with some really cool prototypes and now the Engineering Practice Academy are going to take that on here in Melbourne.
But at the same time, Israel is also going to take that on next year as part of their developer group cycle to try and continue that. And so what we'll end up having are two versions or two products that extend from the same idea. It might be the case that I'm the one in Israel, who works for particular need-knower there, and the one in Melbourne works, for the particular need-knower here.
You've got that continuation of the process and the idea that if you keep everything in open source, as opposed to closing off the intellectual property, other people are able to continue working on it and more people are able to be impacted by the work that you do.
And that's the beauty of open source. You know, anyone could pick up where someone else left off, if the documentation is there, that's really awesome. Have you had people outside of TOM pick up those projects? [19:28]
Yeah, there's definitely a lot of interest from industry and from other individuals. The important thing for us and rule that we say is, obviously we'd love to try and keep everything in open source. It's very challenging. And there's a lot of commercial interest in some of the products that we make purely because of the scale and the market that exists. So if someone was to commercialise it, that's their own prerogative and they can do so from our perspective, we've created a solution that didn't exist in the market before. So while the interest is definitely to keep everything in the public domain, we don't heavily discouraged people from commercialising ultimately.
That's so interesting. So when you have teams come together and build things, who retains the right to that? Whose intellectual property is that? [20:32]
So it's signed off at the start, in waivers. So it belongs to no one essentially.
Then if someone wants to commercialise things, how did they go about that then?
I'm not a patent lawyer, [but] from my brief understanding, they would have to be some modification of a certain part of that intellectual property. And once that has been done, then that property becomes theirs.
So being involved with TOM and bringing it to Melbourne, have there been elements that have surprised you or you didn't really see coming or just certain stories that really touched you or affected you? [21:14]
Yeah, I think for me that those moments come when we develop solutions and made noise, test them for the first time and say, ‘wow, I've never been able to do this before’ or ‘this is the first time I've ever seen this happen.’ And that for me makes what I do worth it. It’s really touching and it's really amazing to say that with a little bit of ingenuity, a little bit of work, you can create something that really has a long and lasting impact in people's lives.
For other people that are also trying to create something that is open source and work collaboratively with others across the world, do you have any advice for them? [22:02]
Tough question. I think it's about making sure that the way that you share your knowledge is clearly communicated and easily understandable for people around the world. So, the way that we implement that in TOM, is through our documentation; quite a lot of work has been done on the thinking behind it. So that someone else around the world can pick it up and just go with it, without having to ask questions, and without having to struggle through the material. So I guess we have that process nailed from the start. How are you going to share your knowledge between countries, across language barriers, across cultural barriers, across price barriers; that's really important.
What's the real thing that you actually want to achieve? What's the essence of it? [23:10]
It's very simple. I think the essence is equality. I think in our world we speak about design thinking, accessible design, you know, it baffles me that in the 21st century we're still creating buildings and public spaces that haven't got those elements built into them from the start. So they're built and then later down the track we say to ourselves, ‘oh, maybe we should think about an accessible ramp, or maybe we should think about an accessible toilet,’ and these things aren't built in from the start. So if we're trying to create the most inclusive and equitable society we can, these things need to be incorporated in government policy, government thinking, and in the public sphere from the get go. So for me, what I'm trying to achieve and why I'm here is for equality.
That's really amazing. And you're right, it's completely stupid that things aren't designed with inclusivity to begin with like that, especially when you can so easily communicate with those people, and find out that information, and I think it comes down to empathy really. I think that at TOM, that's a lot what you're doing; you're building empathy because the makers ended up building this really intimate relationship with the need-knower and they just understand them and their world so well. It's through that true mutual understanding that you could start building a better place together instead of just knowing about it in theory. That's a big difference between knowing and understanding. And I think bringing that together towards equality is a really great mission.
Thank you. Yeah, I think it is. I think it's about having that equal representation. I think if we think about, for example, the proportion of government that lives with a disability, it's probably very slim, and if we want to include everyone in society, that needs to be equal representation. The same way that there should be equal representation for male, female and the LGBTQI community as well. I think it's just a matter of having open communication, building empathy and then hopefully coming up with a better world for everyone.
Definitely. I think that's a very good place to end. Thank you so much. Is there a way that people can find more about TOM or just get in touch with you or other people working on things? [26:12]
Yeah, absolutely. So for all of the listeners. You can contact us at our website. The web platform is being soft launched at the end of December and publicly launched hopefully at the start of next year, which is very, very exciting for us. That's where people around the world will have access to all of the products that we've developed, and they'll be able to download the digital product files which contain all the information of how to replicate a particular product. Then they can take away that solution and develop it in their own community, which is very, very exciting. So stay tuned for 2019.