Reinventing the Trickle Down Society

Modern western democracies and free-market economies are in crisis. The theory of trickle down--that a vibrant market economy eventually leads to growth and prosperity for all members of society--fails to explain the rising vulnerability among a growing number of households. Further redistribution of wealth through taxation and philanthropy also prove insufficient in addressing this plight of many working class families. Hence, political instability and radicalization ensue, evident in the present USA primaries where nearly three of every four Americans support anti-establishment candidates. Thus, radical new ways for thinking about shared prosperity in the twenty first century are in dire need.

On April 12, Google announced a major grant to an Israeli project called TOM, standing for Tikkun Olam Makers. On the face of it, TOM creates extremely affordable solutions to unmet needs of people with disabilities. But underlying TOM are some radical new ideas about inclusive prosperity in the 21st century and a bold vision to improve the lives of a quarter of a billion people within a decade.

TOM seeks to address society's neglected problems, where there is neither a market solution nor a government one, because these problems are invisible, rare or those suffering from them are poor. In other cases solutions exist but are too expensive for many to afford, leaving them in dire straits. In other words, it is the incentive system of markets and politics that deny many their basic needs. Yet affordable solutions can be created if a different incentive structure is put in place to expose these problems, understand and address them, and then make their solutions available and accessible to all those who need them.

And this is exactly what TOM does: it taps into the desire of talented people to do good and optimizes the use of their time and skills. Through 3 day Make a Thons held all over the globe, TOM allows for engineers, programmers, product designers or occupational therapists to come together in teams. Each team is embedded with one person with disabilities and challenged to prototype an extremely affordable open-source solution to one specific neglected problem of that person. Multiple teams, as many as fifteen, are then brought together for three-day marathons of design (Make a thons) with the goal of creating their prototypes in a process that is both collaborative and competitive.

Following the makeathons, TOM teams then orchestrate the process of driving these prototypes into products with zero cost for the volunteer-talent and no intellectual property. The products are then placed in a web-platform to be made accessible to all other people around the world who need them. The final phase of distribution will take place via local maker groups, primarily in schools and colleges that customize the solutions and deliver them within their communities.

The vision of TOM is to replicate these interactions many thousands of times in hundreds of makeathons, thereby inspiring and supporting a global movement of innovators creating thousands of TOM products and delivering them to many millions of people.

Hence, in its essence, TOM is a platform, a process and a clearing mechanism. It holds the potential of allowing millions of good-hearted professionals to each donate a small fraction of their time, and together to unleash an unlimited amount of do-good energy to address the ocean of unmet needs. In other words, it is a market solution for neglected problems.

Since its launch in 2014, TOM has proven that its audacious goal of improving the lives of 250,000,000 within a decade is attainable. Its growth has been tremendous, spreading beyond Israel, to the USA, Brazil, Canada, and soon also to Australia, Argentina and Vietnam. To date, more than 120 prototypes of such products have been created by TOM communities now numbering hundreds.

With the Google grant TOM can now go to scale: First, inspired by TEDx, TOM will modulate its makeathons so that entrepreneurs the world over will be able to run them and to exponentially grow the number of solutions for unmet problems. Second, TOM will model the process of upgrading its prototypes into full-fledged products. Third, a web-platform will house all TOM products so that they are available to anybody anywhere who wants to download and use them.

Yet, the vision of TOM extends far beyond its current focus on solving the needs of people with disabilities, to address any neglected problem in society. Indeed, in November 2015 TOM focus was extended to needs of the elderly, with the oldest participant in the TOM Makeathon in Tefen, Israel, being in his 101st year.

Societally, TOM is a new approach for inclusive prosperity that could have only emerged in the twenty first century, adding to the traditional ways of trickle down market economics, taxation and philanthropy. It facilitates a sharing of the benefits of innovation and prosperity between those who create and enjoy them and those who urgently need them. In this sense, TOM is a radical new way for bridging the technological divide and trickling down the benefits of prosperity and innovation.

Gidi Grinstein is the Founder of the Reut Institute Group, an Israeli non-profit specializing in societal innovation, which created and owns TOM.