The 21st century economy in one powerful image

Today this boy has fingers on his right hand for the first time in his life, thanks to some remarkable technology and some remarkable people.

Five year old Liam with his Robohand.

When you read a story like this, it’s hard not to get excited about the transformative power of open technology and open hearts. From Ars Technica:

Not too long ago, Liam had no fingers on his right hand. The South African five-year old was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome, which causes amputation of digits before birth. But since November, Liam has been using a series of prosthetic hands designed by two men living on opposite sides of the planet, using open source software and 3D-printing technology.

Now, those two men—Ivan Owen in Bellingham, Washington and Richard Van As in South Africa—have published the design for Robohand, the mechanical hand prosthesis, on MakerBot’s Thingiverse site as a digital file that can be used to produce its parts in a 3D printer. They’ve intentionally made the design public domain in the hopes that others around the world who don’t have access to expensive commercial prosthetics (which can cost tens of thousands of dollars) can benefit from it.

This incredible story is the new economy in microcosm:

  1. An innovative idea goes viral online, bringing two tinkerers together.
  2. The Internet makes it possible for them to collaborate while living on two different continents.
  3. A 3D printer manufacturer hears about the project and donates technology to help it along, either out of benevolence or for publicity (it almost doesn’t matter which – the social web rewards companies for the former with the latter). This small gesture reaps huge rewards for the company and its customers alike. 
  4. 3D printing accelerates the makers’ prototyping process, allowing them to refine their design to create a life-altering solution for an individual. All of this technology is serving an individual human being’s needs.
  5. The solution is shared on an open-source platform so that others can benefit, free of charge. Although the project was launched to resolve a personal case, its outcome scales up to reach probably thousands of people who have similar conditions. Again, 3D printing will allow for rapid iteration and refining of the design to meet the needs of other individuals.
  6. A crowdfunding platform is being used to raise money for those who cannot afford to print their own prostheses. Less obvious bonus: the donors enjoy a boost to their public reputations by sharing news of their donations on their facebook profiles and other social networks. Sure, you can argue that anonymous giving is more altruistic, but there’s nothing wrong with wanting some recognition for charitable acts. And when you see that other real people have donated a little or a lot to a cause, you’re more likely to donate, too.

 Check out the Robohand project at or at their fundly page if you want to donate a few bucks to cyborg upgrades for your fellow humans.

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Filed under Open Data, Share Economy

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