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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Calling all makers, hackers & users: Help create the world’s first open source wheelchair

In late 2015, I was asked by Disability Rights UK to speak about trends that could shape innovations in assistive tech in the coming decade. I predicted three:

  • the internet opening up the means of production
  • machines that learn
  • 3D printing

However, I also emphasised that no matter what the trends are, the key ingredient needs to be disabled people having a greater, more meaningful, role in design and production.

That’s why I was so excited to speak at last week’s Hack On Wheels event.

Hack On Wheels is a nascent movement to create the first open source fully customisable wheelchair. Over 65 million people worldwide need a wheelchair, and just getting one isn’t the end of the story. It needs to be customised to the body, environment and lifestyle of its user. The prohibitive price of traditional design, manufacturing and distribution means that 52 million people don’t have the wheelchair they need.

That’s 8 out of 10 people.

Hack On Wheels wants to crack this problem. Inspired by the e-NABLE community, they’re aiming to build an online library of open source designs and instructions, created by a community of makers and users, and available to everyone. They envision designs that allow wheelchairs to be adapted easily and cheaply, using 3D printing and other low-cost production methods to bring down practical and financial barriers.

Yesterday’s event brought together speakers and attendees from different sectors to explore Hack On Wheels’ vision, how to build the community and its platform, and start unpicking some design problems. I spoke about our experience developing and delivering the Inclusive Technology Prize, the importance of involving disabled people in product design, and how prizes can be used to galvanise innovators and draw attention to a problem.

Hack On Wheels brings together the trends I spoke about in 2015, putting the needs and desires of disabled people firmly front and center, opening up design and prioritising users, not profits. It’s about taking the knowledge of people like Tony Heaton, who spoke about adapting his wheelchairs since the 1970s, and seeing what will happen if they’re shared and scaled up through the magic of the Internet. We need to ask ourselves what we can achieve if we connect the knowledge and expertise of users with some technical know-how and the latest advancements in materials, design and production.

Hack On Wheels is still in its early stages but it’s exciting to see user-led initiatives using advancements to demand and create the innovations they need.

Hack On Wheels, join the movement.


Charlotte Macken

Charlotte Macken

Charlotte Macken

Prize Design Manager, Challenge Works

At Challenge Works, Charlotte built expertise in the design and delivery of impact-focused challenge-driven innovation tools.

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