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The Mobility Unlimited Challenge: What are we looking for?

With the Mobility Unlimited Challenge deadline just around the corner on 15 August, we take a look back at the research and design of the challenge to understand exactly what the challenge is looking for, and why.

Why does the Mobility Unlimited Challenge focus on Lower-Limb Paralysis?

This is a question we are often asked, which is why we wanted to provide a thorough answer. In short, we put a lot of careful thought and robust research into developing a challenge prize that would have the highest possible impact in transforming people’s lives for the better.

Through our research process, we discovered that there was a need for a prize that would encourage innovation in mobility devices for people with paralysis, and that advances in digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, could revolutionise mobility devices for them. By shaping our prize around these two elements, we found a way to focus the challenge while still being open to a range of devices. We anticipate that these devices, in line with the principles of universal design, will ultimately be useful for a much wider group of people, including people with different types of paralysis.

You first need to understand what a challenge prize is

Challenge prizes are a great tool for focusing and encouraging innovation. They work best when applied to a well-defined problem. To be effective, a prize has to have a clear goal and a definition of success. It should attract new innovators to the problem or encourage people who are already developing solutions to pivot their focus. To do this, it needs to offer the right incentives, from funding to accolades. Finally, challenge prizes should aim to accelerate progress and encourage the creation of solutions that will be adopted and used.

Creating a challenge prize is a collaborative and iterative process. It begins with research which brings together different views and groups who are interested in or are affected by the problem we are trying to tackle. The process is about looking at how the prize could have the biggest impact possible and breakdown some of the barriers that are stopping other solutions from being developed.

The birth of a prize

When we began collaborating with the Toyota Mobility Foundation, we wanted to create a challenge prize that reflected the Foundation’s belief in the power of mobility.

We recognise that disabled people face additional barriers to their everyday mobility, and that while work needs to be done to make infrastructure more accessible, improving the mobility devices people utilise could have a positive impact. With this in mind, we looked to facilitate a prize competition that would be broad enough to benefit a lot of people. We wanted to encourage innovation in a range of technologies while still being focused enough to be able to meaningfully judge the relative impact of the entries we would receive. Ultimately, we wanted to utilise the concept of universal design to have an eventual impact on larger populations by beginning with a sharper focus on a smaller population.

The research process

We began by mapping the different profiles of people involved in the mobility device space as well as relevant technologies. We took special consideration in opportunities for and barriers to innovation. We looked at what 'mobility' and 'independence' mean to people experiencing accessibility issues while considering how the challenge prize could be most effective.

We spoke to users, to campaigners, and to those who are creating cutting-edge devices for themselves and others. Later in the process, we also ran a global survey targeting people with limb difference or paralysis to find out what they wanted from their devices. More than 110 people completed our survey, with respondents from every inhabited continent. Our aim was to try to reach as many people as possible and understand what was important to them.

Paralysis or Limb Loss?

Our research indicated that there was good potential for a challenge prize focusing on mobility devices for people with limb difference or paralysis.

Further research indicated that there was a greater need for a prize that would encourage innovation in mobility devices for people with paralysis:

  • We found that this field had a larger technical challenge in regards to moving and controlling technology, compared to technology for people with limb loss or limb difference.
  • We also found that the market for prosthetics was more developed and already benefiting from cutting-edge technologies, whereas the highly segmented market for mobility devices for people with paralysis was less innovative.

The gap between what the market has delivered and what people need created a great opportunity to use a challenge prize to incentivise action.

  • We also identified advances in digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, which could revolutionise mobility devices, that were not yet as prevalent.

Combining these elements, we found a way to focus the challenge, by challenging innovators to incorporate intelligent systems, while still being open to a range of devices.

But why Lower-Limb Paralysis?

Globally, there is a lack of reliable and consistent statistics for rates of paralysis. Those that do exist tend to focus on the rates of conditions causing paralysis rather than instances of paralysis. That said, you can, on the basis of available statistics as well as anecdotal evidence, get a sense of the number of people affected.

For example, according to the WHO every year globally between 250,000 - 500,000 people experience a spinal cord injury. Spinal cord injury is just one cause of paralysis but this figure gives a sense of the scale of people whose mobility could be affected by paralysis.

While each person’s experience of paralysis is unique, people with lower-limb paralysis were chosen as they represent an underserved population. This focus allowed for a more defined challenge to create a solution.

The Mobility Unlimited Challenge

The Mobility Unlimited Challenge aims to help tackle barriers to the creation of devices that incorporate new technology that has so far been limited and slow due to the highly segmented market and small returns on investments made in research and development. We anticipate that technology developed as part of this challenge, in line with the principles of universal design, will ultimately be useful for a much wider group of people, including people with different types of paralysis or limb difference.

We expect these devices will also be used to support people with limb loss, those that need an assistive device temporarily, or by those who are ageing and need support. They might be used regularly by some, or temporarily for rehabilitation purposes by others. Overall, we see the potential for these devices to change the lives of many people around the world, regardless of their disability.

The Mobility Unlimited Challenge is the Toyota Mobility Foundation’s first project focusing on the disability community, but it will not be the last. TMF and Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre both know that there are many other areas where innovation is needed and are committed to taking our learnings and knowledge from the Mobility Unlimited Challenge forward to future projects.

Author

Charlotte Macken

Charlotte Macken

Charlotte Macken

Prize Design Manager

Charlotte is the Prize Design Manager in Nesta's Challenge Prize Centre, having previously worked for an international development charity with an emphasis on community and youth.

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