Giving Out Helping Hands

Field NotesThe Frontier

A quick note about this section

The creative process is one of constant discovery. You’re always looking for new ways of seeing, thinking and doing. Along the way, some things stand out and we put them in our Field Notes. This is a collection of ideas, places, people and things that we’ve found that we think are worth sharing and that all loosely fit within the theme of the issue.

The inception story of the nonprofit, e-NABLE, which is little more than a year old demonstrates what happens when strangers meet and collaborate, their collective skills creating something revolutionary. It all started when American Ivan Owen shared a video of a mechanical hand he had made for a Steampunk convention. Across the world, in South Africa, a carpenter named Richard Van As saw it as a solution to his plight. He had lost a few of his fingers in carpentry accident. He reached out to Ivan, asking for his help. Ivan agreed and together they went to work on creating a prosthetic.

They shared their work online and another stranger, a woman whose son, Liam, was born without fingers on one hand thought they might be able to help. They agreed and began creating, crafting a prosthetic for Liam with shop equipment. They quickly realized that even if they helped Liam, it wouldn’t assist him for long. He would grow out of their solution quickly. At the same time, a colleague of Ivan’s reminded him about 3D printing, a solution Ivan knew about but thought was financially unfeasible. However, in 2011, companies like Makerbot were making it accessible. So Ivan reached out, explaining what he and Richard were trying to make possible and asked if they could help. Makerbot gifted the two tinkerers with two machines. They set up one on each continent and their process rapidly accelerated. Each one could print off the new solution in question- hold it, utilize it and go on web chat to discuss its viability. No more did a physical product have to be chained by geography. But collaboration wasn’t the only solve 3D printing made possible. It enabled Ivan and Richard to create a viable solution for Liam. As he grew, they could simply scale the design and print out a new prosthetic for a reasonable price tag.

Richard and Ivan ended up sharing their work online. People began commenting that it was cool or stating that they had a 3D printer. A researcher from the United States, Jon Schull, saw the video and browsed the comments. He noticed what people were saying and thought up a way to move their words from commentary to action. He posted a link to a Google map and wrote that whoever had a 3D printer and wanted to print prosthetics should pin their location. Within 6 weeks, there were around 70 pins. That was the start of e-NABLE. It’s an origin story of strangers connecting through the internet and combining their know-how to change society. Today, e-NABLE has 4000 people who want to help. They have given out around 1000 hands to 700 people. Each prosthetic costs about $35 to make and every one of them has been given out for free.

In their short one year existence, e-NABLE has done much to connect strangers in real life who share common struggles or desires to help others. A family came to Ivan’s house to learn how to construct a prosthetic for their son, Dawson. The whole family sat around the Owens’ dining room table building the hand. A regular prosthetic would have simply been delivered and fitted, but for this one, the family took time to sit together, creating. Dawn, Dawson’s mother, later told the Owens’ in an email that the activity brought the family together and made her two boys closer. It also gave Dawson the confidence to show strangers his disabled hand and his new mechanical one. e-NABLE later connected Dawson’s family to two others, who all drove hours to meet each other and construct hands for their boys. Two of the mothers who had already made hands showed the third how to do it and the three boys who shared common experiences were able to meet and see that there was someone else just like them. Similar families, strangers to one another before e-NABLE connected them met because of the empowerment that e-NABLE gives to everyone who gets involved.

On the flip side, another set of strangers are connected- the makers. To give you a glimpse of how an online community makes working prosthetics, take a look at this example from last June. John Schull posted an idea with a video he had for “Differential Finger Contraction” on June 14. Within days, on June 17, 18 year old Nick Parker had a working prototype which he posted to the community. And by June 26, he had a finalized product with everything posted on Github for anyone to expand upon and use. Throughout the process both John and Nick got feedback that helped the whole community. By not needing copyright or to maneuver a formal organizational structure, e-NABLE can quickly prototype new models that solve the needs of different kids and empower those kids to live fuller lives, faster.

It’s important to note that this open source model runs throughout the organization. Parents are taught to build hands and learn how to repair their kids’ hands. In essence, the parents are just as empowered as their kids- the object that’s now in their lives isn’t a foreign piece of technology but something they have an understanding of. Additionally, kids are encouraged to give feedback on how models can be made better. Indeed, it’s because of the rich feedback Liam gave years ago to Ivan and Richard that e-NABLE is thriving today.

There’s one more set of strangers that e-NABLE connects and that’s regular people. From girl scouts to attendees at conferences, e-NABLE has had many different communities build hands. They don’t even need to have design experience (one participant was 7). At Convent of the Sacred Heart School in New York, two geometry classes and one Algebra II class were building hands for two six year old kids and one 16 year old. The six year olds had their thumbs intact and the 16 year old did not have their hands. The Algebra II class needed create one of those hands, the teachers were creating the second and the classes would also need to adapt the e-NABLE designed Raptor hand for kids who have their thumbs. Additionally, the classes were creating unique modifications like adding a lego piece to a hand for a recipient who loves lego and a clip on stylus for the 16 year old who loves his iPad. These classes are going beyond raising money for a cause and are actively working to engage with and solve the problem, helping others they may not know while applying the knowledge they learn in classes that usually seem esoteric in realistic ways.

e-NABLE might only be a little over a year old in its current existence, but they already have people waiting for them years down the road. One father emailed after coming back from his wife’s first ultrasound appointment. They found out their child would not have full left hand. They were shocked. Then he went on the internet and found e-NABLE. As he wrote to e-NABLE, “It is inspirational and I am heartened by what I have read concerning the technology, the caring nature of the people involved in design and production and the young children who have benefited. Knowing that this work is happening…it almost makes having a limb abnormality kind of cool. It has helped me to emotionally deal with what is ahead. For this – I thank you.” In a few years time, it seems like many more strangers around the work will be thanking e-NABLE.

the frontier tuque thumb

Our First Venture

Ventures Update is a recurring feature that tracks the progress of one of our own creative projects. The inaugural Venture is the design and development of a Canadian Icon: The Tuque.

Read More


Today’s Frontier

It's the hardness of the land that makes people soft. Newfoundland is an unforgiving landscape. It denies the pathetic fallacy, but at the same time reinforces an irrational love of the place.

Read More

robot dna thumbnail

Forming Robots From DNA

Fighting cancer effectively means attacking only the effected cells. DNA Robots seem to show great progress.

Read More

girls at lowline

Where There’s Sunshine Underground

Major cities are centres of construction. Condo after condo, new office towers, sports centres and more each take their own slice of the city, each evolving it and sharing it with their own footprint. Eventually, land runs starts to thin and we realize we've missed one important thing: public green space.

Read More

project row houses

The Not-For-Profit Sculpture

Rick Lowe was creating political art, works infused with messages of social change. This is not new. Many artists have done it. From the likes of Shepard Fairey to Eugene Delacroix.

Read More

ice cream thumb

Collaborative Ice Cream

Ice cream will never be the same. With flavours that include ‘Black Olive Brittle & Goat Cheese’, ‘Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons’ and ‘Toasted Coconut with Candied Macadamia Nuts’, an ice cream company is changing the way we think about this dessert. On Yelp, one customer wonders, “How do they pair such perfect flavours together?”

Read More

dance thumbnail

Designing Dance

Itamar Kubovy believes that ignorance can be a powerful ally. The Executive Director of Pilobolus, a New York based experimental dance troupe, constantly works to redefine the company and how they approach their craft. In recent years they have paired up with non-choreographers to push the practice forward, working with dance outsiders like illustrator Art Spiegelman and illusionists Penn & Teller.

Read More

baxter robot thumbnail

The Humanity in a Factory Robot

Baxter is a red robot with two large arms and a screen featuring two eyes. "Not a week goes by when somebody doesn't comment to me”, told Jim Lawton, Chief Marketing Officer at Rethink Robotics, “‘Wow, I love working with your robot. They're so engaging and friendly and I just love the smile".

Read More

quotidian record and player

What Does Data Sound Like?

Brian House effortlessly flows from data to code, artistic expression, music, and back again. This intersection of skill and understanding lends uniqueness and exacting clarity to his art. It's evident that only someone of his multifaceted nature could come up with his work; he is an artist who is helping us feel data.

Read More

openrov thumb


In the early grades of school, we learn about explorers. We hear about their journeys: how they traversed the Atlantic, pushed through heavy North Pole snow and planted their feet on new soil for the first time.

Read More

align thumb


Reimagining something familiar is one of the most ambitious things a designer can do. The chair is one of the most difficult of all. Despite the diversity of chairs out there, how can you improve on the basic design?

Read More

seaboard by computer


One such instance is the Seaboard. What first looks like a wonky George Foreman grill turns out to be a musical keyboard. But unlike traditional pianos, all its keys are black and, even more unusual, they are made out of a malleable material. That makes the keys soft and creates a continuous playing surface. This […]

Read More

robotic printer thumb

Mini Mobile Robotic Printer

Jonathan Stein noticed something about printers. The ubiquitous devices that sit on our desks were, in fact, quite simple. In effect, he realized that it was just a box that moved from side to side and “printed” the document.

Read More

Ototo thumbnail


Kids these days. They play on iPads and iPhones tapping on fake birds in slingshots and skeuomorphic drums. Adults might lament and wonder if kids are gaining anything from all that tapping. Whatever happened to turning a cardboard box into a car?

Read More

plumen 002

Plumen 002

“Don’t you think it’s strange”, comments Nicholas Roope, Founder and Design Director at Plumen, “that the lightbulb, an object so synonymous with ideas, is almost entirely absent of imagination?”

Read More

estimote stickers

Estimote Stickers

We’ve all heard of wearables, but nearables might be the next device that empowers your life.

Read More

map notebook

Best Made Map Notebook

Here’s a question: are you still discovering a neighbourhood if Google Maps is acting as your real-time guide?

Read More

myo thumb


“No, you can’t be Magneto.” What a 20th century thing to say. The creators of Myo may have brought that power one step closer.

Read More

an american diary

An American Diary

In the Summer of 2014, Anthony Gerace embarked on road trip across America, armed with a map and 2 film cameras—a Hasselblad c/m 500 and a Yashica T4. What he captured on his journey feels both entirely familiar and strangely foreign. That combination felt like a perfect fit as we were gathering content for this first issue of Field Guide.

Read More

power of frontiers

The Power of Frontiers

It was as a 27­year­-old news reporter that I found myself in one of the most remote communities on earth, seeking out a few of the most adventurous, downright badass guys anywhere.

Read More