Posted on Collectively.
A few months ago, the world’s fascination with Lego took an inspiring new twist. Collectively’s Rachel Pott checks in for a progress report on Iko Creative System’s amazing project – to empower amputee kids by turning prosthetics into playtime
Growing up is tough but for children with disabilities, the process is even more challenging. Coping with the loss of a limb makes children grow up far too fast, at a crucial time for developing self-esteem, confidence and social skills. When you’re constantly noticed for being different, it just makes it harder.
But what if there was a way to give kids back their childhood, to transform their missing limb with fun and imagination, and to address the social stigma that makes growing up with a disability more challenging? The award-winning Iko Creative System is kick-starting this process by allowing kids to design, build and programme their own prosthetic aids out of Lego.
Iko is a prosthetic arm that children can customize using Lego bricks and pieces. Designed by Chicago-based designer Carlos Arturo Torres, as part of his grad work at the Umeå Institute of Design in Sweden, the project is a collaboration with Cirec, a physical rehabilitation centre in his native Colombia, and Lego’s Future Lab.
Hand or spaceship?
The prosthesis itself is made up of three parts: an interface with a custom-made socket, sensors and a battery; the muscle section with the engine and processor; and a hand, which can be switched out for any Lego design, leaving it “up to [the child] to decide when they want a hand and when they want a spaceship”.
This project hit the news in the summer, but since then, Iko has been re-evaluating and refining the focus of its business plan, creating a non-profit to address the physical, social and psychological aspects of disability. Instead of simply a focus on creating augmented ability for children, Iko’s prosthetics are making technology – and all those who interact with it – a little more humane.
The aim is to design a creative set for schools that can form the basis of a partnership between a school’s science club and a child with a prosthesis. In purchasing a set, the school would essentially donate a piece of prosthetic tech to a child in their school, or even another city or country. “They can start learning and creating new stuff all about robotics, technology, having fun and all using Lego Mindstorms,” says Torres.
Thanks to a generous donation, the first ten arms and kits will be ready by April 2016.
Next step: Luke Skywalker technology
The third prototype will have myoelectric sensors, which attach to your skin to read the electrical activity of your muscles and send signals through the prosthetic device. The timeline is dependent how quickly Iko can fund all of the tests, but if everything goes fine with the second test, says Torres, “we can use it to leverage more donations, more funding – we could have by the end of next year a third version, almost finished prototype.”
“Functionality can be one single brick, as long as you imagine that it’s an airplane and you’re a captain”
When the Iko Creative System was first envisioned, the aim was to create a single product. However, through trials and tests, Torres realised “the project also touches on this really different part of awareness”. Prosthetics has always had two goals – to restore a level of physical functionality and to create a design that looks “normal.” But what if prosthetics could be a creative and social tool for an entire community and eliminate stigma by having children without disabilities help children with disabilities reintegrate into society.
The question is whether, on a large scale, the Iko will be able to narrow the gap between our views of ability and disability. Trials have shown this to be a strong possibility. The first prototype was tested on Dario, an eight-year-old boy he was introduced to at Cirec. Another boy who said he felt bad for Dario, says Torres, registered amazement and jealousy when they began to build a spaceship for Dario’s arm.
This sense of empathy and collaboration was repeated when Iko conducted its first awareness campaign in schools. When students were asked to donate one of their Lego pieces to a friend or sibling, the answer was “No.” But after seeing a video of the Iko tech in action, “all of them they said yes right away. They didn’t hesitate for a second.”
Lego and landmines
Bringing in Lego – a toy that fosters sociability – generates playfulness and creativity, allowing kids and those around them to reimagine disability. “OK, you don’t have an arm, forget about it, you can have anything you want,” says Torres. The possibilities are endless, from a space antenna to a medieval shield to a dollhouse. The prosthesis has full integration with Lego Mindstorms, with sets meant for learning robotics and programming, allowing for sensors and lights. Down the road, there’s room for even more collaboration – perhaps with Nintendo, General Electric or even Hot Wheels.
Lego loves the project and sees in it a “new level of pride of creation, [where] once you start playing with it… you can build with a huge purpose, which is building it for someone else. You can be part of that someone else.” Torres is currently working out a way in which the company can continue to be involved with and invest in Iko.
The project is currently based in Colombia, although Torres would like to see it branch out to other countries. Colombia, where Torres grew up, is one of the world’s most heavily landmine-laden countries. Over the past 15 years, more than 11,000 people have been injured or killed by landmines. This strong need for affordable prostheses makes it a perfect place to start.
With 3D printing technology, Torres estimates the final cost for an Iko prosthesis – with those myoelectric sensors – will be around $4,000 (£2,600), with a recurring fee of $1,500 for replacement sockets as the child grows. This is almost a tenth of what the cheapest myoelectric sensor prosthesis currently costs.
Too much heart?
Iko is changing the way people define ‘functional’ and ‘normal’. “Functionality is not what people think it is,” says Torres. Functionality doesn’t really have to deal with having a super Iron Man-like hand that can have lots of strength and move in non-human ways. Functionality can be just one single brick, as long as you image that it’s an airplane and you’re a captain.” Instead of deciding what is best for the child, Iko helps children build their creativity, knowledge and problem-solving to make that decision for themselves.
From a business and investors standpoint, Torres has often been told, “You have too much heart.” But his passion for intelligently redefining disability, and allowing children to rediscover their childhood, is what makes Iko’s prosthetic aids really click.