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Suffering from gout, in 1595 Spain’s aging King Phillip II got about in an early version of a wheelchair when someone in his court attached wheels to a reclining chair, enabling servants to push him around the palace. So, for the last 420 years we could argue that, give or take a little tweaking, the wheelchair is still basically a chair on wheels.

The Toyota Foundation thinks it is time to move things on a little and is investing $4 million in wheelchair design.

The Foundation’s Mobility Unlimited Challenge, launched in November 2017, is working in partnership with UK-based innovation non-profit organisation Nesta, to rethink the vehicle used by an estimated 65 million people worldwide. This came about after they learned that more than 30% of wheelchair-bound users were not able to work, and in addition, a recent survey suggested that 90% of users say that they experience some amount of pain while working. So, the challenge was to develop at least an alternative, if not better, model for mobility.

The design opportunities available now through advances in smart environments, robotics and biomechatrionics is vast and can be used to target advances in mobility support.

August, de los Reyes, himself a wheelchair user, who champions Toyota’s Design Challenge says, we’ve been stuck with uncomfortable wheelchairs for so long because of the so-called “change function principle”: “If the pain threshold of adopting a new technology is greater than the pain points of the status quo, then it doesn’t matter how good the solution is,” he explains. It’s why we often settle for passable, “good enough” design.

The Toyota Mobility Foundation wants to fund wheelchair alternatives that could actually work for the largest number of people. Design teams are getting two years to develop their ideas and are required to co-design them with people who actually have lower-limb paralysis. The best prototype will be awarded $1 million in seed money and announced during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics games.

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