Designer Matthew Lowell has always designed with diversity in mind, and has played a key role in many successful global accessibility and community projects. His current endeavour, Cyclehack, now in it’s second year, looks to empower individuals, organizations and governments to collaborate, share skills and prototype new ideas around cycling.

Hi Matthew! Can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

Hello! I grew up in the countryside just north of Glasgow in Scotland, where with three older brothers we were always taking things apart, putting them back together again and generally building stuff. When I was eighteen I moved into Glasgow to study Product Design at The Glasgow School of Art. This course formed the foundation of my understanding of design, and where the designers of today can have impact. Since graduating I have worked as a designer with a range of multidisciplinary teams and applied my design skills within a number of contexts. I have worked on projects that have ranged from equipping disengaged young people with the skills to approach problems they face creatively; to engaging citizens within the planning process in Scotland; to challenging the stereotypes around what it means to live with a disability within modern Lebanese society.

You’re a recent transplant to Vancouver. Since moving there, what projects have you been focusing on?

I also work with InWithForward, a social design agency that is working to rethink how disability services are designed and delivered here in the lower mainland. I’m working with them across two projects: The Fifth Space, an innovation lab where nonprofit staff in the disability sector are learning how to apply the design process and prototype new ideas that matter to them and the people they support and Kudoz, a new service that brings together those with a particular passion to create shared learning experiences, and increase understanding and self awareness for people with cognitive disabilities. I work as Director of Global Events & Networks at CycleHack, a global movement that is tooling up citizens to take a pro-active, DIY approach to reducing barriers to cycling.

The CycleHack initiative looks to make cycling more accessible the world over. What inspired you to start that idea? How have you been growing it over time?

CycleHack began as a conversation between myself, Sarah Drummond and Johanna Holton around this time last year. We are all keen cyclists and wanted to find a mechanism to bring people together to positively address issues in cycling and move conversations beyond the umbrella term of ‘infrastructure’ into action. The initial idea was a simple one; we decided to run a 48 hour hack event in Glasgow that brought together a diverse range of people to develop new ideas that make cycling more safe, accessible and fun. We chatted about CycleHack on Social Media and with friends, and were really excited to have Melbourne and Beirut join us with their own components of our inaugural CycleHack Event, which was greatly successful. Each idea that was prototyped was uploaded to our Open Source Catalogue and shared. Now in it’s second year, three cities have grown to become a truly global network with around twenty from all corners of the globe. The 2015 CycleHack Event will be held on June 19th -21st.

What do you hope to achieve in Vancouver specifically with regards to cycle policy?

We are in the process of preparing for CycleHack Vancouver for the BC component of the 2015 global CycleHack Event. Here at CycleHack we are not only interested in cycling policy, but in all things that stop people getting on a bike or make the experience of cycling unpleasant, however big or small. Through researching these barriers to cycling, we have created five categories; physical, digital, awareness and education, policy, and local plan. With regards to affecting cycle policy here in Vancouver, like any city, we would love CycleHack to act as a platform where ordinary citizens are able to directly influence policy, and policy makers are able to access and understand the needs of their citizens.

What does design as a fundamental concept mean to you?

Design is a process about understanding the world around us, defining problems and developing solutions. I have often found that people only associate designers with products such as kettles and chairs, but nowadays the role of the designer is no longer confined to the physical. Today designers are working in a wide range of contexts, from healthcare to governments, where they apply the design process to create new experiences, interactions and services. In my opinion the fundamental process of designing a physical product is transferable into these contexts, where the same basic elements of understanding your audience, highlighting opportunities and developing ideas are the same. I feel that one of the most important elements of the design process is collaboration: not only involving those you are designing for, but also having a wide range of skills in your team. Often I find myself as not the expert in the room, but as fresh pair of eyes that can link between things and think laterally while developing ideas, drawing inspiration from other areas and sectors.

How would you say your work changed the way you as an individual function in society? How do you think it has impacted others?

That’s a hard question! As a designer, I often find myself asking the question ‘Why?’ and questioning the way everything works around me. It has fueled my interest in people, the choices they make and the ways they interact with each other. As I have mentioned previously, much of my work involves collaborating with others and involving users within my process. With this in mind, one key thing that I hope people take away from my work is that great ideas come out of a deep understanding of those you are design for. This may sound simple but I feel is far too often neglected in practice.

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We’re particularly drawn to the project you worked on for Desmeem 2012  in collaboration with the MENA Design Research Center and Arc-en-ciel. Your component was a part of a wider study on social innovation in Lebanon. Can you tell us how that project came about?

I led a multi-cultural design team, consisting of myself and two Lebanese designers. We had the opportunity to work directly with a group of ceramicists employed by Arc-en-ciel, all of whom live with varying degrees of disability. It became apparent that, although supported and employed by Arc-en-ciel, on a societal level people still focused upon their disabilities rather than their true skill and abilities. We decided to run a series of creative workshops leading up to the first ever Beirut Design Week where they would have the opportunity to showcase their work within the public domain, and challenge stereotypes. During the week long exhibition we also hosted a number of street interventions where free coffee was handed out in paper version of the ceramicists work, each with their own message contained within, and the public were invited to have contribute to our dialogue about disability and stereotypes.

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The interviews that came out of that project were very powerful, as were the pieces they created. How did that whole experience impact you and your work, and what did you take away from it?

This was the first major project I worked on after graduating. It was full of learning and provided opportunity for me to apply what I had learned throughout my time at GSA. Throughout the project and taking part on the first ever Beirut Design Week I met and worked with some really inspirational individuals. For me this experience was eye opening on many levels and has fueled my interest in applying my skills to solve social problems. On a project level, with no knowledge of the Arabic language, I had some tricky language barrier moments and often found myself describing through actions rather than words. Researching into the lives of those living with a disability forced us to think creatively and adapt the way in which we worked to fit our context. This ability to adapt to situations and develop research tools that are sensitive project contexts is a skill I have had often used since.

Where do you see your vision taking you in the future?

As a designer I have worked in a range of contexts from education, disability, transport, employability and community engagement, and I could never have imagined where my work would take me. Uprooting myself and making the move to Canada has made me question the type of design I enjoy and want to be involved in. I feel that as a designer, you have many skills but along with these skills you have a responsibility to put them to use on the right problems. While the idea of the ‘right’ problem can be seen as a matter of opinion, I feel that what we design should be an elegant solution to a clear problem. For me these types of problems are often those that surround social issues, and not always demand the production of a new physical product. In the future I hope to continue working within multidisciplinary teams that strive to solve interesting problems and develop solutions that are meaningful to those those they are designed for.

You can learn more about Matthew through his portfolio site, follow him on Twitter, and check out the CycleHack website to find a city near you, or sign up your own to take part and get involved!