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The Pyramid to Enlightenment is Upside-Down

Deyan October 6, 2010

I’ve been thinking a great deal about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the one we all learned about in our introduction to psychology class in college. It’s shaped like a pyramid (no, not the food pyramid – that’s yet a different iconic reference that’s been diluted through misuse and only partial understanding), and it describes the various artifacts, emotions, and qualities that we need to survive. At the base are things that most of us take for granted – basic needs like food and water, and needs tied to safety, like clothing and shelter. After these core elements, we move into more convoluted spaces where objects stop being so immediately provocative – things like love, self esteem, and the holy grail of self actualization, where we find things like creativity and ethics.

The silly thing’s caught on, and I’ve seen it in branding decks, business school advertisements, and in a whole lot of student papers. There’s also 17,200 image results for it on Google, some of which are pretty spectacular.

I’m questioning two issues with the pyramid, and my time so far at SOCAP has reignited my curiosity about how instrumental this icon has become (and how flawed it may be in driving action for bottom of the pyramid – sorry, different pyramid – entrepreneurial action and design). Note that I’m not the first to take Maslow to town, but the majority of the other reads on him that I’ve come across question his methodology – I’m more concerned with how broadly applied his pyramid has been without question or interpretation.

My issues are two-fold. One is a corollary of the other, dealing with the progressive manner in which the stages of the pyramid are commonly presented. And the other is a much larger point: our tendency to target the upper stages of the pyramid in developed countries and the lower in developing countries, almost exclusively. I’ll start with the smaller, and I’ll caveat all of this with the fact that this is a “thought-in-progress”; I don’t claim to speak on the pain and potential of humanity with any greater authority than anyone else.

The pyramid of needs is commonly framed as a stepping stone, or a linear path – a progressive hierarchy, where one step leads to the other. I heard this at the conference repeatedly, as very well intentioned entrepreneurs explained that in the US, we were enlightened at the top of the pyramid, but countries in Africa were in need of much greater and fundamental basic needs – they hadn’t advanced to the top of the pyramid yet.

Besides the unfortunate ethnocentricism implicit in these statements, I’m concerned that the statement is simply not true. What is food (a “low level” on the hierarchy) without hope (a “high level” on the hierarchy)? What good does shelter provide to one struggling with the most base feelings of pain, fear, self-loathing, or unhappiness? And, similarly, where does the upper-class misery so astutely characterized in Desperate Housewives or The Riches come from in our “evolved society” – to have all of the things, but with none of the psychological positives at the top of the pyramid?

In my interactions with those at the bottom of the pyramid, displaced, without food, without home, and without the core fundamental needs, I’ve found that they seek more than anything else the emotional qualities represented at the top of the pyramid. The women I met in Rosengård in Sweden, displaced from their homes in Lebanon or Iran, are not looking for food, although they are hungry. They are looking for self-worth and value, to be useful, to feel needed, and to have a role in society and culture. Some of the homeless on the streets of Austin are hungry, but others that I speak with describe a happiness that’s much more base than described by many of my co-workers.

A reductive rejection of my point is to state that “food has to come first”, and that brings me to my second point. I’m not so sure it does. Logically, sure, it’s an open and shut argument. You need food to live. Deductively, it has to come before any drive towards self-actualization. But in the same way that Dick Buchanan argues for a shifting of placements to arrive at an innovation – in the same way that Nicholas Negroponte attempted to alleviate poverty through access to information – I’m increasingly confident that the best thing we can do in designing for social innovation is to aim our work as explicitly as possible at the top of Maslow’s pyramid while targeting the masses at the bottom of the other pyramid. Our goal should be to drive and support creativity, the refinement of ethics, a focus on self-esteem and self-worth, and self-sufficiency – and not to simply provide food, water, and clothing.

As an example, consider the work of Kushal Chakrabarti as presented at SOCAP. Kushal founded Vittana (one of frog’s clients) to support education in developing countries. He’s focused on those teenagers earning between $4 and $8 dollars a day, a population he estimates at 1,000,000-something individuals. The business model is simple – small donations can fund a year of education for these individuals, who might study a specific vocational craft or trade. When they’ve graduated, they pay back the loan. The results can be tremendous; that year of education can effectively triple the income of a student, from $4/day to $12/day. The income is tremendous, but Kushal stressed that perhaps more important than the financial payoff is the emotional qualities of worth, ownership, and success. This is a designed intervention, purposefully timed to minimize risk and maximize both financial and emotional reward. It’s an intervention that skips stages in the pyramid, moving someone effectively up to self actualization while they may still engage with the day to day financial struggle of a $12/day income.

In a warped way, we’ve gone the other way in our own country – we’ve begun to focus again on providing quality food, water, and shelter to the affluent, as we are the ones that can afford CSA memberships, green electricity and LEED certified buildings, and distilled or purity-free water. So perhaps our immediate call to action is to formalize this reversal – to continue to reshape our internal focus on self-sufficiency, like access to water, food, and shelter, while simultaneously supporting the “developing” world’s drive towards achieving top-of-the-pyramid psychological qualities through our interaction design solutions.

Cross post from frog design.

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