What Max-Neef’s Human Scale Development Can Teach Us About Poverty

Catherine Shen
7 min readMar 29, 2016

Work-in-progress explorative essay written for CMU Transition Design Seminar, Spring 2016


Transition design is a new area of design research, study, and practice that proposes design-led societal transition toward more sustainable futures. As we move towards more sustainable futures, designers are asked to incorporate theories of natural and social systems into their already well-developed theories of built systems. Transitions to sustainable futures must therefore be informed by theories of change that seek to provide new models to understand the dynamics at play in natural and social systems.

In this essay, I examine how Max-Neef’s human scale development can inform the ways in which modern designers shape the systems and experiences that become part of our daily lives.

Design and Unmet Needs

Much of the modern world thinks of design as a process of uncovering unmet human needs. Yet design has a unique relationship with the notion of needs and the ways in which they are “met.” In the rhetoric of design thinking, methods help us discover what people really need — sometimes in spite of what they tell us. Because of this, designers try to attune themselves to people’s spoken and unspoken needs by looking at things like behaviors and values.

Design is also attuned to the emotional qualities of an experience within which it can be a way to take away of pain or the enhancement of pleasure of an experience. This gets murky though. Designing to enhance the pleasure of an experience may not mean designing to meet some unmet need. This blurring of lines between needs, wants, and desires also references an issue that “‘satisfiers’ for needs are often confused with ‘wants’ and ‘desires’” and [that] there is a larger industrial complex by which these are “motivated by the desire for profit and economic growth rather than human fulfillment” (Irwin, Transition Design Seminar 2 Syllabus).

At the core of this apparent contradiction is the way in which we think about needs vs. wants vs. desires, a view that has arisen through teaching from an economically dominant framework of needs. Models of needs are assumptions that feed into our theories of change and as Eguren notes, “we need to make critically explicit those assumptions that we use to understand reality and, therefore, to act in it.” (Eguren, 2)

Models of Needs

Whether we know it or not, we all have different models of needs in our head. And the ways in which they are satisfied undergird our notions of progress and of change.

Basic Needs and Maslow’s Hierarchy

Drawing of Food, Clothing, and Shelter. Image source: Zazzle.com

Many of us may remember being taught in elementary school social science class that humans have three fundamental needs: food, shelter, and clothing. This represents the basic needs model which is one way of thinking about what people need.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is another commonly referenced model of needs. It layers psychological components on top of the basic needs model, culminating in self-actualization at the top of the needs pyramid.

The basic needs model as well as Maslow’s hierarchy has many implications for our notions of development and progress and is one of the dominant approaches towards thinking of economic development policies.

As Illich argues in Toward a History of Needs, this type of thinking espouses a “present-day [1977] industrial society [that] organizes life around commodities” (Illich, 7). Illich further asserts that “[o]ur market-intensive societies measure material progress by the increase in the volume and variety of commodities produced…[and] social progress by the distribution of access to these commodities” (Illich, 7).

Image source: www.cbinsights.com

However, there is a problem with the basic needs model and Maslow’s hierarchy. If we see human growth and development as a linear progression up the hierarchy of needs and especially in a rigid fashion, it can lead to a “money, power, respect…in that order” mentality. This can begin to devalue the fundamental dignity of people while overvaluing the satisfaction of physiological needs over others.

Max-Neef’s Theory of Needs

Chilean economist, Manfred Max-Neef may have felt this way when he tried to articulate a different model. Max-Neef’s Theory of Needs provides a different value theory to conceptualize meeting needs, wants, and desires. In Max-Neef’s characterization, what is considered basic needs arise from human bio-psycho-social needs.

Image source: http://www.buddhaxbondi.com/new-page-1/

This characterization of needs breaks from the economic resource-centered view and re-centers the discussion around human needs and as such, a reconceptualization — or re-clarification if you believe — of what it means to be human.

Importantly, Max-Neef’s differentiation between needs and satisfiers can also help us think more holistically about designing for others. According to Max-Neef, things such as food and shelter “must not be seen as needs, but as satisfiers of the fundamental need for Subsistence.” He states that “in much the same way, education (either formal or informal), study, investigation, early stimulation and meditation are satisfiers of the need for Understanding.” (Max-Neef, 199). In essence, Max-Neef’s model differentiates between what he coins as fundamental needs versus non-fundamental needs through the use of “satisfiers” as ways of meeting needs. Furthermore, by understanding that satisfiers can be classified as violators, pseudo-satisfiers, inhibiting satisfiers, singular satisfiers, or synergistic satisfiers, we can better understand how design does or does not meet fundamental human needs.

Max-Neef’s theory of needs breaks down the hierarchical structure of Maslow’s hierarchy, helping us reframe notions of poverty and development.

From Poverty to Poverties

The notion of poverty in development has been portrayed by mainstream media as something inherently bad — something to escape, something to be pitied, something to be helped. But why exactly is it a bad thing?

Patrice Martin, co-lead of IDEO.org articulated in her post about Turning Maslow’s Hierarchy on Its Head in international development work,

We mistakenly assume that there’s no way a person can or should possibly worry about self-esteem if they’re hungry.

She uses the example of how people in rural places around the world may have access to Facebook where they do not have access to clean drinking water or other “basic” amenities. In my own experience in Kenya, I recall friends accessing Facebook on their basic phones to show the celebrities they followed and music they listened to. “People in low-income settings enjoy Facebook for the same reasons we all do,” says Martin. “By updating their statuses and sharing ideas, they reinforce their identities and connections to online communities.”

While Martin suggests that we turn Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on its head, perhaps there’s something we can even borrow from Maxneef’s theory of needs.

Max-Neef’s framework would suggest that firstly there is not one but many ‘poverties’ which may be equally important to consider, and which do not necessarily lead to a materialist philosophy of progress and development. Max-Neef’s Theory of Needs may provide a fruitful way for us to rethink the satisfying of needs, wants, and desires.

Martin says in her post that “Necessity is reductive. Desire is complex.” However, how can designers think about unpacking the complexity of desire? And how can we avoid getting trapped in the mentality of furthering certain types of “non-essential desires”? Max-Neef’s theory of needs provides us a way to articulate what — I believe — we already know to be true:

That our wants matter as much as our needs — not because we are selfish beings with desires — but because the wants that are an intrinsic quality of being human are actually fundamental needs and the wants that are non-essential, or counterproductive, are actually something else.

Max-Neef’s theory of fundamental needs, in so far as they have recognized and internalized that message, are a way to more fully and holistically account for the qualities of human experience and to consider human development from a lens of multiple poverties of needs — and multiple prosperities as well.

And so we are left with this question:

How can we design for many types of poverties and prosperties for a more fair and equitable world?


Found out there’s a bunch of differing theories of needs models:

Would be really interesting to dig into this more.


  1. Max-Neef, M., Elizalde, A. and Hopenhayn, M., 1992. Development and human needs. Real-life economics: Understanding wealth creation, pp.197–213.
  2. Illich, Ivan. 1987. Toward a History of Needs. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books. pp 3–22
  3. Eguren, Inigo Retolaza. 2011. Theory of Change: A Thinking and Action Approach to Navigate in the Complexity of Social Change Processes. Panama City: UNDP and The Hague: Hivos. pp 1–33.http://bistandstorget.no/files/docs/ToC_Handbook_FINAL.pdf
  4. Margolin, Victor. 2007. Design, the Future and the Human Spirit. Design Issues. 23 (3): 4–15. Available online:http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/desi.2007.23.3.4
  5. Martin, Patrice. Turning Maslows’s Hierarchy On Its Head. The Development Set. https://medium.com/the-development-set/turning-maslow-s-hierarchy-on-its-head-80acf0ce1906#.5amix5n1c
  6. Kossoff, Gideon. 2011. Holism and the Reconstitution of Everyday Life: A Framework for Transition to a Sustainable Society. In Stephan Harding (ed) Grow Small, Think Beautiful: Ideas for a Sustainable World from Schumacher College. Edinburgh: Floris. pp 122–140. Also available online:https://www.academia.edu/6085518/Holism_and_the_Reconstitution_of_Everyday_Life_A_Framework_for_Transition_to_a_Sustainable_Society

Further Reading:



Catherine Shen

designer. thinker. @CMUDesign masters. @NorthwesternU econ. cat-shen.com.