Transition Design Week 5

Barefoot Economics: Needs and how to satisfy them

This week, we discussed about Max-Neef, a Chilean economist. He is famous for his taxonomy of fundamental human needs and human scale development and author of “From the Outside Looking In: Experiences in Barefoot Economics”.

In Barefoot economics, he came out with 5 postulates and 1 value principles.

Economic is to serve the people, not people to serve economics

Outsourcing is a good example that human is being used for economic interest. International coportations oursource their manufactuer to other countries due to cost reduction but not to benefit people in those countries.

Development is about people no objects

Development is not about buidling power plant to provide electricty or build dam to save water. It is about fulfill human fundamental needs. For sure, materials is a way to satify those needs. However, we should know that there is difference about what is human needs and how to satify those needs.

Growth is not the same as development, and development does not necessarily require growth.

GDP as current mainstream economic indicator has fundamental flaw. We could see many evidence that the growth of GDP does not necessarily lead to a higher standard of living. If we use GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator) as benchmark, we could actually see that GPI decrease when GDP went beyond certain point.

No economics is possible in the absence of ecosystem services

Our economics actually leverages resources from natural system so there is no way we could treat it as a independent one.

Economy is a subsystem of a larger finite system the biosphere hence permanent growth is impossible.

The human economic system does not build on top of our planet but actually live within the ecosystem. If you think about our economics in this way, we could easily identify that certain planetary limitations do exist and there is no way economic system could exceed that.

Value Principle: No economics interest whatsoever at any circumstances can be above the reverence of life.

In second class, we talk more about needs and satifiers. Max-Neef’s theory of needs proposes that human needs are universal and finite but the ways in which they satisfy those needs are limitless and might be quite different.

As a result, needs can be satisfied in either sustainable or unsustainable ways. For example, in the attempt to satisfy the most basic of subsistence needs, an individual may choose to drink water out of his tap or purchase a commercial bottle of water which is unsustainable.

Needs and satisfiers matrix

Design can be viewed as ongoing and ubiquitous activity involved in satisfying human needs. So how can the distinction between genuine needs and wants/desires be relevant to designers and design process? This is the question that we should think of.

Furthermore, there are five different kinds of satisfiers.

Integrated Satisfier

Satisfies multiple needs at the same time. For example, public education satisfies the need of understanding as well as participation and identity.

Singular Satisfier

Satisfies single need. For example, insurance system only satisfies the need of protection.

Inhibiting Satisfier

It generally over-satisfy a given need and seriously curtailing the possibility of satisfying other needs.

Pseudo Satisfier

Elements that generate the false sense of satisfaction but eventually disappear. They are generally induced through advertising or other ways of persuation. The exploitation of natural resources is a good example.


Elements that intent to satisfy a need. However, it not only fail but also destroy the chance of fulfill other needs.

As a designer, we should think about in what ways can design for integrated satisfiers become part of design process or strategy?


Max-Neef and Barefoot Economics

Irwin, Terry. 2011. Design for a Sustainable Future, In Hershauer, Basile, and McNall (eds), The Business of Sustainability. Santa Barbara: Praeger. 2: 41–60

Max-Neef, Manfred and Phillip B. Smith. 2011. A Human Economics for the Twenty-First Century. From Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good. Cambridge: UIT Cambridge. pp 139–154*