The co-intelligent satisfaction of needs

All the activities of life can be viewed as efforts to satisfy fundamental needs. The specific things we think we want or desire are actually best viewed as attempts to satisfy those more fundamental needs that are universal and can be satisfied in so many different ways. However, some “satisfiers” are actually toxic and/or addictive, undermining other areas of our life and driving acquisitive cultures that are destroying our world and prospects for future generations. The co-intelligence worldview suggests that we seek to understand the life-dynamcs of “needs” and find ways to satisfy the needs of all involved at every level. This activity can look like conflict resolving peacemaking, like self-organizing democracy, like nature respecting sustainability, and many other good things many of us are already involved with. There is a tight bond between co-intelligence and the healthy satisfaction of needs. Practices like Nonviolent Communication and Human-scale Development are co-intelligent because they help us serve life in that way. And we can push the envelope even further…

I have long been fascinated by the role of “needs” in life – in human life, in societies, and in the way nature works.

By “needs” I don’t mean “neediness” or “if I don’t have this need met, I’ll die” – although those are part of it. I’m most interested in needs as drivers or motivators of action – or as a manifestation of that domain within us where our life energy arises. I also like to think of needs as things which, when they’re satisfied, generate a high quality of life.

There is something about needs – when viewed in these ways – that feels fundamental to what’s going on in life. It also feels fundamental to why those of us trying to “make the world a better place” do what we do.

Thus my interest: What can we learn about “needs” that would help us live fulfilling lives – both individually and together – and also help us create cultures and social systems that support everyone’s quality of life and the health of natural systems?

It turns out that many people have been doing useful thinking about this. Some general outlines of the field are available on the Wikipedia page about needs. There you’ll find theories about needs ranging from Marx to Maslow.

But here I want to focus on two approaches I find particularly useful from the co-intelligence perspective – the Nonviolent Communication of Marshall Rosenberg (dealing with personal and interpersonal needs) and the Human-scale Development of Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef (dealing with the needs of people in society, and the social systems that help or hinder their ability to meet those needs). That’s because they bring some pretty profound gifts to the study of co-intelligence.


From the perspective of needs, we could define co-intelligence as the capacity and dynamic through which the short- and long-term needs of a whole and its parts are met with the life energy, creativity, and resources of that whole and all its parts. In this definition, “the whole” might be (for example) a whole person, community, system, situation, or world. Any such whole that meets its needs in sustainable ways can be considered co-intelligent. Note that when the experience of “need” mobilize the life energy, creativity and resources of the whole and all its parts, we see lots of self-organizing activity happening. Co-intelligence at its best involves self-organizing coherence or wholeness among various entities and between them and the conditions of their lives.

It turns out self-organization is closely tied to the motivations provided by our deep needs. Complexity scientist Stuart Kauffman notes that “A drive (urge) towards improvement, usually manifest as the necessity of finding a better fit with the environment” is one of the natural pre-conditions for spontaneous self-organization. That statement, itself, is an interesting description of “need” – although I would change “the environment” to “reality”, a term which more readily includes internal conditions and ongoing patterns and dynamics, as well as external circumstances. “Being in right relationship with Reality” is also what evolutionary evangelist Michael Dowd sometimes calls “evolutionary integrity” – a state of healthy participation in the ongoing, self-organizing process of evolution, a fundamental principle of his “evolutionary spirituality“. Most needs could be framed as motivating us to get into right relationship with reality, over and over again.

Now, it’s important to distinguish here between needs and desires. Both Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and and Human-scale Development (HSD) make this distinction: Needs – like our needs for “food” and “companionship” – are universal, few in number, and can be satisfied in diverse ways. Desires, demands, requests, wants, and other “satisfiers” – like “ice cream” or “Greek salad” (as desired foods) and “Kevin” or “Jennifer” (as desired companions) – are infinite in number and very particular, gratifying a certain person (or group or situation) in a specific way. Both NVC and HSD offer lists of needs to illustrate the range of what they’re talking about. HSD’s list is here; NVC’s is here.

Unlike Abraham Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs“, NVC and HSD both consider all needs interrelated and equally important for human wellbeing. It could be said that physical survival needs are more important than other needs, but there are many obvious examples where people sacrifice their physical wellbeing or even their lives to satisfy other needs they value more, such as love or meaning.

NVC suggests that everything we do arises from – and is an effort to satisfy – one or more underlying needs. Our emotions arise from our needs being met or unmet. Pleasant emotions arise when our needs are satisfied and unpleasant emotions arise when they are not satisfied. We can thus better understand where we and others are coming from by identifying the needs involved and taking action to satisfy them – or, if they are already satisfied, to celebrate that fact.

The NVC perspective is especially valuable when there’s conflict – that is, where two or more parties express desires or demands that seem counter to each other, even irreconcilable. A nonviolent communicator recognizes that the anger, grief, narrow-mindedness, apathy, and other painful emotions present in a conflict are signs that people’s needs are not being met, largely because they are stuck at the level of satisfiers rather than going deeper into the fundamental needs they are trying to satisfy. An NVC practitioner can help the conflicted parties (sometimes including themselves!) by acknowledging those emotions and empathically exploring what unmet needs might be generating them. Once the needs are identified, they can explore with the conflicted parties how they might satisfy their respective needs with alternative strategies that would help them fit better together. People’s needs for understanding and companionship are so profound that often this shared inquiry itself transforms the parties’ rancor into affection and tears of realization and relief – sometimes evaporating the conflict without even addressing the “objective” conditions that seemed to generate it in the first place. This ability to transform and/or resolve conflict through empathic conversation is why NVC is called nonviolent communication. However, its insights into the dynamics through which we satisfy our needs have broader applications than merely conflict resolution.

In a sense HSD takes over where NVC leaves off – looking at the social systemic dynamics of need satisfaction. Max-Neef notes that not all alleged satisfiers actually satisfy us in full and healthy ways. Some provide partial or temporary satisfaction that not only fades but undermines our ability to satisfy other needs, and can even actively damage us, others, society, and/or nature. Such “destroyers”, “pseudosatisfiers”, and “inhibiting satisfiers” drive addictive behavior – and also drive consumer economies designed to keep us wanting more and more while feeling alienated and spiritually hollow, compulsively consuming in collective enterprises that all too often harm us, other people and/or nature.

In contrast, Max-Neef notes that “synergic satisfiers” satisfy multiple needs simultaneously. Shared gardening, for example – especially in its organic, permaculture, biodynamic, and other nature-conscious modes – can satisfy our needs for nutrition, exercise, connection to nature, meaning, community, and more, while doing little or no damage to any other life (except perhaps some “pests” who are either kept at bay or welcomed into the horticultural community as food for other members of the ecosystem).

In between these two extremes we have the familiar life process of negotiating the trade-offs between satisfying certain needs at the expense of other needs. Here, too, the co-intelligence perspective suggests that we can become increasingly competent at meeting more needs of more beings and more situations more of the time. However able and inclusive we are at any given time, we can become more able and inclusive. There are skills, interactive processes, and systemic designs (Max-Neef’s focus, being an economist) that can help us maximize the amount of synergic and complementary satisfiers we can bring into our individual and collective lives. We could say that that is what co-intelligence is all about.

So I find that understanding the dynamics surrounding our needs and the ways we go about satisfying them is profoundly important for understanding co-intelligence and how to apply it to our lives, groups, and societies.


Needs of the kind addressed above by NVC and HSD are obviously relevant to individual human beings. Many of them – like our needs for nutrition, water, and safety – can also be readily extended to many animals, plants, and other living organisms. But what about societies, ecosystems, and situations? Do they have needs?

From a co-intelligence perspective, I believe that any living system or dynamic whole can have needs – that is, factors that involve dynamic tensions that drive it to shift what it is or does, or which must be satisfied in order for it to function, persist, heal, or resolve – in other words, to manifest its wholeness or to become more whole.

So we could say, for example, that a community or society “needs” diversity – and ways to creatively handle that diversity – especially to survive or flourish in complex or changing environments. The more options and resources a community or society has to help it meet changing demands, the more resilient it can be. In contrast, to the extent everyone involved is the same, a community or society could not fulfill the diverse functions required to sustain itself.

Moving a bit further into abstractions, we could say that an economic system “needs” flows of resources and value to even exist. That need could be satisfied by financial and money-based market arrangements, but also by networks facilitating non-monetary exchange, sharing, gifting, and co-creation.

At the systemic level I see three types of systemic needs we could consider:

  1. The needs of systems generally – the needs which exist for any and all systems;
  2. The needs of a particular system, such as a community or economic system; its ability to function as a healthy whole; and
  3. How well a system meets the needs of the people (or other entities) that make it up.

From the co-intelligence perspective, we would be particularly interested in the relationship between the needs of the larger system and the needs of of its parts. Do efforts by the parts to satisfy their needs undermine or support the ability of the whole system to satisfy its needs? Do efforts by the whole system to meet its needs undermine or support the ability of its constituent parts to meet their needs? Ideally, there would be synergy between these two efforts. I often remark that to the extent we internalize the social and environmental “costs” of creating, using, and disposing of products into their price – such that harmful (e.g., polluting or sweatshop-manufactured) products would cost more than benign products – the efforts by individuals and corporations to meet their needs inexpensively would make the whole economic system more healthy and sustainable, ensuring that future generations could meet their needs as well. This last factor – “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – is the defining dynamic of sustainable development according to the UN’s 1987 Brundtland Commission.

Moving even further away from human-specific needs, we could say that an ocean ecosystem like a coral reef needs low levels of acidity and toxicity to sustain itself. To a certain extent such an ecosystem can adapt, but sometimes it dies from its inability to meet those needs. On a larger scale, we can see this as part of the ocean’s or planet’s adaptation to new demands being placed on it. One could say that the planet needs a level of stability – and that Earth may achieve that stability by wiping out its current primary source of instability – human civilization – using the violent weather, rising seas, spreading pests, diseases, and wars that climate change brings. This is not, by my definition, a co-intelligent solution to the planet’s needs because that would require a solution that meets the needs of the parts (like us) as well as the whole (the earth). But the planet’s apparent failure of co-intelligence derives from our own failure to co-intelligently satisfy our needs in ways that meet the needs of the larger whole we are part of – the planet, the biosphere, the Earth, Nature. If we want to be included in the time-tested co-intelligence of nature, we would be wise to practice co-intelligence ourselves, satisfying our needs within the constraints established by the needs of natural systems, as articulated (for example) by The Natural Step.

Finally, consider how a situation might have needs. A conflict might be said to have a “need” for a resolution of tensions; the whole energy of the conflicted situation is geared towards that. The conflict doesn’t need those tensions to be resolved nonviolently; it just needs them resolved. However, the participants may need a nonviolent resolution in order to survive or thrive – and, as noted above, that is where co-intelligence comes in, meeting the needs of both the whole (the conflicted situation) and the parts (the people involved).

This last section is a sketchy exploration of a possible theory of needs that moves beyond people or other similar organisms to cover living systems and dynamic situations. Not many thinkers have ventured into that realm. But It seems to me that the co-intelligence worldview requires that we at least take that possibility seriously. For a bit more on my own explorations, see my essay “Thoughts on Nonviolent Communication and Social Change“.

In any case, our most immediate concern is how to meet the deep needs of humanity. This is amply covered by principles and practices offered by approaches like Nonviolent Communication and Human-Scale Development, which are further discussed in the essays below. If we take them seriously, we’ll find that our deepest needs include a healthy – even loving or sacred – relationship with the earth and future generations, such that we find that caring for them is very satisfying at a very personal level.

If we channel some of that care into reconfiguring our social systems – economic, political, educational, health care, and all the rest – to embody that caring, we’ll begin to meet the needs of “the whole” very co-intelligently indeed.


PS: It may already be obvious to most readers, but I wish to highlight an important relationship between needs and empathy – the ability to experience life from another’s perspective – which I’ve written a lot about lately. It seems to me that our empathy with another is greatly assisted by familiarizing ourselves with their experience of their needs and how those needs are being met or unmet – all the stories they are telling themselves about all this (which may be very different from the stories we are telling ourselves about it!). This is core to NVC practice and – inspired by HSD – it could be central to our relationships with other communities, countries, and cultures. Part of what I love about both NVC and HSD is that they explicitly help us address needs in healthy ways as part of living a good life.

= = = = = =


(accessed July 31, 2014)

“Need” is the word we use in NVC for the deepest motivations behind anything we think or say, any action or reaction. The need that is most alive in us can change from moment to moment. Even when it is the same need for some period of time, it is arising again and again in each moment. We also call them values. Whatever we call them, we are looking for something:

  • positive – something we would like to be fulfilled, even if we don’t like the current strategy someone is using to get it
  • abstract – not attached to any particular person, place or thing (then it would be a strategy – see Need vs. Strategy)
  • universal – All people share the same needs.

How to identify needs

  • Identify what feelings are present. Often this gives a clear suggestion of what need is most present. For example, if someone feels confused, they may be needing more clarity.
  • Think about a similar situation you’ve been in – what need was alive in you?
  • Reflect on the content of thoughts. For example, if someone says “You’re so selfish!” or “You only care about yourself” they may be wanting more consideration.
  • Look at the needs list in the Nonviolent Communication book or online here

Emotional needs

We are all born with essential physical and emotional needs and the innate resources to help us fulfil them. These innate needs have evolved over millions of years and are our common biological inheritance, whatever our cultural background.

Our innate needs seek their fulfillment through the way we interact with the environment using the resources nature ‘gave’ us. But when our emotional needs are not being met, or when our resources are being used incorrectly, we suffer considerable distress. And so do those around us.  It is by meeting our physical and emotional needs that we survive and develop as individuals and a species.

Our emotional needs include:

  • Security – safe territory and an environment which allows us to develop fully
  • Attention (to give and receive it) – a form of nutrition
  • Sense of autonomy and control – having volition to make responsible choices
  • Being emotionally connected to others
  • Feeling part of a wider community
  • Friendship, intimacy – to know that at least one other person accepts us totally for who we are, “warts ‘n’ all”
  • Privacy – opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience
  • Sense of status within social groupings
  • Sense of competence and achievement
  • Meaning and purpose – which come from being stretched in what we do and think.

To learn more about the emotional needs, see here.

– – – – –



(accessed July 31, 2014)

NVC invites practitioners to focus attention on four components:

  • OBSERVATION: the facts (what we are seeing, hearing, or touching) as distinct from our evaluation of meaning and significance…. It is said that “When we combine observation with evaluation others are apt to hear criticism and resist what we are saying.” Instead, a focus on observations specific to time and context [as in what a video camera would record] is recommended.
  • FEELINGS: emotions or sensations, free of thought and story. These are to be distinguished from thoughts [masquerading as feelings] (e.g., “I feel I didn’t get a fair deal”) and from words colloquially used as feelings but which convey what we think we are (e.g., “inadequate”), how we think others are evaluating us (e.g., “unimportant”), or what we think others are doing to us (e.g., “misunderstood”, “ignored”). Feelings are said to reflect whether we are experiencing our needs as met or unmet….
  • NEEDS: universal human needs, as distinct from particular strategies for meeting needs. It is posited that “Everything we do is in service of our needs.”
  • REQUESTS: request for a specific action, free of demand. Requests are distinguished from demands in that one is open to hearing a response of “no” without this triggering an attempt to force the matter. If one makes a request and receives a “no” it is recommended not that one give up, but that one empathize with what is preventing the other person from saying “yes,” before deciding how to continue the conversation. It is recommended that requests use clear, positive, concrete action language.

= = = = =


Manfred Max-Neef
Human Needs and Human-scale Development

Conventional western ideas of development and progress are seen by many as a root cause of rainforest destruction and other aspects of the global ecological crisis, but what are the alternatives? Development as it is usually conceived is based on a particular view of human nature. This view, which is taken for granted by economic rationalists, assumes that human beings are driven by a limitless craving for material possessions. Max-Neef’s conception of what human beings need, and what motivates them, is fundamentally different. If decision-makers operated according to his assumptions rather than those of most economists, then the choices they made would change radically. This article by Kath Fisher outlines Max-Neef’s ideas on human needs and Human-scale Development.

The Max-Neef Model of Human-Scale Development

Manfred Max-Neef is a Chilean economist who has worked for many years with the problem of development in the Third World, articulating the inappropriateness of conventional models of development, that have lead to increasing poverty, massive debt and ecological disaster for many Third World communities. He works for the Centre for Development Alternatives in Chile, an organisation dedicated to the reorientation of development which stimulates local needs. It researches new tools, strategies and evaluative techniques to support such development, and Max-Neef’s publication Human Scale Development: an Option for the Future (1987) outlines the results of the Centre’s researches and experiences

Max-Neef and his colleagues have developed a taxonomy of human needs and a process by which communities can identify their “wealths” and “poverties” according to how these needs are satisfied.

Human Scale Development is defined as “focused and based on the satisfaction of fundamental human needs, on the generation of growing levels of self-reliance, and on the construction of organic articulations of people with nature and technology, of global processes with local activity, of the personal with the social, of planning with autonomy, and of civil society with the state.” (Max-Neef et al, 1987:12)

The main contribution that Max-Neef makes to the understanding of needs is the distinction made between needs and satisfiers. Human needs are seen as few, finite and classifiable (as distinct from the conventional notion that “wants” are infinite and insatiable). Not only this, they are constant through all human cultures and across historical time periods. What changes over time and between cultures is the way these needs are satisfied. It is important that human needs are understood as a system – i.e. they are interrelated and interactive. There is no hierarchy of needs (apart from the basic need for subsistence or survival) as postulated by Western psychologists such as Maslow, rather, simultaneity, complementarity and trade-offs are features of the process of needs satisfaction.

Max-Neef classifies the fundamental human needs as: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, recreation(in the sense of leisure, time to reflect, or idleness), creation, identity and freedom. Needs are also defined according to the existential categories of being, having, doing and interacting, and from these dimensions, a 36 cell matrix is developed (as shown here) which can be filled with examples of satisfiers for those needs.

maxneefNeedsChart (click on image to enlarge it)

Satisfiers also have different characteristics: they can be violators or destroyers, pseudosatisfiers, inhibiting satisfiers, singular satisfiers, or synergic satisfiers. Max-Neef shows that certain satisfiers, promoted as satisfying a particular need, in fact inhibit or destroy the possibility of satisfying other needs: eg, the arms race, while ostensibly satisfying the need for protection, in fact then destroys subsistence, participation, affection and freedom; formal democracy, which is supposed to meet the need for participation often disempowers and alienates; commercial television, while used to satisfy the need for recreation, interferes with understanding, creativity and identity – the examples are everywhere.

Synergic satisfiers, on the other hand, not only satisfy one particular need, but also lead to satisfaction in other areas: some examples are breast-feeding; self-managed production; popular education; democratic community organisations; preventative medicine; meditation; educational games.

This model forms the basis of an explanation of many of the problems arising from a dependence on mechanistic economics, and contributes to understandings that are necessary for a paradigrn shift that incorporates systemic principles. Max-Neef and his colleagues have found that this methodology “allows for the achievement of in-depth insight into the key problems that impede the actualisation of fundamental human needs in the society, community or institution being studied” (Max-Neef et al, 1987:40)

This model provides a useful approach that meets the requirements of small group, community-based processes that have the effect of allowing deep reflection about one’s individual and community situation, leading to critical awareness and, possibly, action al the local economic level.

See also Wikipedia for an overlapping description of Max-Neef’s approach

* * * * * * *

June-July 2014 Co-Intelligence Institute Fundraising Campaign note: So far 67 people have supported us with $11,355. Join them in supporting our work. Our target is $20,000. As you can see, we can use your support. Please donate now and your donation will be doubled. It will make a big difference and your donation is fully tax-deductible in the U.S.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.