Human needs drive innovation

We can look at Abraham Maslow’s theory of hierarchical human needs to see the successes of innovation. Maslow’s theory hypothesized that there are varying levels of needs. The higher level needs are dependent on the satisfaction of the lower level needs. We can review current innovations based on the stage of development of society and how the specific innovation addresses the underlying human needs.


Physiological needs include oxygen, water, relatively constant body temperature, etc. Significant developments to meet the physiological needs in Western culture have taken place in the last 50 years. These development include the air conditioner, the refrigerator, water purification and treatment. These innovations are adopted quickly by society and we often forget about their value to our lives. Significant opportunities exist for the development of environmentally responsible applications of these technologies.


Security/Safety needs include stability, dependency, protection, freedom from fear and anxiety, law and order. Many of these innovations are in changes to public policy and local government. The development of security tools including biometrics, encryption and personal defense. Security innovations exist in both the physical and virtual worlds. Physical world safety innovations include small arms (though the distribution and use of small arms has fuelled political instabilities and made regions of the world very unsafe—see Scientific American for more details). Virtual innovations include encryption technologies (SSL, public key cryptography, PGP, etc.), firewalls to keep out intruders, and credit card fraud detectors (HNC’s Falcon Fraud Management System).


Social needs include a feeling of belongingness, love, and the development of community. Many technologies have focused on the creation of communities and the development of relationships. Communications platforms explode on to the public scene after the lower level needs have been met. Examples including the telephone, the Internet, and even blogging software. All of these technologies foster the human social needs, but their success happens only after the physiological and safety needs have been met. In the case of telecommunications the physiological needs are the network itself, i.e., I need to be able to reach someone that matters to me, and after the technology is relatively safe to use.


Ego/Esteem needs include a desire for strength, achievement, adequacy, mastery, competence, independence, freedom, status, recognition, attention, importance and appreciation. The development of recently changed weblog lists (, and the creation of online publications are services that promote respect and the esteem from others. The success of the Thunder Lizard conferences and the creation of web celebrities (Business 2.0’s Gurus, the Wired 52, O’Reilly Network Weblogs are one result of satisfying the Ego/Esteem needs.


Self-actualization was described by Maslow as “an ongoing process”. Self-actualized individuals are realistic, spontaneous, focused on problems outside of themselves, autonomous, creative among other things. I am not sure that there are self-actualization innovations. Many people may take other innovations and use them to become self-actualized.

“Musicians must make music, artists must paint, poets must write if they are to be ultimately at peace with themselves. What humans can be, they must be. ”—Abraham Maslow.