Minimum Viable Maslow

Minimum Viable Maslow

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This week sees the return of Burning Man – the outlier festival that builds a fully-working temporary city, as a model for human thriving.

It’s all created out in the desert – where it’s quite a logistical challenge to thrive, anyway; you have to take everything you need with you, and be creative. The entire festival is built by the 70,000+ participants, so people work and live together in groups to create various elements of the festival. Groups each build their own camps, of all shapes and sizes, doing all sorts of things: every element you need for a fully-working festival city needs to be developed, managed and delivered by the people there. Everything is gifted – with no expectation of receiving anything in return. What’s incredible is that it is all self-organising. Everyone finds a way of contributing to make a much greater whole. In some ways it’s a very valuable experiment for self-sustaining model for society.

Several years ago, I took a small group of people to the festival, to explore what is possible for ourselves and what is possible for humanity. I used it as an experimental platform.

The theme or brief for our particular camp and its infrastructure was ‘Minimum Viable Maslow’. Spending as little time and money as possible, we had to design, build and maintain a camp that provided for all the human needs of those attending, so they could focus on self-development and self-exploration during the festival.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Yes, the basics like food, shelter and sleep were catered for – but so much more was required. Most of the challenge was in developing the human systems and processes to help people feel safe and connected in a very unfamiliar environment.

The objective of the camp was for participants to learn about themselves, and self-actualise.

Burning Man manages to do something that few have achieved: at a grand scale. Higher order needs – like belonging, acceptance and friendship – are threaded into the cultural structure of the festival. No matter who you are, you are accepted as you are. Many people don’t even recognise the shackles of social conformity until they’re immersed in an environment in which they operate in a different way.

My experiences at Burning Man have stuck with me. My home community of Guernsey is roughly the same size and population as the festival; so it’s no surprise that it gave me a window onto an abundant, poverty-free future – and how that could look and feel.

Much of the world is talking about Universal Basic Income – unconditional payment of a sum of money to each citizen, to cover their basic human needs. This issue is becoming even more prevalent, given the threat of accelerating automation in many industries.

Providing money for basic needs is valuable, but it’s only part of the story. That is a fraction of what’s needed for a peaceful transition through the technological revolution. For a truly thriving human race, we need to consider all needs – not just the basics.

The rise of populism, for example, is not linked to solely to basic needs. It is about much more.

Using a poverty-centric lens to address basic human needs is too individualistic – and it won’t quench the rage that’s building in society. Universal Basic Income is considered by many to be unaffordable. Viewed through an individualistic lens, it could well be. Through a collective lens, it isn’t – because many higher human needs can be fulfilled through living in service of others and belonging to a greater whole. What Burning Man and its gifting economy reveal is that unconditional human service, at scale, delivers so much more than anything pure financial transactions can achieve.

People often challenge me to explain why I spend time focusing on Guernsey – one of the wealthiest countries in the world, rather than working where ‘real’ help is needed. Despite being a wealthy country, we still have a very large problem with poverty. You see, solving poverty is about much more than just having money available. There’s a greater challenge. Much of it is about having the desire and compassion in community to solve the problem.

And for me, this is the doorway into a very different future. There’s a cost to consumerism, but no matter how much we spend, it is very difficult for us to thrive on our own. You can’t easily buy happiness – yet you can get immeasurable joy and a sense of purpose from helping others, whether by volunteering or assisting friends or strangers to have a better life. The more we support the thriving of others, and the more we all work together to enable this – the more possible we make our own thriving, for far less money.The cost of our own thriving reduces, when other people are thriving around us.

The solution to solving poverty lies in our own individual progression as human beings, rather than our capacity to have the financial resources to provide for human needs.

Technology will significantly reduce the cost of some of our needs, I’m sure. But  it is unlikely to satisfy all of them, or what we truly need – without a radical change in how the community operates. We need to thrive – together.

In the end, we can leave no one behind.


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  1. Mike Baxter says

    … so we need to define Universal Basic Satificers – the range of things (including, but not exclusively, money) that enable us to live a happy fulfilled life. Satisficers? This is taken from Barry Schwarz’s book Paradox of Choice. We are either maximisers (need to consider everything before choosing, often want more) or satisficers (if it is good enough, it will do). So what is it that we humans need that would be just good enough for a happy fulfilled life? Money – or the stuff money buys – is clearly needed. But the interesting thing your post raises is what else? What about community? Could we make any progress in defining which components of community are the satisficers for a happy fulfilled life? How many people, serving what purpose in our lives and with what outcomes? Come on Marc, we need answers 🙂 L M x

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