To mend the world after COVID-19, we need a different approach to innovation.

Artwork by Việt Hoàng & Henriette Brück, 2020

The publishing of this essay marks the end of my third-month living and working in quarantine. During this time, I’ve been fortunate to sustain my job. I’ve felt privileged to be able to work from home and afford the mental space to try and make sense of the time we’re living in.

I wanted to unravel the meaning of all that was going on, to hopefully find comfort in knowing more — albeit vaguely — about this crisis. At the time, I had this grandiose idea that if I could make something understandable, it would then somehow become… more tolerable.

On a Saturday morning, I started my search for certainty by typing “behavioral changes during COVID-19” in my browser’s search bar. As Sunday night imperceptibly rolled in, I found myself defeated, deep in a rabbit hole, without any clear answer in sight.

After digging into over 70 articles, 5 academic journals, 15 podcasts, webinars, and however many videos from both mainstream and independent media, I was still clueless, if not more confused than I was before:

Will the digital economy mark the end of unorganized, yet charming physical collaboration and replace it with more efficient, and debatably, more inclusive virtual workplaces?

Will humanity come back with a new approach to sustainability and equality? Or will this just pass, and the deeply embedded problems that have surfaced be buried again?

I felt as if I was back at my university’s research lab. Any inquisitive endeavors then almost always led to a begrudging point: the more you knew, the more you didn’t know, and with every hope for an answer, came a new set of questions. But then a light sparked.

“Motivation. Motivation is at work.”

What I was reminded of at that moment was that to understand the behavioral changes during this crisis, I’d need to examine the underlying motivational system that drives them. One of the most established motivational theories came to mind: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

My quest for future certainty ironically led me back to this seven-decade-old model that I believe still holds its power in helping us understand the world today.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs 101

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a motivational theory comprising a five-level model of human needs, often depicted in the shape of a pyramid. From the pyramid’s bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are:

  1. Physiological Needs — the core physical requirements for human survival such as food, shelter, clothing, reproduction, etc.
  2. Safety Needs — humans’ urge for protection and being in control, including job security, financial stability, and wellbeing.
  3. Love and Belonging Needs — human’s yearning for love, connection, and acceptance among social groups.
  4. Esteem Needs — human’s concern with gaining recognition, status, and respect from others.
  5. Self-Actualization Needs — the realization of human potential, and the urge to be the most that one can be.

In this model, Maslow explains that humans are motivated to behave in ways that help them attain these five levels of needs and do so by fulfilling one level at a time.

Our world today, through the Maslow’s narrative

Examining my research through the lens of this Hierarchy of Needs, I saw the changes observed in the world today in a different light. What I initially thought was a tangled mess of unpredictable reactions turned out to be systemic shifts of motivation along the human’s hierarchy of needs. This shift can be described in 3 stages:

  1. A disruption of foundational stability
  2. The rise of psychological and altruistic remedies
  3. A streak of interventions against structural fragility

Stage 1: A disruption of foundational stability

When sheltering-in-place measures went into effect around the world, a new reality slowly crept in: in some shape or form, humanity no longer had a grip on how their lives would unfold in the coming months or even days.

All of a sudden, people’s physiological conditions became more reliant on others’ adherence to public health policies, often underfunded healthcare systems, and the advancement of the notoriously-ignored emergency-vaccine market. The answer to whether or not one can keep a roof over their head, in most cases, relied on the mercy of their landlords who were also under the financial pressure of the market’s invisible hand.

As the economy rapidly heads into a recession, millions of people are being furloughed, losing their jobs, businesses, and, or declaring bankruptcy. With this reality, comes a discarding of their basic human needs. Aside from the affluent few, employment, security, and health protection were no longer within the reach of many.

In one swift motion, COVID-19 cruelly vanquished the two most foundational levels of humans’ needs. People were left confused and hopeless, holding on to whatever they could to survive, not only physically but also, psychologically.

Stage 2: The rise of psychological and altruistic remedies

With the two most fundamental needs removed from the pyramid, humans were left with little, if any, room to assert control over their essential needs. People’s focus shifted to the three remaining levels of the pyramid, as our world entered a period of new behaviors, driven by intensified psychological needs.

First, people sought out (virtual) love and a sense of belonging.

Within weeks of isolation, there were reports of spikes in engagement across all social and messaging platforms. WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram all gained over a 40% increase in usage and similar trends applied to platforms like WeChat and Weibo.

Adjacent to this development has been an increase in online communities facilitated by virtual communication products like Discord, Google Meet, and Zoom. COVID-19 has seen the start of “A Great Virtual Expansion” for public and niche communities such as virtual cooking clubs, quiet book meetups, weekly Dungeon and Dragon nights, and even local dance events.

Next, people strategized against the impending social recession.

Strict social distancing policies, albeit necessary for public health, could also intensify the looming decline of people’s mental health. Confronting this psychological downfall, people began to increase engagement with activities that reward belonging, self-esteem, recognition, and freedom.

With the power of virtually taking people through highs-and-lows and prizing its players with social recognition, the game industry checked all the boxes of human’s needs and came out on top. On March 15, 2020, Steam — one of the leading online game platforms — reported a record 20 million concurrent users, while the number of game players continued to soar.

People are also reinventing their approach to building esteem and status through new ‘generative’ activities like hosting virtual pub quizzes, sewing and donating masks, or becoming Corona meme masters, saving the world one laugh at a time.

Next to these individual acts was also a rise in the public consensus around an increased risk of mental illnesses during the pandemic. This trend manifested itself into the many ‘Dealing with COVID-19’ online courses that universities and health organizations are offering for free to the public.

Lastly, people transcended through pro-human activities.

Even in the thick of the pandemic, where everything seems to run scarce, there were acts of kindness coming from the most unexpected places.

Despite great risks, hundreds of thousands of health professionals and care workers are still at the forefront, patching the havoc that this pandemic is wrecking on humanity. At the start of the pandemic, frontline workers across all sectors — from social workers to cafeteria staff — picked up the weight of the “essential” label and carried on with their jobs, supporting our world on its fragile foundation.

Chances are that you’ve heard some evil landlord stories. Those stories exist, but amid this pandemic, there are also touching stories of landlords shouldering their tenant’s rent, despite knowing that they aren’t immune to financial distress. If you need more of these selfless moments to remind yourself of the goodness in our world, this article keeps a list of them.

If I come off as naive and ignorant of the many things that are also going wrong with our world, then I want to say that I’m not oblivious to those stories. I, however, refuse to let the bad actors define this time. There are enough uplifting stories to help us hold on to an optimistic view of the world and advocate for positive changes.

This pandemic took away many things that we deem essential to our lives but it can’t and won’t seize what makes us human: our longing for social connection and our belief in the healing power of being the most that we can be.

Stage 3: A streak of interventions against structural fragility

This pandemic has brought the world to its knees and awoken its inhabitants to the reality of its allured social prosperity — a reality where everything is fragile.

In Europe, despite refugees’ and migrants’ active contributions to efforts against COVID-19, they are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. In the US, minority-owned businesses have failed to receive support from the government’s rescue package due to systemic discrimination. Affected citizens in San Francisco — a city of over 75 billionaires — are getting derisory support from the rich whose benefits have come at the cost of the inequalities and injustice of the city itself.

When the fog around our illusioned social safety net lifts, we come to the last stage of Maslow’s COVID-19 narrative. Trending downward level 2 and 1 of the pyramid, individuals became even more aware of the changes they’d need to take to protect their physiological and safety needs.

One example of this heightened awareness is what Vox described as “the novel frugality.” In light of financial instabilities and the desire to preserve a level of safety, people are “turning into their grandmothers.” From reusing Ziploc bags and eating the heels of bread to repurposing glass vessels for pickling and regrowing-scallions, amid COVID-19, people are making more of what they have.

iFixit, an online store for electronic repair parts and instructional guides also reported an uptick in traffic during the pandemic. The hashtag #FixAtHome continues to gain traction as more people are willing to fix their own appliances and gadgets.

Considering the changes driven by the modified physiological context of this pandemic, people have become more cognizant of their physical wellbeing. Home workouts are making a comeback with 16% of adults in the US watching more online exercise videos. The sale of fitness gear such as yoga mats, resistance bands, and home gym equipment is booming. What you see is that people are trying.

People are doing whatever they can, within their means to protect and secure their basic needs. But all of that effort doesn’t seem to add up to something substantial enough to even out the turbulence. These changes seem to be mere remedies, and far from being the cure for this crisis, or the next one.

With my quest to make sense of the world in COVID-19 seemingly reaching an unsatisfactory conclusion, I started to re-question why I embarked on this journey in the first place.

Now what?

I thought I wanted to find comfort in being able to see more of the world for what it is. And maybe in some aspect, I did that. However, this newfound understanding did not liberate me, nor did it make me feel rested, or comfortable.

I wanted to believe that my journey was more than just a masturbatory intellectual fest and that there was still something larger at play. In my head, I heard a persistent voice telling me that all this effort must amount to something larger than the sum of its parts. There must be more to this narrative.

That’s when I realized that The Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is not just a framework to understand, it can also be a platform to drive change.

Knowing why things happen is helpful, but accepting and leaving things the way they are, despite dire consequences, is ignorant and complacent. I was never fond of unactionable conclusions. So what if we can shape the world after COVID-19…

Let’s open the gate for bottom-first innovation

If there is one thing that this endeavor taught me, it’s that humans’ fundamental needs remain consistent throughout history. People always share an equal desire to meet their basic needs: to feel loved, respected, a sense of belonging, and ultimately, fulfilled. Those needs, however, have not been met equally.

A history of exploitation and discrimination has gotten us to a place where the pyramid of needs looks drastically different between people, depending on their skin color, gender, sexual orientation, geography, and socioeconomic status.

While the rich and a fortunate few enjoy an abundance of physiological stimulus and safety protection, the poor and the vulnerable barely make ends meet.

As our “innovative” society heads towards a future with self-driving cars, space-tourism, and high-quality pet gloves, left behind are people who were never qualified as the “target audience,” or the “market opportunity” in the pitch decks picked up by venture capitalists.

What we are seeing is a hyper-focus on top-level innovation, over-indexing the “higher” needs of the privileged, and neglecting the basic needs of the undermined.

But there is still hope.

Despite the lack of “unicorn” funding and media headlines, there are still many startups who are focusing on the two bottom levels of the Maslow pyramid, working hard to improve people’s baseline needs.

One example is Propel, an Asian American-founded startup that helps low-income Americans receive food stamps, access benefits, and clip coupons on their phones (safety need). Another one is Zola Electric which designs and develops renewable energy solutions that power “off-grid” homes across Tanzania, Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana (physiological needs).

There isn’t a playbook for this march toward a more inclusive future of innovation, but there is plenty of room for ingenious thinking.

To my fellow aspiring entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs:

Shall we let this be a time for us to re-evaluate our business models?

Shall we innovate where our world most often overlooks?

Shall we champion not the “affluent millennials,” but also, the marginalized and the undermined?

Shall we curb our temptation for the overnight unicorn status and replace that with an uphill battle for social justice and fair wealth distribution?

And while we are there, shall we reimagine capitalism once and for all?

Together, let’s flip the pyramid of needs on its head. We have the power to demand, reimagine, and enact a better future for low-income households, for essential workers, for people of color, for minority-owned businesses, and for everyone whose basic needs have never been met.

Let’s work hard so we can all equally stand on top of the first two levels of the Maslow pyramid. And from there, we can march together to the top, towards a better future for us all.

This is the post-COVID-19 world that I want to see. And I will do everything within my ability to make it happen. If you have gotten this far in this essay, I hope that you will join me too.

If you have more examples of great companies and brands that are promoting bottom-first innovation, please share it with me. And let’s set up a chat to keep this conversation going.

This essay is the first issue of Method of Elenchus, my biannual essay newsletter where I share research and opinions that foster new ways of looking at people, design, technology, and the economy.

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Hoàng Việt is a Senior Experience Strategist based in Amsterdam. He was academically trained as an economist but professionally shaped into an all-around experience architect. He combines business acumen and cultural sensitivity to help organizations plan, build, and launch fair and lasting businesses.

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