Tom Atlee: Co-Intelligent Need Satisfaction

Cultural Intelligence
Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee

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.

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