Our solution may sound simple

Align innovation with the sustainability principles

That is easier said than done, but when we understand the meaning of sustainable development and internalise what is behind the sustainability principles, it will become doable. As our socio-ecological sustainability principles are based upon the key causes of unsustainability, they define the basic conditions for a sustainable society. They help to ensure that we do not systematically destroy the ecological and social systems we depend upon for meeting our basic needs.
Key question: How can we achieve well-being and prosperity for all within natural limits simultaneously? Our simple answer: Respect and stop violating the sustainability principles. Before digging deeper into the principles, it will help a lot to understand what we mean by sustainable development based on basic human needs, and why we need to prevent the degradation of the systems we depend upon.

Defining Sustainable Development

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission, formally known as the “World Commission on Environment and Development”, WCED, published “The Brundtland Report”. Its mission was to unite countries in the joint pursuit of sustainable development. Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Chairman of the Commission at that time, introduced sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. In other words, all people want other people‘s needs to be met, always. This is a utopia. However, it is still meaningful to get as close as possible to it. For this, we have to define what kind of needs we mean, bearing in mind that in trying to satisfy all needs, including all the created and marketed wants and desires, we risk a continuation of unsustainable development.
defining sustainable development

Satisfying Basic Human needs

With his “Matrix of Needs and Satisfiers”, Manfred Max-Neef, the internationally known Chilean economist of German descent, created a pragmatic definition of individual basic human needs and how these are satisfied. He differentiates between nine fundamental needs that are finite, classifiable and constant through all human cultures and across history. Of course, they are the opposite of conventional economical wants and desires that are infinite and insatiable.



  • Being: physical and mental health, equilibrium, sense of humour, and adaptability, all to be understood as attributes and qualities.
  • Having (not material): the satisfiers are food, shelter, and work.
  • Doing (actions): the satisfiers are feed, reproduce, rest, and work.
  • Interacting (times and spaces): the satisfiers are living environment and social setting.



  • Being: care, adaptability, autonomy, equilibrium, and solidarity.
  • Having (not material): insurance systems, savings, social security, health systems, rights, family, work.
  • Doing (actions): co-operate, prevent, plan, take care of, cure, and help.
  • Interacting (times and spaces): living space, social environment, and dwelling



  • Being: self-esteem, solidarity, respect, tolerance, generosity, receptiveness, passion, determination, sensuality, and sense of humour.
  • Having (not material): friendships, family, partnerships, and relationships with nature.
  • Doing (actions): share, cultivate, caress, take care of, make love, express emotions, and appreciate.
  • Interacting (times and spaces): privacy, intimacy, home, and spaces of togetherness.



  • Being: critical conscience, receptiveness, curiosity, astonishment, discipline, intuition, and rationality.
  • Having (not material): literature, teachers, method, educational policies, and communication policies.
  • Doing (actions): investigate, study, experiment, educate, analyse, and meditate.
  • Interacting (times and spaces): settings of formative interaction, schools, universities, academies, groups, communities, and family.



  • Being: adaptability, receptiveness, solidarity, willingness, determination, dedication, respect, passion, and sense of humour.
  • Having (not material): rights, responsibilities, duties, privileges, and work.
  • Doing (actions): become affiliated, co-operate, propose, share, dissent, obey, interact, agree on, and express opinions.
  • Interacting (times and spaces): settings of participative interaction, associations, parties, churches, communities, neighbourhoods, landscapes.



  • Being: are imagination, tranquillity, and spontaneity.
  • Having (not material): games, spectacles, clubs, parties, and peace of mind.
  • Doing (actions): day-dream, dream, brood, recall old times, give way to fantasies, remember, relax, have fun, and play.
  • Interacting (times and spaces): privacy, intimacy, spaces of closeness, free time, surroundings, and landscapes.



  • Being: imagination, boldness, inventiveness, and curiosity.
  • Having (not material): abilities, skills, method, and work.
  • Doing (actions): work, invent, build, design, compose, and interpret.
  • Interacting (times and spaces): productive and feedback settings, workshops, cultural groups, audiences, spaces for expression, and temporal freedom.



  • Being: sense of belonging, self- esteem, and consistency.
  • Having (not material): symbols, language, religions, habits, customs, reference, groups, sexuality, values, norms, historical memory, and work.
  • Doing (actions): commit oneself, integrate oneself, confront, decide on, get to know oneself, recognize oneself, actualize oneself, and grow.
  • Interacting (times and spaces): social rhythms, everyday settings, settings which one belongs to, and maturation stages.



  • Being: autonomy, passion, self- esteem, and open-mindedness.
  • Having (not material): equal rights.
  • Doing (actions): dissent, choose, be different from, run risks, develop awareness, commit oneself, and disobey.
  • Interacting (times and spaces): temporal/spatial plasticity anywhere, anytime.


Manfred Max-Neef, a brilliant thought-leader, is the father of a famous phrase you might perhaps know: “The economy is to serve the people, not people to serve the economy”. You want to hear more? Then please have a look at this interview conducted in 2013 in Bhutan.
Strategies for sustainable development always have to do with people. Manfred Max-Neef’s publications on the basic human needs focus on the needs of individual people, which is useful, but does not explain how the social system works to be able to satisfy these needs. As such, he inspired The Natural Step’s scientists to elaborate a systemic social principle and five sub-dimensions explaining it in detail.
Therefore, the consequence of not meeting basic needs for a long time is undermining the behaviour towards society and other individuals. In order to ensure that we are able to structually meet individual and systemic basic needs, both the ecological and social systems need to function properly. Hence, we should not systematically degrade any key aspect of either system.

Stop degrading our systems

One of the leading scientists in the area of global sustainability, Dr. Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, recently explained the major trends in the sustainability challenge when he participated at one of our events. He gave a scientific update and pointed out “how this connects to the fantastic work done by The Natural Step in terms of the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development”. He explained how we are systematically degrading the systems we depend upon, and why we need to stop doing so. Please have a look at selected parts of his speech:
“We need a global systems perspective to meet the socio-ecological challenges and to drive change. Even if we can define the large framework on the planet, we have to translate this operationally into a transformation journey, which requires innovation, transformation, technology, ingenuity, effectiveness, governance and enormous efforts from local to global scales.”

Overcoming the sustainability challenge

Overcoming the sustainability challenge
Social Pressures
  • Rise of inequality
  • Erosion of trust
  • Increase in diseases of affluence, like obesity and stress
  • Increase of discrimination
Environmental Pressures
  • Novel entities
  • Atmospheric aerosol loading
  • Ocean acidification
  • Biogeochemical flows
  • Land-system change
  • Biosphere integrity
  • Climate change
Value creation
  • Innovation
  • Transformation
  • Technology
  • Ingenuity
  • Effectiveness
  • Governance
Over the past three decades, various groups of multi-disciplinary scientists have identified the key causes of the degradation trends happening in the world around us. Knowledge of these key causes, which The Natural Step has translated into its sustainability principles, will guide the needed change.

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