Prof. Harro van Lente: “Let’s rethink innovation from a more sustainable perspective”

“Sustainability is like other big words such as democracy or justice,” said Prof. Harro van Lente at his lecture last week on sustainable development from a humanistic perspective.

Prof. Van Lente is a Socrates Professor in Philosophy of Sustainable Development at Maastricht University and also works as an Associate Professor of Emerging Technologies at the Department of Innovation and Environmental Studies of Utrecht University.

Sustainability has become such a trendy topic that everybody is talking about it. Practice, however, is always different from theory. These days, the concept of sustainability comes with an increasing number of disagreeing opinions and questionable approaches. It is therefore very difficult to create a valid framework for sustainable development that will meet a general consensus.

Van Lente focused his talk on the core idea of need. After presenting past research on the definition of need, he looked at how needs are created and evolve in time and considered the case when a need should be considered as a basic human right.

Armed with a clearer definition of what needs are and how they are integrated into our present day life, he questioned whether a sustainable approach to current and future needs is possible.

From a humanistic perspective, sustainability is defined as a “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

The humanistic perspective

Humanism starts from the individual and revolves around one’s answers to one’s purpose and goals. It is an ongoing reflection on personhood and one’s values that has developed over time since the Age of Enlightenment. It demands a certain ethical conduct based on a body of values and also highlights the importance of autonomy and freedom of expression.

Sustainability, on the other hand, asks for the entire living ecosystem to be taken into consideration. Sustainability depends on cross-globe and cross-time interactions and therefore requires a holistic approach.

From this perspective, it becomes clear that cross-time interactions are essential and that while a sustainable approach can start from the individual, it must always keep the collective view in mind.

What is even more important, argued Van Lente, is to look at the actual needs of human beings and understand how we form needs and what we can expect from their development.

Necessity as the mother of invention

If we search for definitions of needs, we will find several approaches across multiple disciplines. The most general definition is based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In Economics, preferences are seen as a black box while in Anthropology, studies show that needs are a part of everyday life. Nevertheless, needs are a very relative notion and in terms of political philosophy, it is difficult to distinguish needs from wants.

Maslow conceived a very comprehensive hierarchy of needs but in reality people do not abide by it. A mountaineer would not risk his life when climbing a mountain since it defies his basic need to stay safe. Thus, while there is some truth in Maslow’s hierarchy, it can also be contested.

The French philosopher of social sciences René Girard came up with a different approach on what humans want and need. He studied novels in order to build a more comprehensive theory on “La vérité romanesque,” a romantic idea about people’s wants and needs derived from their idealized writings. Girard concluded that we create a picture of what makes us happy and subsequently develop a desire to attain it. This ambition to attain happiness is a very deep and authentic expression the individual can also be regarded as a want.

Van Lente explained that we are always surrounded by models. When we see somebody who possesses something we like, we instantly want it and start building our ambition to obtain it. Once this goal is reached, we find another such “model” to look up to. The vicious circle of creating needs based on what others have falls outside of Maslow’s explanation of needs.

Furthermore, it must be pointed out that needs and novelty co-evolve. Our needs today will not be the same 200 years from now. Likewise, in the early 1800s, urban water supply solutions were seen as a novelty. Photography started to be streamlined into personal use around 1900. Internet became part of our everyday life around 2000 and turned into a need within a decade. Internet today replaces the fridge and the TV as the most important appliance in the house. Internet access has even been adopted by the United Nations as a basic human right because of its importance in the support and defense of the right of self-expression and freedom of speech.

Prof. Van Lente ended his lecture with a critical look at the process of creation of needs and the affordability of future needs. If we always strive to possess more things, based on the models around us, we will continuously be producing new needs.

Van Lente argued that this process should be turned around and be seen as part of a production process, not a given. At the moment, innovation is carried out by firms. This has beneficial aspects since it caters to needs. But perhaps it should be rethought from a more sustainable perspective.

By Ana Mihail

Ana Mihail is a student in International Business Economics at Maastricht University.