Using Maslow's hierarchy of needs to uplift communities through thoughtful engagement

Lately, it feels like there’s been a lot of talk about construction fatigue in the infrastructure sector. I think this misses the mark on how our communities are feeling and the issues they’re facing.

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Communities aren’t suffering from construction fatigue, they’re suffering from fatigue full stop. People aren’t thinking about the potential impacts of a glut of new construction right now, they’re thinking about staying safe, putting food on the table, and having a roof over their heads. For a lot of people, basic needs may be all they have the mental capacity to worry about. ‘Nice to have’ things like community, and self-fulfilment are taking a back seat.

Construction, fatigue, and the hierarchy of needs

In the 1940s, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a new theory of human motivation. Known as the Hierarchy of Needs, he talked about the sets of ‘need categories’ that drive human behaviour:

  • Physiological needs: food, water, air, sleep, shelter, and clothing.
  • Safety needs: security, stability, predictability, protection, freedom from fear, structure, order, law and limits.
  • Social needs: giving and receiving affection, intimacy, friendship, tenderness, affiliation, love and belongingness.
  • Esteem needs: positive self-evaluation, dignity, achievement, mastery, competence, independence, reputation and prestige.
  • Self-actualisation needs: self-fulfilment, growth, unity, understanding, beauty, morality, transcendence, exploration and play.

The idea behind Maslow’s hierarchy is that the fundamental needs must be met before an individual is able to think about fulfilling needs further up the list.

This theory can be applied to community interest (or lack thereof) about infrastructure development at the moment. Months of prolonged anxiety and uncertainty about COVID-19 and lockdowns are preventing people from thinking, let alone worrying about the roadwork or train station development happening a suburb over.


How can the hierarchy help us to better engage communities?

In the context of COVID-19, infrastructure development just isn’t a relevant consideration for many Australians. When it comes to engaging the community, what we can (and should) be doing is examining what parts of current and planned projects align with where people are sitting on the hierarchy of needs.

According to Maslow, you can’t achieve things like self-fulfilment or dignity without addressing core requirements like food, sleep, and shelter. So if we want people to engage with us on our projects right now, we should be focusing on the aspects that meet their immediate material needs: safety, shelter, financial stability, interconnectedness etc.

A new train station isn’t just a train station. It creates new jobs. It helps people get to their existing jobs quickly and cheaply. It connects communities. It can become a hub for local commerce and community events.


"Seemingly mundane projects can have untold value in fulfilling people’s needs in this unique social context, even beyond the bare necessities – and this is where we’ll achieve real community engagement right now."


Mandi Davidson, RPS National Lead, Communications and Engagement stands outside and in front of yellow steps at the new Sunshine Train Station in Melbourne.

Looking forward from needs to wants

There is also an opportunity for engagement practitioners to help lift communities up as we plot our roadmap out of lockdowns – and this is what excites me most about leading engagement on major infrastructure projects in 2022, and beyond.

While food and shelter will always be foundational to quality of life, people are craving the social needs right now. A sense of community and interconnectedness is something many of us have been sorely missing – and community engagement can provide a pathway to that once lockdowns end.

For instance, infrastructure projects could consider integrating pop-up activations on hoardings or in under-used spaces during construction – bringing neighbours together and providing a living laboratory to test ideas for the design of permanent new open spaces.

Another example is the way we celebrate major project milestones. Over the course of the Level Crossing Removal Project, some removals have been celebrated with small-scale street festivals, which have in turn provided a much-needed opportunity for social interaction in those communities.

Even if we keep it simple and don’t throw any parties, bringing a community together to deliberate on a new project helps them feel like a united force, a connected community with a voice – playing into Maslow’s social and esteem needs.

By creating opportunities for communities to connect while being involved in shaping their neighbourhoods and cities, we can strengthen and empower people to pursue their higher-order needs. This will in turn improve quality of life outcomes and deliver social benefits well beyond those we usually measure.


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