The world looked very different in 1943, when the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” model was first published. The world was just in the early stages of realising the potential of computing power, which codebreakers would use to help bring an end to the world war.

Fast forward to 2019, and we stand on the brink of another seismic shift: the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Amid a picture of further disruption and change, how can this model of human motivation help us understand the needs people have in today’s digital economy?

This question sits at the heart of our recent report, the Digital Society Index 2019: Why human needs must power Asia-Pacific innovation. While providing a strategic view on how well countries in Asia-Pacific are creating a digital economy that works for all in society, it also provides a very personal way of understanding how technology is meeting fundamental human needs.

Maslow for a digital age

Drawing on a global survey of over 43,000 people across 24 countries, our analysis explores what an individual requires to achieve their potential in today’s tech-driven landscape. Taking inspiration from Maslow’s needs model, the framework comprises four dimensions:

Our digital needs framework

1. Basic needs

First, there’s the basics. People need access to digital infrastructure, in terms of quality mobile and internet networks, as well as trust in data privacy and security. 54% of people in Asia-Pacific believe this need is being met, above the global average of 49%. With many markets in the region leapfrogging developed economies in terms of tech infrastructure (just look at the spread of mobile payments in China, for example), people are clearly feeling the benefit.

2. Psychological needs

From smartphones to wearables, digital technologies have huge power to connect us to new communities, access health services and monitor our vital statistics. But there’s a flipside. The potential negative impact on our mental health is increasingly well documented. Striking a healthy balance in personal use of digital technologies is a critical need today. However, just 28% of people in Asia-Pacific believe this need is being met – significantly lower than the global average of 38%.

3. Self-fulfilment needs

Meeting the need for fulfilling employment in a disrupted future relies on having the right skills, experiences and workplace opportunities. More than half (51%) of people in Asia-Pacific believe this need is being met, versus 45% globally. But there are big gaps across the region. In China, 68% of people believe that their formal education has given them the tech skills they need. In Japan, only 18% agree.

4. Societal needs

As the world becomes more interdependent and interconnected, how optimistic people are that the digital economy will be a positive force for society is increasingly important. Do people believe technology will create jobs for them, solve global challenges and, overall, have a positive impact on society? For people in Asia-Pacific the answer is yes: 59% believe this need is being met, versus 49% globally.

These results sound a note of caution to business leaders and policymakers in the region. People in Asia-Pacific are generally more positive that their needs in digital are being met. But the impact on psychological needs (health, well-being and quality of life) is a notable exception. Technological progress appears to be exacting a personal price.

What this tells us about consumer behaviour

Taking action to meet people’s digital needs isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also the smart thing to do. Our analysis shows a strong correlation between meeting self-fulfilment and societal needs, and the likelihood of engaging with digital products and services. Put another way, the more digitally savvy you are – or the higher your levels of optimism in the future – the more likely you are to shop online, stream music, use an app to hail a taxi or access banking services, for example.

However, higher levels of digital literacy, set against a backdrop of low levels of trust in how personal data is used, are having some unintended consequences. In the year before our survey, four out of ten people globally said they had taken steps to reduce the amount of data they shared online, more than a quarter had installed ad-blocking software and over one fifth had actively limited the amount of time they were spending online. But these are also the people who are most likely to engage with digital products and services. The best customers are now the hardest to reach.

Digital needs and Leadership 4.0

The Fourth Industrial Revolution requires strong leaders. But what does that look like today? Transforming industry and business models, creating the right international frameworks and policies, and ultimately enabling societies to adapt to the digital world is no small feat. But it is possible.

To achieve it, as Klaus Schwab has noted, leaders must leave their egos at the door. Their strength should be founded in empathy and cooperation – “a different, more human kind of leadership”.

Our digital needs framework is a way of providing a human-centric lens to leaders that can focus their strategies and increase their understanding of today’s consumers. It also reminds them: technology’s future potential rests not on leaders’ shoulders, but on the other seven billion sets of shoulders around the world. By putting human needs at the heart of what they do, leaders can safeguard innovation for generations to come.