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  • Writer's pictureIHS Alumni

Gross Urban Happiness: An interactive workshop on what urban managers can learn from Bhutan

You’ve heard of the Gross National Happiness concept, right? Bhutan implemented an alternative measure for development. Bhutan’s Fourth King realized that instead of measuring Gross Domestic Product (economic activity) as the yardstick of progress, development should be oriented towards how much happiness and wellbeing is brought to society, its citizens and the ecosystem. He called this Gross National Happiness, GNH, or development with values. Before you ask what urban professionals can learn from Bhutan’s idea of Gross National Happiness - a country not particularly famous for its cutting-edge urban development -  you might want to ask yourself first: what is your mission as a Urban Developer? What are you here to do?

Naturally there is plenty to do! There is research to be done on climate change, housing issues and resilience. There are solutions to be sought on how to ensure fresh air and safe drinking water, a roof above everyone, ample access to amenities. Then there are global concerns to end poverty and pollution, create prosperity and protect the planet! Urban planners dream to bring those big ideas to the ground: how to make cities that work? 

We have some tools to help us along this way such as the Sustainable Development Goals, or the (often diverging) agenda’s of governments and big corporations. Several of these solutions are implemented and some work, but in the end we live in a world where we are creating goals that are often difficult to identify with. Nobody wakes up in the morning thinking, "Today I want to contribute to climate change, pollution and socioeconomic inequality”. Much of why we are not walking as much of our own talk as we would like to, might have something to do with how we go about development and defining our core goals.

Over the workshop

On 30 June 2017, we held a pilot exploratory workshop with urban professionals, students and alumni of IHS to understand how to implement development that creates a happier and healthier society. What lessons can urban planners derive from Bhutan? We looked at Bhutan’s big idea that development should be holistic, and that rather than pursuing unlimited economic growth - the leading factor underlying most developed or developing economies, development should maintain a harmonious relationship to the ecosystem and society. That means focus on the vibrancy of culture and resilience of community, socioeconomic development that is equitable and fair, and of course good governance whose only purpose is to deliver happiness and well being to society at large. It means free schools and healthcare and using your time in balanced way. 

The result is living in a country with clear streams, teaming wildlife and pristine forests that absorb more CO2 than the country emits. GNH is about creating the conditions for happiness so that people AND nature can flourish. To take happiness seriously. To start making visible what matters. To be aware of the foolhardiness of aiming for infinite economic growth.

The response of the workshop participants made us happy to realize that we have touched on a raw nerve of the next generation of urban planners. There is scope for change and for redefining our goals. Urban development tasks look different when seen through the glasses of GNH. However, this challenges us to think from a different consciousness and mindset, one that starts with the ecosystem rather than with the economic system.


About the authors:

Bas Bruggeman spent one year with the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Centre in Bhutan, leading retreats and workshops on how to make happiness a practice that brings more connection and sustainability into our lives. Inspired by the exciting idea (and Bhutan’s reality) of what happens when we put well-being at the centre of society’s aim, he is passionate about bringing a new story of development into the world. Bas’s current work continues to be centred around retreats, workshops and talks on GNH Bhutan, deep ecology and meditation. He trained in philosophy and anthropology and practiced meditation under Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh for over a decade.

Mansi Jasuja is an independent consultant working in the field of resilient urban development, climate change impacts and adaption. I am working closely with the Royal Dutch Waternetwork (KNW) and also hold the position of President, IHS Alumni International Board (Erasmus University, Rotterdam). Originating from India and living in the Netherlands since the year 2000 has given me the privilege to be a part of multiple worlds. I use the opportunities of having this cultural duality for co-creating creative solutions, networking and facilitating processes. What gives me a lot of energy are interactions that involve catalysing change and inspiring soul-searching that incites moves towards a sustainable world.


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