arch-peace editorials

10 June 2007

World Class Happiness?

The 7th International Conference on Urban Planning and Environment (UPE 7) was held in January this year in Bangkok and for the first time in Asia. The conference theme, based on the title “World Class Cities?”, was given a quick dialectical response in the first keynote speech from Lyonpo Jigme Yosser Thinley, Bhutan’s Minister of Home and Cultural Affairs, articulating the concept of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH). This set a framework for the rest of the conference where many papers and discussions questioned the notion of “World Class City” as it is seen to ignore and contradict the issue of ‘sustainability’.

“World Class” is an aggressive global concept, perpetuated by the Medias, that sets images and benchmarks that stimulate Third World aspirations. It is a homogenizing force that, in practice, treats the city as a palimpsest in the process of imposing imported gentrifying forms. In contrast GNH, although imposed by Bhutan’s ruling elite (parallel with plans for democratization), is an indigenous concept based on the old and deep-rooted cultural traditions and beliefs, and is proposed as an alternative to Gross National Product (GNP) as measures of society’s ‘wealth’ and ‘well-being’. This concept is arguably more consistent with the softer, more humane globalization of ‘sustainability’ that is responsive to local cultural, socio-economic contexts.

The case posited here is that for any real chance of ‘peace’, of which sustainability forms a critical foundation, it is argued ‘developing’ societies and ‘minor’ cultures must have roles in the process of glocal ‘development’. The hegemonic capitalist model, while exploiting social ties and the environment, also projects images that perpetuate the cultural ‘identity theft’ begun with 19th century European colonization. This process leaves the developing societies culturally insecure and chasing ‘mirages’ of unattainable material riches (or attained only by the few).

That is why concepts such as GNH, laughable it may be from the point of view of consumerism, needs to be given space to develop and grow – in a time, pressed on by global ecological problems, when alternatives are clearly needed. Evidence of environmental impacts of GNP based development, particularly of climate change, has prompted many in materially wealthy societies to realize that their way of life is unsustainable. In an election year in Australia, it remains to be seen, amongst the electorate, how wide-spread and deep this realization is. Will Australian voters reaffirm the phenomenon of ‘hip-pocket’ democracy, a common characteristic of capitalist, liberal democracies? Or will they take a step towards becoming a ‘sustainable’ democracy where social and ecological ties are truly valued as part of a re-conceptualized societal ‘wealth’?

Although it is difficult to clearly discern society’s priorities in the complexities of issues and events around elections, the significance of the images and messages of environmental concern should not be underestimated. It points to a possible – and critical – alliance, however superficial that may seem, between voters in rich societies and the myriad grass-root movements in poor countries resisting exploitation from the rush to ‘modernize’. In an increasingly networked world, this can potentially evolve into empowering narratives that dialectically tie local concerns with the global, which could assist local people everywhere in maintaining/re-establishing their socio-cultural ties and ties to the environment in the search for and negotiation towards alternative, more sustainable developmental paths.

Dr Sidh Sintusingha
Architects for Peace, June 2007


Anonymous said...

Thanks very much Sidh for this fascinating editorial. I am particularly interested because the determination by Bhutan to measure social well-being through GNH came one year before its opening up to the outside world in 1999 with the introduction of a 24 hour cable television service offering no less than 46 channels for a population of 700,000 inhabitants!! This situation provided a well-defined natural experiment in how technological change can affect attitudes and behaviour generally.

In an article published in the The Guardian Weekend, June 14, 2003, titled ‘Fast forward into trouble’ (,3605,975769,00.html) the journalists Scott-Clark & Levy looked at Bhutan four years on and concluded that “Cable TV has created, with acute speed, a nation of hungry consumers from a kingdom that once acted collectively and spiritually.” Scott-Clark & Levy cite the results of the unofficial impact study where “One third of girls now want to look more American (whiter skin, blond hair). A similar proportion have new approaches to relationships (boyfriends not husbands, sex not marriage). More than 35% of parents prefer to watch TV than talk to their children. Almost 50% of the children watch for up to 12 hours a day.” Would you be able to update us on the situation in Bhutan since this article appeared?

Other studies back up the experience of Bhutan in showing how television reduces our social life while at the same time widening our experience, which tends to desensitise us and create discontent with what we have. My concern as an architect is with these broader implications, as they impact upon the art of dwelling as an existential concern, which I believe architecture articulates, and which might explain why so much architecture is uninspiring and unsustainable.
According to Richard Layard (Happiness: Lessons from a New Science; 2005:78), science and technology that come with modernization are the prime sources of the changes that affect our attitudes and feelings. While they are used to explain growth in national wealth (as GDP – which you argue is a flawed indicator) and improvement in health overall (which is also arguable), they also explain some of the negative trends such as breakdown of family relationships, the strength and safety of communities and the prevalence of unselfish values, that offset the positives. Layard (2005:81) notes how over the course of the past 50 years in particular, there has been “a profound change in attitudes to the self and society.” He cites surveys that reveal fundamental changes for the worse with decreased trust, greater individualism, and less membership of organised fellowship groups as the main indicators.

I am a member of Architects for Peace because I see it as a fellowship group providing a critical role in resisting this trend and in rebuilding fundamental values through which to prosecute my personal and professional activities. I also acknowledge that building sustainable community happens at many levels, and as a professional of the built environment (and especially when I flatter myself as one of its designers), I feel an enormous duty to society to prove my worth.

Following your argument, I see this as sensitising myself at the local level by speaking up on issues that affect local community well-being, without ignoring my responsibility to the wider common good. In other words, I must be prepared to not only engage in critical debate over such pressing issues as globalisation and sustainable development, but more importantly I must live out my beliefs self-critically and with care, if I want to be any good at what I do for a living. I think about this often but admit to being inconsistent in applying myself to the task.

As an architect concerned to promote ecological sustainability while a member of one of the more unsustainably affluent societies on Earth, I consider it my first concern to reduce consumption and to promote restraint as a virtue as part of my private and professional life. My own strategy is to re-evaluate and redefine “quality”, as the idea of quality covers many issues of sustainability and happiness. I find this approach provides a strong incentive towards altruism. Both sustainability and happiness are known to depend on such an attitude. Citing Layard again (2005, 117), he argues that ‘a happy society has to be built on two foundations: first, the greatest level of sympathy for others, and, second, the strongest moral principles of impartiality.’ (I would add that this also applies to a sustainable society).

From what I have read of Bhutan as a case study (and please correct me if I’m wrong), it shows not only how easily we become prey to lesser aspirations, but more tellingly, reflects back on us Westerners these aspirations embedded within our own culture which we live by (all too often unwittingly). This only proves how critical it is to be both critical and engaged at the same time through such opportunities as provided by Architects for Peace.


Happiness said...

Can anyone define the word Happiness? What is Happiness we do not know because every single person has its own meaning of happiness. Finding the ways to be happy in life is only a way that can make everyone happy in this world.

Post a Comment