Imagine a magnificent country, with extraordinary landscapes, a great religious tradition, heritage treasures, a harmonious way of life, very high energy production with no greenhouse gas emissions, a democratic parliamentary system with an all-powerful leader on key issues, growth at half-mast, foreigners performing the arduous work and high unemployment among the country’s young people, the best of whom are leaving for new horizons.
Sound familiar? No, we’re not talking about France, but about Bhutan.
A very special country, wedged in the Himalayas between India and China, with no access to the sea. A country as big as Switzerland, with less than a million inhabitants, relatively democratic, creator and defender of the concept of “Gross National Happiness” as an alternative development: it is the first country (with Panama and Suriname) to be able to claim a negative carbon footprint, thanks to hydroelectricity; a society still reluctant to globalize, but highly connected. This originality is paid for by the need to bring in thousands of Indian workers to do the jobs that the Bhutanese no longer want to do, and by the flight of young elites (now at the rate of 5,000 a month, i.e. nearly 8% of the total population every year), dreaming of beautiful cars and luxury goods.
Faced with such challenges, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has just launched a highly ambitious project, which he says will occupy him for the next 20 years of his reign (the Constitution obliges him to retire at 65): to build the world’s first “city of mindfulness”, in the vicinity of the town of Gelephu, on the border with Assam (India).
Before announcing the project a few days ago, the King commissioned the Danish architectural firm BIG, known for its visionary projects in Arabia, Jordan and Denmark, to draw up a bold urban planning scheme. The new city will cover an area of 1,000 km2, where 35 rivers flow, and will be protected and surrounded by forests and fields to promote biodiversity. The buildings will be constructed from wood, bamboo and local stone, in accordance with the principles of Bhutanese architecture. Neighborhoods will be linked by highly original bridges, some of which will house universities, hospitals, markets and spiritual centers for mindfulness research, one of which will also be located inside a hydroelectric dam, in a vertiginous setting, as are Bhutan’s most famous monasteries, perched high in the mountains and almost inaccessible. The terminal of a new international airport will also be a bridge.
All in all, the ambition is to transform every technical obligation into a work of art and an imitation of nature. The whole project is intended as a monument to “the possibility offered to mankind by the Gods of living in harmony with nature”; “tradition will be protected and put in a position to evolve”. The project will be financed mainly by external investment and hydroelectricity export revenues, at least as long as the country is not short of water. If successful, it will attract capital and talent, and boost sustainable growth and employment.
At a time when old, stale Europe is lacking in inspirational ideas, and the United States, still in its infancy, is going through a very serious democratic crisis, a number of countries in the South are embarking on highly ambitious projects, some fuelled by hatred of the West ; for others, by a frenzied desire to imitate it; for still others, by the desire to conserve nature (such as the preservation of the Amazon rainforest); and for others, finally, by the desire to reconnect with a deep-rooted identity (such as Al Ulla in Saudi Arabia and Gelephu in Bhutan).
This should remind Europe’s leaders that it’s not impossible to launch huge projects that are economically viable, socially and ecologically useful, capable of making people dream, attracting talent, magnifying nature and promoting altruistic values. Projects that last longer and have more impact and meaning than a sporting event or a change of government.
All it takes is the ambition, the vision, the tenacity and the means.
Image: © Anthony Nicolazzi