What Makes a Successful Global City?

World leaders, urban planners, and other industry thinkers weigh in on what it takes for a city to attract top-tier talent and take on global problems.

June 2, 2015

According to the World Health Organization, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and that number is growing. In two years, the organization expects the urban population to be a majority, even in developing countries.

Many experts believe this population shift is encouraging a phenomenon known as the “global city.” Last week, leaders, architects, and urban planners from around the world gathered in Chicago to discuss the rise of such cities and what impact they’re having on their regions, each other, and the globe. The first annual Chicago Forum on Global Cities, hosted by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Financial Times, didn’t seek to compile a list of what draws people to these urban areas, but panelists in a number of sessions offered their views on the topic. We came back with three megatrends based on the discussions.

1. The global city of tomorrow must implement technology today.

There were numerous examples of how cities are using technology to make life easier. Former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Sweden Carl Bilt said that most people want three basic app capabilities to augment their living experience: “People want to have traffic-flow maps, they want to be able to meter and follow gas and water usage, and they want to be able to grade public services.” However, he noted there will be different needs for each city. When Swedes emerge from their dark winter, all they want is to sit in the sun. That’s why one app listing the exact times when each outdoor restaurant patio in a city is exposed to sunlight won the top prize in a recent app-development contest sponsored by the government.

New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter explained how her company developed a wireless mesh communication system that connects devices without the use of phone or Wi-Fi. It was useful for people without regular Internet access in Tunisia, but this relatively low-tech solution was also helpful when Hurricane Sandy hit traditional communications on the east coast of the United States.

“This software stayed up, in a mode of resilience,” Slaughter said. “It was robust and it fit a particular community’s needs.”

Slaughter applauded New York City’s decision to transform unused phone booths into Wi-Fi hotspots, but noted that some cities are running afoul of private Internet service providers who generally provide the infrastructure around high-speed access.

“[Wi-Fi] should be as publicly available as roads,” she said. “But there’s a real tension between cities doing what they should be doing and the tech companies.”

Still, there is a place for the private sector, and one key area is in the development of beacon technology and the Internet of Things.

“Buildings have to be prepared for connecting these devices,” said Pedro Pires de Miranda, who heads up the Global Center of Competence Cities at Siemens, a company that has been helping municipalities implement technology systems all over the world. “In the end, this is inevitable. You cannot stop it.”

2. Cities need to ensure they maintain a livable and comfortable environment.

Technology will only do so much to attract the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs. “To have a truly creative global city, you need to attract diverse talent,” Bilt said. “Cities with open data will have an enormous competitive advantage, but you have to have the green space, too.”

Bilt says the pollution in Beijing is a perfect example of a city prioritizing growth over the environment. “If you go to Beijing today, its unbearable,” Bilt said. “I can’t get people to work at the embassy in Beijing because they consider it dangerous to live there.”

William Reilly, senior advisor of Texas-based private equity company TPG Capital and former leader at both the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Wildlife Fund, remembers helping to push for a more environmentally friendly housing development in Kunming, China. The allocations the building made for green space and public transportation were well received, but he wondered if it would make a difference anywhere else in the country. “Will it have a cachet that will cause Chinese people to want to live this way?” he asked. “If it doesn’t, there will be consequences for climate, carbon dioxide, and congestion.”

One mini-trend within this megatrend of livability is rethinking the use of the word “sustainable.” Experts in several fields reached for a broader term for defining the environmental longevity of an area. “The term ‘sustainable city’ is becoming cliché,” said Edwin Heathcote, architecture critic for the Financial Times. “It’s being replaced by resilience.”

3. Strong, forward-thinking leadership is not a luxury.

How does a city create or maintain a globally significant profile? Much of it depends on having the right people at the wheel.

“It comes down to the right leadership,” said Ory Okolloh, director of investments at Omidyar Network Africa. “I wish there was an app for the ideal mayor!”

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright opened the closing program of the three-day forum noting that, in this time of government stagnation, cities are a beacon of hope for many: “There is very little faith in institutions at the moment, except for those that are local.”

The closing program examined the role of cities on the global political scene. Benjamin Barber, senior research scholar at the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at The Graduate Center at CUNY, argued cities might do a better job tackling global issues such as climate change than whole countries or larger organizations such as the United Nations.

“We need, finally, to give cities a chance to actually solve problems. The fact is mayors everywhere are far more pragmatic than the partisan, ideological national leaders,” Barber said. “They are problem solvers. They have to be.”

Albright said while cities can play an important role in solving international problems, she worries that global issues could easily eclipse those at home.

“What’s been happening, for instance, in Baltimore in the last few weeks... has to do with the fact that city governance did not deal with domestic issues. And what would happen if all of the sudden the mayor of Baltimore spent more time in Paris at the climate change talks?” Albright asked. “They should be at the table; I think the question is what is the mechanism.”

Meg White

Meg White is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.