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The Arrival of the Asian World Cities

With astonishing growth rates and massive investment, Asian cities are becoming new leaders in the global urban system.

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Marina Bay Singapore

If this is both the Asian Century and the new Urban Age, it is certainly the decade in which Asian cities have come to prominence with their astonishing rates of growth, massive investment, radical overhauls infrastructure, stunning architecture, and sparkling logistical platforms. But this is only the beginning of the story.

 

4 out of 10 and 3 out of 6. There is no doubt that a handful of pre-eminent cities in the continent have become new leaders in the global urban system.  In 2012, three Asian cities made the top ten of the EIU/Citi global competitiveness study. Singapore ranked a highly impressive 3rd, Hong Kong matched Paris to finish 4th, and Tokyo placed ahead of Zurich to rate 6th.  In the same month, Seoul reached a new high of 8th in the Global Cities Index. These four are now established top dozen cities in the world, and have ambitions to match.

From ‘big four’ to ‘big six’ The ‘big four’ world cities that have been identified since the early 1990s – London, New York, Paris and Tokyo – continue to retain their rarefied status in comprehensive world city indexes. However for the first time their position is being challenged by Singapore and Hong Kong, who have recorded exceptional results in a range of studies, especially those whose audience are executives, knowledge workers and tourists.

 

Hong Kong and Singapore have surpassed Paris and Tokyo as financial centres with global reach, and are now more central to circuits of exchange between the largest multi-national producer services firms. The pair have placed a clear 3rd and 4th in the Global Financial Centres Index in all 11 editions since 2007. Singapore reached a highly impressive 3rd in the EIU’s benchmark on global city competitiveness in 2012, outflanking Paris and Tokyo for financial maturity and institutional effectiveness. And despite reports of its stagnation and even decline, Tokyo’s physical assets and regional position in finance continue to render it one of the most competitive hubs in the world, while the same can also be said of Seoul. This quartet now face a new phase of development challenges.

 

Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore are established world leaders: the trio rate equal 1st in the 2012 EIU study on physical capital, and among the top 10 in the 2011 Global Power City Index for accessibility, which also takes into account external connectivity. Transport and core assets in large Japanese and South Korean cities now roughly equal those of their North American and Western European counterparts, and telecommunications linkages even surpass most in the West.

Just behind are the larger Asian hubs of Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Shenzhen, whose large capital investments over the past two decades have enabled them to catch up with South-Eastern European cities such as Budapest and Athens.

 

Not all large Asian cities are making global strides. The rise of Eastern cities is not comprehensive, and the story is much more complex than a simple West-East shift allows for. Large Asian capitals such as Taipei, Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok and New Delhi have remained fairly static in business and finance terms with their overall brands not making headway on leading Western cities. For these cities, improved numbers of international travellers and increased embeddedness in the global economy has not translated into anything like a compelling all-round offering for international talent, and frequently they are not considered significant enough to include in several worldwide comparative indexes.

 

South Asian cities and others have much less auspicious physical platforms, as demonstrated in several benchmarks. While the leading East Asian cities can legitimately focus on ‘softer’ quality enhancements – such as business attraction incentives – the likes of Mumbai, Ho Chi Minh City and even Manila are preoccupied with much more urgent ‘hard’ development agendas, as well as considerable healthcare deficits. The latter are in many cases linked to institutional limitations that restrict cities’ fiscal autonomy and capacity to address problems across the whole metropolitan area. It is not least because of these deficiencies that executives in the 2012 World Cities Survey do not rate Mumbai and Delhi any higher than 18th and 20th in terms of the top global cities in ten years’ time, despite the huge business potential they offer.

 

As Asian cities become equal partners in circuits of global exchange, their diversity and cultural depth are being called into question by recent indexes. In a measure of ‘social and cultural character’ in EIU’s study, which assesses social rights, open-ness, tolerance and cultural variation, Tokyo and Seoul are the top Asian cities, but only in equal 28th place. Further down, only Nagoya, Busan, Hong Kong and Singapore feature from Asia among the top 50. This deficiency compares to 23 European hubs and 13 North American centres in the top half-century. Remarkably, promising cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, Taipei and Mumbai all score lower than every European city including Birmingham, while Tianjin, Shenzhen and Ahmedabad score extremely poorly.

 

Related to this is the challenge to expand entertainment and recreational opportunities for residents and visitors. The hosting of globally transmitted events and development of privileged cultural districts have successfully penetrated the consciousness of influential communities, especially in the case of Singapore and Shanghai. But the overall picture is of a much slower rise in brand status than might be expected. While some may argue these scores indicate a certain Western partiality, there is no doubt that factors of cosmopolitanism, spontaneity and fairness do inform the locational decision-making of global firms and mobile talent. As such, the negotiated management of more open and less scripted urban communities is an important task for many Asian city policymakers.

 

There are other agendas Asian world cities need to pursue besides cultural flair.  Their educational assets are excellent only in small pockets, and constrain their development as centres of knowledge and influence. For example Shanghai’s comparatively modest elite higher education provision means it loses out not just to other global centres but also to Beijing in terms of information exchange and political prestige, as the 2012 Global Cities Index testifies. In addition, the successful commercialisation of innovation-led R&D is in short supply in Asian world cities, despite real strengths in Tokyo and Seoul. And, last but certainly not least, all Asian cities have to be vigilant to uphold or improve their reputation for accountability and respect for the rule of law, especially given their newfound visibility on the world stage.

 

As we shall see over the next month on our MIPIM Cities Blog, many Asian cities see their own challenges very clearly and most have the right combination of strategy and investment required to tackle them in the medium term.

 

Image: Reggie Wan

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