In almost every ranking of important cities in the world, London, Paris, New York and Tokyo almost always appear in the top five, and always in the top 10. They are global centers of business and finance, art and design, media and publishing, fashion and trends. A similar ranking of cities 50 or 100 years ago would have revealed similar results. This leads to some interesting questions: What is it about the Big Four that makes their dominance so durable? What is the outlook for the future? What can Seoul learn from these cities?
A closer look at the rankings reveals the extent of the Big Four’s dominance. Based at Loughborough University in the U.K., the Globalization and World Cities Research Network ranking of economic networks in 2012 lists London and New York as Alpha++ cities and Paris and Tokyo as two of the eight Alpha+ cities. The American journal Foreign Policy developed the Global Cities Index, with New York, London, Paris and Tokyo ranking at the top in 2014. The Institute for Urban Strategies at The Mori Memorial Foundation in Tokyo has developed the Global Power City Index, which had London, New York, Paris and Tokyo in the top positions in 2013. Finally, Richard Florida, who is best known for his theories on the benefits of the “creative class,” developed a composite ranking of cities in 2012 that placed New York, London, Tokyo and Paris at the top.
In all rankings, London and New York sit at No. 1 or No. 2. Paris and Tokyo come in next, but face competition from Hong Kong and Singapore in rankings that focus on business and finance. Seoul, meanwhile, ranks No. 6 in the Global Power City Index, but falls somewhere between No. 10 and No. 15 in the other rankings.
The dominance of the Big Four has deep historical roots. All sit in states with a history of imperialist expansion. London and Paris, for example, continue to exert a strong influence over former colonies, and the U.S. exerts influence through a global network of military alliances. The current global economic system developed in these cities, particularly London and New York, and all have headquarters of major business, financial and international institutions that exert influence worldwide.
Another obvious reason for their dominance is large populations. The Industrial Revolution turned London into the most populous city in the world by 1825. New York took the No. 1 spot in 1925 and Tokyo in 1965. Tokyo remains the most populous urban area with a population of 38 million.
The rise of China and more recently Brazil and India as economic powers has challenged the economic dominance of the U.S., Europe and Japan, but the Big Four have remained dominant because they sit in highly developed democracies. This suggests tentatively that a combination of history, population, democracy and social and economic development helps the Big Four maintain their dominance.
The division of the Big Four into London-New York at the top and Paris-Tokyo at the bottom is really a division about openness to the outside. London-New York became democratic and open to outsiders earlier than Paris-Tokyo and this history makes them unique. Even today, Tokyo has problems with openness, as any foreign student who has tried to rent an apartment knows all too well.
A look at the rest of the top 20 reveals possible candidates that might vie for dominance with the Big Four. The four leading Chinese-speaking cities ― Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore ― all appear frequently, but their potential is limited by a lack of political freedom. Other cities located in North America, such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto, have potential, but fall under the shadow of New York. Likewise, other European cities are too small to compete with London and Paris.
This leaves Seoul as the only city in a highly developed democracy with potential to join the Big Four or at least expand it to the Big Five. To do so, Seoul will need to convince the Korean government to push for more openness and to be consistent after becoming open. Several ideas come to mind. The won must become a hard currency like the yen or the pound. Foreign direct investment must be increased (Korea ranked 30th in world in 2013). Education must include more content related to cross-cultural understanding. Implementing these and other “openness measures” should be easy if politicians and bureaucrats can find the political will to do so.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser is an associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University. ― Ed.