What can a city do to change its position in indexes and rankings?

Authors: Tim Moonen and Jonathan Couturier, The Business of Cities

The growing number of high-profile city indexes presents both challenges and strategic opportunities for city leaders and decision-makers.

City indexes and rankings publicly highlight areas of strength and weakness in city perception and performance. They provide essential information for citizens and investors on a city’s progress and potential, and also play a role in shaping and consolidating international reputations. City leaders, therefore, have clear incentives to boost their city’s position across the full spectrum of urban rankings. But, how can they do this? Through what means can they influence perceptions of their city, and assessment of its performance?

According to the most recenMoscow skylinet set of city indices, Istanbul and Moscow are two cities with the necessary characteristics to continue their rise on the world stage. However it must be noted that, with Russia’s recent economic challenges set to trickle down into indices, Moscow’s ranking will undoubtedly be affected and its chances of improving its position in the future will depend on how the geopolitical situation in the region unfolds. Putting the current political issues in Russia aside, Istanbul and Moscow are two cities in a position to accelerate their growth on the world stage with support from indexes. These two emerging megacities are, in scale terms, the 3rd and 4th world cities of ‘Greater Europe’ after London and Paris. With a combined GDP of over $900bn, they are among the 30 most integrated cities within the global economy. They are also gateways to large regional markets, but do not yet possess the same range of assets as their Western peers. This is reflected in many of the city indices.

Economic strength of Moscow, Istanbul and regional peers 2009-14. (Source: Brookings Global Metro Monitor)

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Istanbul and Moscow are already strong performers on several city indexes. Istanbul can be viewed as one of the fastest improving emerging cities globally, climbing significantly up a number of major indices since 2012 (see graph below). The city is one of the five fastest growing income and job creation hubs in the world, is a highly competitive air gateway, and has very strong regional business connections.  It has a strong destination brand, and is now the world’s seventh most visited city. As a result, Istanbul has been ranked as one of the twenty-five most powerful cities in the world, scoring particularly well for cultural interaction.

Istanbul’s changes in rank in key indexes, 2012 to 2015

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Meanwhile, Moscow is among the top 25 investment destinations in the world and attracts over 150 greenfield projects a year – a similar number to Paris. Its public transport system is highly rated because of its extensive and growing coverage, while its destination power is considerable, generating over 5 million overseas arrivals a year.  Moscow also has a strong higher education profile and is among the top quarter of commercially innovative cities worldwide. However, recent geopolitical tensions surrounding the conflict in Ukraine, coupled with resulting sanctions and financial crisis, may hinder Moscow’s future ascendancy in global indices. With many rankings only compiled annually, or biennially, indices published in 2015 (and beyond) will begin to reveal the impact geopolitical events can have on a city’s reputation and performance.

Moscow’s performance across 5 city indexes and sub-indexes

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Both cities do score poorly on a number of benchmarks, and Moscow, notwithstanding geopolitical concerns, has real comparative challenges of productivity, traffic congestion and airport links, while Istanbul lacks public space and transport system coverage. Weak scores on these standardised measures affect the cities’ ability to break into the top 20 of all-round studies.

Nonetheless, poor index scores do not always appear fully justified, and methodological deficiencies disproportionately impact both cities’ performance. For instance, the use of national level data to measure health and crime outcomes in Moscow, or Istanbul’s education performance, overlooks the cities’ agglomerations of talent and higher quality public services. A reliance on ‘input’ indicators (e.g. number of hospital beds) rather than ‘output’ indicators (e.g. population health) also tends to set back these, and other, emerging megacities. What is more, datasets are often re-used across indexes, propagating misleading results.

A second factor behind poor scores is cultural and categorisation bias. Many indexes rely on Western and expat perceptions to appraise housing stock, city brand and trust, attractiveness and business risk. Data is often sourced from Western agencies, which can skew results.  Figures on conference numbers, for example, are mainly produced by the ICCA, but many of Moscow’s events are not registered with that body.

Sometimes a Western-centric approach also extends to criteria weightings, where ‘diversity’ and ‘international talent’ are assigned more importance than workforce qualifications. Emerging hubs such as Moscow and Istanbul are major net recipients of migrants from surrounding regions and states, across the skill spectrum, under a flexible visa regime and often in irregular circumstances. These forms of ‘diversity’ are not usually recognised by urban benchmarks. Conversely, the uptake of ‘smart’ city solutions, where both cities score poorly, is increasingly incorporated into city rankings but may not always reflect a city’s most relevant priorities.

IstanbulDespite these limitations, Istanbul and Moscow have opportunities to improve their index performances. First, both cities can focus on tackling immediate problems of congestion and car-dependency, developing high speed airport links, and accelerating the shift to polycentric development. Many of these improvements are already in train and should impact on decisive statistics such as average commute time, track coverage and public transport modal share.

Secondly, Istanbul and Moscow can alter the way they are perceived by examining in detail who and how indexes consult, proposing outreach strategies to these audiences, and communicating with others to raise awareness of material progress. Changing perceptions will also require broader development efforts: to diversify into new sector strengths and adjust effectively to risk and regulations in order to impress a wider range of international opinion-shapers.

Thirdly, they can change or challenge the rankings themselves by interacting with publishers. Both cities would benefit from a wider range of comparable peers and could collaborate with other cities to begin a process of revised data collection. They can help build indexes that focus on areas of strength, such as fiscal advantages, investment rates, market demand, national government support, services for local residents, and/or growth capacity. They can argue for the inclusion of more ‘value-added’ metrics which track cities’ achievements according to their stage of development. In short, they must help to curate indexes that accurately track perceptions and properly assess market dynamics.

Fourthly, both cities can supply more accurate information at the scale of their functional economy. By providing comprehensive city and metropolitan-level data that conforms to international standards, their strengths vis-à-vis national systems will be more apparent.


For more information about City Indices, please see The Business of Cities 2015.

About the Author

For 15 years, Tim has pursued a deep and applied interest in the mechanics of globalisation and its ongoing political and economic implications for cities. Growing up in London and later studying in Bristol, Cambridge and Madrid, his doctoral studies zeroed in on the ways recent scientific models and conceptual innovations can help us understand and track processes of urban change. Today, back in London at The Business of Cities, Tim helps shape a unique set of optics with which to understand cities and competitiveness in the current cycle of globalisation. Whether it’s through collaboration with thought leaders at Brookings Institution or OECD, or via strategic advisory work with city leadership in remarkable places like New York and Oslo, Tim says the quest to ascertain the ingredients for long-run city success is endlessly enthralling. Tim’s first co-authored book, entitled World Cities and Nation States, will be published with Wiley-Blackwell in autumn 2016.

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