As cities struggle to emerge from a tumultuous year, the 2021 Global Cities Report by Kearney offers key insights on how COVID-19 and the resulting pandemic containment measures have impacted the level of global engagement of 156 cities around the world. Comprised of the Global Cities Index (GCI) and the Global Cities Outlook (GCO), the report reveals that the leading global cities have been resilient and adaptable despite initially being hit hardest by COVID-19 because of their high connectivity and density. Just as they led the global pandemic response, these cities are now poised to lead the global recovery—unsteady and uncertain as it may be.
Global Cities Index results
Although many of the world’s most globally connected cities in the West and in Asia fell in their overall rankings as a result of the impact of the pandemic, New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo held onto the top four spots on the Index, demonstrating resilience across the many metrics in which they lead. Los Angeles broke into the top five this year for the first time, after strong performance in human capital. Beijing fell one position to sixth place, as pandemic containment measures impacted the city’s cultural experience scores and muted economic performance limited its business activity. Hong Kong slid to seventh place following another year of political instability, while Chicago and Singapore held strong at eighth and ninth place, and Shanghai rose two places to break into the top 10 for the first time.
Overall, 21 cities rose six or more positions in the GCI ranking compared with last year, six of which are in the Middle East. Doha saw the most dramatic jump, rising 15 places following the restoration of diplomatic relations with its neighbors and supported by considerable gains across human capital, information exchange, and cultural experience scores. Addis Ababa moved up eight places, propelled by Ethiopia’s development investments that have supported rapid economic growth. Istanbul climbed seven spots to 30th, with the city’s efforts to become a global travel hub proving their worth. Melbourne also rose six places, in contrast to Sydney, which fell four spots, demonstrating the impact of city-level policies and decision-making during a time of heightened national control and regulation.
Global Cities Outlook results
In terms of outlook, the 2021 GCO has highlighted the strong knock-on effects that healthcare quality has on the future viability of a global city, with European cities faring better than those in North America. Despite an overall drop in scores because of the pandemic, the cities holding the top 10 spots were largely unchanged. London has maintained the top spot in the GCO for the third consecutive year, while Paris, Munich, and Abu Dhabi each climbed three spots, landing at second, third, and fourth with Dublin rounding out the top five.
“This year’s results make it clear that the most globally connected cities were also the most vulnerable to COVID impacts,” said Kearney Partner Antoine Nasr, head of the firm’s government practice in the Middle East. “The decline in global movement and connectivity was observed across all facets of the Index, from economic activity to social interactions—and cities with a relatively heavier weight toward the physically global dimensions of the Index, such as international visitors, global trade volumes, and public events, were those that suffered most. Less-connected global cities, predominately in developing and emerging regions, showed fewer impacts of the pandemic and in many cases rose in the rankings. However, we believe these improvements do not yet reflect the full reality, given the delayed impact of the pandemic in many cities.”
Five strategic imperatives for city leaders
The report foresees growing divergence between cities as an uneven recovery from the pandemic picks up and posits that the global recovery will be led by global cities. Outlining the strategic imperatives for city leaders in that recovery, the report highlights five ways cities around the world can address the challenges they share:
- Win in the competition for global talent. With human capital as the driving force behind economic activity, cities that adapt to the new priorities of prospective residents, with a renewed emphasis on urban livability and economic opportunity, will be those that emerge on top.
- Embrace the rapidly growing digital economy. Although digital trends threaten to contribute to an emptying of cities and a relocation of business headquarters, cities that harness the benefits of the global digital economy to create a differentiated competitive advantage will accelerate economic growth.
- Ensure economic resilience by balancing global and local resources. With the fragility of the global trade system exposed during the early months of the pandemic, cities that recalibrate and balance relationships at global, regional, and local levels will be the most resilient to future disruptions.
- Adapt in the face of climate change. As climate change accelerates and in the absence of unified global leadership on the topic, cities must lead the way—driving sustainability around the world.
- Invest in individual and community well-being. In recovering from the collective scars of the pandemic, cities that focus their investments on advancing the well-being of their populations will be those that create an environment in which innovation can thrive.
“The task at hand for global cities is daunting, and city leaders are under unprecedented pressure to deliver for their residents,” said Kearney Partner Rudolph Lohmeyer. “Despite the obstacles ahead, we see incredible opportunity for global cities. Not only can they lead in recovering from the pandemic, but they can also serve as testing grounds for policy and innovation that can address some of the world’s greatest challenges—from economic inequality to climate change to the global crisis with respect to individual well-being,” he said. “We look forward to watching these cities as they continue to create new approaches and solutions to our shared challenges and move forward in the uncertain context in which we all find ourselves.”
The 2021 Global Cities Report can be accessed here.