In August 2018, shortly after the publication of the latest edition of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Global Liveability Index,” Melbourne Mayor Sally Capp addressed the press. Her city’s loss of its seven-year crown as “most liveable” to Vienna by a wafer-thin 0.7-point margin (98.4 to 99.1 out of 100 possible index points), was to be seen, she said, as a unique opportunity to pause and reflect on its future competitiveness.
But why would this deserve a press statement, or even a policy change? It’s because city rankings are not merely anecdotal matters. Rather, they represent very tangible evidence of a key data-driven trend in city leadership in the 2000s. The mayor’s statement is but one of countless responses by local governments to changing performance of their cities according to internationally benchmarked measurements.
City rankings embody the growing global demand for urban metrics, city performance measurement and internationally oriented comparisons. Benchmarks not only make newspaper headlines; they also inform and influence the practice of urban governance and drive it toward international thinking. Work undertaken by the Business of Cities highlights the fact that that, since 2007, more than 500 different urban benchmarks have been published worldwide. The world of comparative city measurement is very diverse and is in a period of rapid expansion in terms of both the number of indexes and the breadth of themes they cover.
These measurements are impacting the ways cities conceive of their place in the world in an increasingly urbanized age. Whether as academics, city practitioners or informed citizens, we can no longer afford to either brush off these rankings as the stuff of headlines or to uncritically absorb their main punchline without closer scientific literacy as to what goes on beyond the scenes of city benchmarking.
SHAPING THE GLOBAL BENCHMARK
Benchmarks are increasingly a driver of how urban centers see each other in a “world of cities,” as University College London geography professor Jenny Robinson puts it, and of how they make “comparative gestures” towards one another. Benchmarking has taken an increasingly global viewpoint. The number of city appearances in benchmarks have continued to grow exponentially. The cumulative total of all city mentions has increased nearly threefold between 2014 and 2018, with most of the increase concentrated in the European Union, Eastern Europe, Central Asia and North America.
At the same time, more cities are being measured, as new types of comparative benchmarking come to the fore. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of Asian, Latin American and Sub-Saharan African cities appearing in more than one global benchmark nearly doubled, from 90 to over 170
This global urban imagination is also changing in its focus, as the object of benchmarking shifts towards “softer” factors. From 2014 to 2018, the proportion of benchmarks solely measuring brand, influence or destination appeal has more than doubled to now account for over 20 percent of the total. At the same time, the share of purely economy-focused benchmarks (measuring growth, industry performance and investments) has declined, from around one third of all benchmarks in 2014 to around one-sixth in 2018.
The proportion of public benchmarks measuring transport and digital infrastructure also has recently declined. It is key to understand these trends, and the resulting benchmarking practices, as pieces of comparative evidence that are increasingly assembled by cities in order to justify or advocate for specific policy actions.
Benchmarks focusing exclusively on dedicated themes that were previously only measured as part of larger and more comprehensive studies have now emerged as independent indexes. This is a sign of specialization and niche-creation in what is an increasingly wide and complex constellation of comparative evaluations. Benchmarks that specifically assess governance and smartness, or culture and diversity, now account for nearly 10 percent of all benchmarks, whereas in 2014, very few such comparative studies had been published.
What this indicates is not only a changing and expanding complexity in the benchmarks themselves, but also a growing business of benchmarking whose underlying political economy needs to be far better understood by scholars and policymakers.
THE BUSINESS OF BENCHMARKING
The business of benchmarking is a growing international reality, even if it is not always a profitable, or profit-driven, endeavor. Almost a quarter of all rankings are now produced by professional services firms, often by consultancies such as PwC, KPMG or Arcadis. The media, so often prone to capture “winners and losers” stories, also produces benchmarks for its audiences. Yet this extends far beyond the likes of the Economist Intelligence Unit: today, around 15 percent of rankings are authored by global media and travel groups (e.g., Monocle and TimeOut). Foreign Policy and AT Kearney produce their own ranking of global cities as well.
A smaller but significant number of benchmarks are also developed by real estate and advisory firms (e.g., Jones Lang LaSalle, Savills), financial institutions (e.g., UBS, Mastercard, Deutsche Bank), industry bodies (e.g., the International Congress and Convention Association), multilateral organisations (e.g., the European Commission) and software and telecoms companies (e.g., Huawei or Ericsson). The United Nations’ own urban agency, UN-Habitat, has also been active on this front promoting the uptake of a City Prosperity (ond now competitiveness) Index since 2012. In contract, the users and objects of city benchmarks seem far less active as producers: only 1 percent of public city benchmarks are developed by city and regional advocacy groups or city governments themselves.
If often critical of ranking, academia is not absent from this landscape. Around 20 percent of benchmarks are still produced by research, think-tank and academic organizations. The University of Navarra’s IESE Business School has since 2014 become a well-recognized source of detail as to cities’ comprehensive performance across a range of themes ranging from governance and economic health to social cohesion and environmental sustainability.
Meanwhile, M.I.T.’s Senseable City Lab has produced an open source comparative assessment of how green cities are in practice by developing a Green View Index (GVI) calculated using Google Street View panoramas and surprisingly crowning Singapore as the world's greenest city. Equally, researchers from academia, although prone to adopt consultancy-style approaches or enter into jointly sponsored projects, are regular participants in framing indexes and benchmarking mechanisms published by private entities.
This is for instance the case when urban scholars contribute behind the scenes to the development of the Arup-Rockefeller “Resilience Index,” PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ “Cities of Opportunity” study, NESTA’s “CITIE Index,” Foreign Policy’s “Global Cities Index,” the Mori Foundation’s “City Power Index” or the Future Cities Catapult’s “Urban Mobility Innovation Index,” to name but a few. Whether as drivers of benchmarks or as participants in consultation that surrounds their production, scholars do seem to have at least some tangible and potentially influential windows of opportunity through which to encourage comparative conversation informed by narratives from places other than those at the “top” of rankings.
This is no academic whim: the popularity of rankings among some local governments and media opens up new opportunities to advocate for greater data literacy in cities and to rebalance some of the inherent biases and naive positivism promulgated by the often-superficial popularity of “smart city” thinking.
FOR BETTER INFORMED GLOBAL CITIES
Data-driven urbanism is one of the most pervasive present-day drivers of city leadership. Yet all too often the credo ‘if you can measure it you can manage it’ is taken up in urban bureaucracies with little critical appreciation as to the source and underpinning logics of urban data. City rankings are a clear illustration of this risk. Yet they also offer a productive and widespread evidence base that scholars can use to promote a better informed, more scientifically literate and progressive form of city leadership.
The main problem is that we continue to simply take in rankings based on their headlines, which more often than not focus on who ‘won’ a specific league table. By our account, over 85 percent of all international benchmarking exercises still involve an explicit attempt to rank cities in the traditional sense of the word, producing some kind of hierarchically organized list of “best” to “worst.” Therein lies much of the problem with city rankings in perpetuating uneven geographies and power imbalances.
There is potential for scholars and others to advocate not only for better evidence bases for city policymaking, but also for greater balancing of cases between North and South, and for more detailed data-based comparisons across large and small cities alike. Yet this challenge is also compounded by a widespread lack of data literacy in local governments and among the general public, both of whom rarely question or even understand the underlying methods and metrics, and whose attitude towards benchmarking often risks straying into one of naïve positivism.
From this viewpoint, civically engaged academics can occupy a key place in the overall landscape of benchmarking, and in our view could possibly do better at promoting a more scientifically rigorous approach to indexing cities and urban issues. This can also spur the type of city-university collaboration that is increasingly seen as critical for the international response to global challenges.
Advocating to go beyond arbitrary lists and hierarchical rankings, in favor of transparent, replicable and accountable benchmarking practices is a key duty that scholars should embrace in an age of metrics-driven city leadership. In so doing, academia can foster greater scientific literacy in cities and local governments and help to shift comparative thinking beyond seductive headlines about which cities have captured the top spot in the latest race to global primacy.