Is London the most important city in the world? What about Singapore? Or dark horse Frankfurt? In the past year, all of these places (plus New York, Toronto and Vienna) have been named the top city on one important metric or another by a reasonably reputable organization, business consultancy or think-tank. The annual releases of such indexes are generally followed by a bit of headline puffery (“Chicago Is The 7th Most Globally Integrated City In The World,” Curbed reported last April. Or “Sorry, London: New York Is the World's Most Economically Powerful City,” as a little site called CityLab wrote this year.) Readers can and should be forgiven for clicking on these rankings but failing to scrutinize them much further than that.
And yet, dear reader, beware: As the Chicago Council on Global Affairs writes in a report released last week, many city rankings are not always what they seem. When done well, rankings can draw attention to certain aspects of city successes or failures, creating loose blueprints for others to follow. “Where the indexes are good are in making decision makers deal with their shaming power,” says Michele Wucker, vice president of studies at the Chicago Council. “The value of lists is in their headline value, in their ability to attract attention to something important.”