New York. London. Paris. Munich. Nope, we’re not talkin’ about pop music. We’re discussing something much more intriguing. What is the most-important city in the world?
Ever since Adam Smith wrote Wealth of Nations, we’ve understood that sovereign states are where it’s at, both economically and politically. Or have we? The 21st Century has seen the world’s most economically-active cities overtake countries so fast that nations are eating their dust. New York alone has an economy bigger than Canada. Osaka ranks higher than Switzerland. Paris could comfortably buy out South Africa and still have some spare change. After falling out of fashion, will city states once again be our future?
Maybe. We don’t really know (we’d be too busy rolling in our Kentucky Derby winnings to write this if we could see the future). But we think it’s important enough that we’re gonna guide you through the 10 most important cities on planet Earth right now. Some are economic giants. Others are centers of political influence that can change the direction of world events. And some are rising players that will soon be striding across the global stage. Want to be where it’s truly at in the 21st Century? Move to one of these babies, now.
10. Moscow (Russia)
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At the end of the Cold War, capitalism had triumphed. America had won, and Russia had lost. As the 20th Century reached its conclusion, the world witnessed a Moscow that was losing influence and becoming a power of the past. It looked like the era of Russian dominance was finally over.
Ho, boy. Were we ever wrong. Fast forward to 2017, and Moscow is not only one of the biggest nations economically, it’s a political titan.
That last part is key. While metropolitan Moscow currently has an economy bigger than the entire United Arab Emirates (which, let’s not forget, includes Dubai), it’s Moscow’s returned geopolitical clout that really earns it a place on this list. As the base of Russia’s politicians and home of the Kremlin, Moscow has benefited directly from Vladimir Putin’s regional power grabs. Love him or loathe him, the barechested autocrat has certainly made his country important. Russia currently dominates the war in Syria, is running amok right along the EU’s borders, and may have directly influenced the 2016 US election. It’s not nice. It’s not pretty. But it’s certainly influential.
9. Lagos (Nigeria)
The metropolitan population of Lagos is the largest on the entire African continent. Around 21 million souls call this dense, crowded, creaking megacity home. It’s a place of slums and dizzying high rises. Of innovation and mind-numbing congestion. Of great gallery spaces and hideous street crime. It’s also the future. Already the economic powerhouse of Africa’s great cities, Lagos is projected to maintain its pole position far into the next half-century.
In other words, Lagos is where all the companies and industries looking to do business in Africa will be headquartering over the next few decades, joining an exodus that is already putting the sprawling megalopolis on the map. Add to that massive investment from the next global superpower (China), and you have a recipe for a city of vital importance.
So, given all that, what’s Lagos doing all the way up here at number 9? Well, there are a couple of reasons. One is that Nigeria’s economy is actually faltering at the moment, lessening the city’s global impact. The other is that, even if it picks up again, Lagos’s political importance still lags far behind most other cities on this list. Nigeria may be a big regional player, but it is relatively small on the world stage. And with the nation’s political power concentrated in Abuja anyway, Lagos’s significance is hugely muted.
8. Riyadh (Saudi Arabia)
Saudi Arabia is the most important country in the Middle East. In former times, that would have been met with a shrug from Europhiles and Americans. But recent events have shown us that the Middle East isn’t just another backwater. It’s a region with the power to destabilize the entire world, to affect political change as far away as the USA or Australia. At the crux of all this sits the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Home to nearly 7 million people, Riyadh is the center of power in the most-powerful country in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia has influenced actions in Syria, Iran, and Yemen; all countries with the power to spark a gigantic war if they go south. It counts the USA, UK, Germany, and Japan among its stalwart allies, all important countries in their own right. No other country in the region has this much influence, not even Israel. On top of that, the Saudi Kingdom contains two of Islam’s holiest sites, making it a focal point for the world’s 2nd largest religion.
Add to that incredible oil money and you can see why Riyadh makes an appearance on our list. The trajectory of Saudi Arabia may be upward or downward in the future. But, for now, its corridors of power in Riyadh are at the heart of events that are shaping the entire globe.
7. Singapore (Singapore)
China and Japan may be the big beasts of east Asia, but they’re both highly industrialized nations with vast populations (especially in China’s case). Yet tiny Singapore is still able to compete with both of them. With a population of only 5.5 million and little heavy industry to speak of, this city-state has managed to become a vital hub of Asian trade. With a roaring financial sector and a high quality of life, mighty Singapore is the city nearly all other Asian cities want to be.
What’s remarkable about all this is how differently it could have turned out. When Malaysia was formed in 1963, Singapore was merely one of 14 states making up the new country. When it was forcibly expelled in 1965, it didn’t seem to be in a position to survive. One of only three city states in existence (the others being Vatican City and tiny San Marino), it would surely be crushed. How times change. Today, Singapore’s GDP per capita is five times higher than Malaysia’s. It’s more stable than Kuala Lumpur, more important. In its corner of Asia, Singapore is truly where it’s at.
That’s not to say everything is rosy. Singapore’s government is more authoritarian than it is democratic, and visitors often find it an expensive, soulless place. Still, when it comes to ranking important cities, there’s no way we could possibly leave it out.
6. Los Angeles (USA)
It’s not the center of political power in America. It’s not the city with the biggest economy (that’d be NYC, which you’re gonna hear more about shortly). It’s not even the capital of California, for goodness sakes. Yet greater Los Angeles has something no other city on Earth has. Something that most countries would kill for, let alone cities. Yep, you guessed it. That something is Hollywood.
Hollywood’s economy alone is a pretty impressive beast: it generates over $500 billion for the US every single year. But there are other cities and industries that generate more, including the apps and startup companies developed in Silicon Valley and other parts of California. So what’s the big deal with Hollywood? Well, that’s all thanks to something known as ‘soft power’.
Soft power is the use of stuff like movies, art, and culture to generate a favorable impression of someplace or some government. It sounds nebulous, but it really works. People across the entire world known a heck-ton about America, thanks purely to Hollywood. They respect American actors, they aspire to American lifestyles, they buy American brands, all thanks to the movies. Politically, and in terms of trade, this makes LA invaluable to America. And not just America. Right now, China is investing heavily in Hollywood, purely to buy some of that soft power it couldn’t hope to create on its own. Do you reckon Beijing would be dumb enough to invest in something unimportant? Nope, us neither.
5. Berlin (Germany)
It’s no stretch to say that Berlin is home to the most-powerful woman on the planet. Angela Merkel is not only head of the Eurozone’s largest economy (and the 4th largest in the world), she’s also the de-facto head of the entire European project, and – in the eyes of some – the current “leader of the free world.” Her Germany is the only EU country capable of standing up to Putin’s Russia. It’s one of the major powers all the other major powers consult. And all this power is concentrated slap bang in the capital Berlin.
Forget Brussels. Berlin is the unofficial EU capital. Decisions Merkel’s government takes influences the fate of the world’s largest trading bloc far more than even those taken in the official home of the EU parliament. If the EU were a single entity, it’d be the world’s 3rd largest country, by both population and economy. As by far the most-influential city in such a powerful not-quite nation, Berlin deserves to be noticed.
On top of that, Berlin has a cultural clout that few other cities can match. For over a decade, it has been the unofficial global capital of art, taking up a mantle London, Paris, New York, and Vienna have all passed on. Soft power, political power, and economic drive? It’s tempting to say Berlin is the most important city in the whole of Europe.
4. Tokyo (Japan)
South Korea is one of the most vital economies in the world. It’s the fourth biggest in Asia, and just misses out on the top ten globally. Its reach is enormous, its capital a true global hub. OK, got all that? Now, with all this in mind, let’s look at Tokyo. The Japanese capital alone has such a stupendously vast economy that it equals the whole of South Korea.
This, to put it in simple terms, is insane. Countries as important and as powerful as Australia, Canada, Spain, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia have economies smaller than Tokyo. Even other major cities can’t touch it. Metropolitan Tokyo has the biggest economy of any city on Earth. Not even New York can match it. And somewhere like London? Forget it. Tokyo leaves all its rivals spitting dust in its wake, coughing and fuming at the sheer power of the Japanese capital.
Nor is Tokyo’s place on this list solely due to economic clout. It’s also the 2ndbiggest metro area in world history, surpassed only by China’s Pearl River Delta conglomeration. But while China’s megalopolis is subservient to Beijing, Tokyo answers to no one.
3. Beijing (China)
Beijing, right now, is where world history is being written. Though it only just breaks the top 10 cities in terms of size of its economy, falling behind even China’s own Shanghai, its political importance is almost unparalleled. As the capital of China, Beijing will be the driver of the world’s next great superpower. While America remains top dog, China is on the rise, and shaping itself as the next leader of the world. Even if it never surpasses the States, it will still dominate every single other country out there.
This means Beijing will soon hold the same sort of sway over the world as Washington does now, or as London or Paris once did in the near-past. This is where the politics of the 21st Century will be forged, where decision will be taken that affect the lives of 7 billion other souls. It’s the concentrated power of Rome or Constantinople at their height, the sort of power China hasn’t seen for over two centuries. And it will be focused here, in the corridors of Beijing.
Some would say China has already attained this coveted superpower status. While that’s up for debate, there’s no denying that Beijing is at the heart of modern geopolitical life. Whether it soon starts to muscle all the other competitors out remains to be seen.
2. New York City (USA)
If New York were a nation, its GDP would comfortably put it within the top 20 countries on Earth. Of all cities in the world, only Tokyo has more economic muscle than sprawling, venerable NYC. But while Tokyo may hold the economic and political cards, NYC has something else up its sleeve. The cultural capital and name recognition to make it one of the most influential cities on Earth.
Perhaps the key here is its long history. After overtaking London following WWI, NYC transformed itself into the capitalist’s capital. Think of skyscrapers, and you’ll likely think of those iconic images of New York’s towers, shooting up into the sky. Think of global landmarks and the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building will probably come near the top of your list. And it’s here the American dream was born, too. Ellis Island is a name that still sends shivers down the spine. The great melting pot of mass-migration that made America what it is today had its white hot center here, in the beating heart of the nation.
Then there’s the sheer cultural clout on display. Go show anyone, anywhere in the world, a picture of NYC’s downtown area, and they’ll be able to identify it. Now try repeating that trick with any other city on our list and watch the blank stares that greet you. NYC is a city at the center of the modern world, in a way no other city on Earth can claim to be. With maybe one exception…
1. London (UK)
Yep, we did it. We selected London as the most-important city in the entire world, and we promise it’s not just because we’ve got an opinionated British dude presenting our videos.
In April 2017, the influential World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked the planet’s cities according to “magnetism”, which they defined as the “perceived power to attract creative people and businesses from across the globe, and to “mobilize their assets” to boost economic, social and environmental development.” NYC, Tokyo, Singapore, and Berlin all made the top 10, but there was one clear winner. London beat the competition so bad it hurt.
Britain’s capital has it all: cultural power, a world-striding financial center, oodles of history, tourist draws by the bucket load, tech innovation, cutting edge research centers, the government of one of the UN’s five permanent security council members, and an economy that dwarfs that of most countries. It’s here that music was born that shaped our world, where literature was written that still defines how we think, and decisions taken that shaped the fate of the largest empire the world has ever known. Need we go on?
We know not everyone will agree with our assessment, and maybe we’re being too optimistic. The shock of Brexit may see London’s financial and cultural elite decamp, leaving the city poorer and less significant. But for now, London stands tall among the world’s cities as our vote for the most important by far. Londoners, give yourselves a pat on the back. Everyone else, head down to the comments to loudly tell us just how wrong we were.