GaWC Annual Lecture 2006

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Power and World Cities

John Allen, Open University

Notes on the 2006 GaWC Lecture

  1. Power This is a very commonplace, familiar concept. Thus there are many takes on power mostly relating to people who ‘hold power' (Prime minister, President, Corporate CEO, etc). Power is located. It is about limiting the choices of others through constraint, manipulation, coercion, etc.. The phrase for experiencing a ‘brush with authority' is another example of commonplace thinking – we ‘give' authority to experts who have knowledge ‘resources at their fingertips' e.g in a visit to a professional like doctors or lawyers.

  2. What makes a world city powerful? It would appear to be about concentration of the right resources to have far-reaching influence and control. Such concentrations are found in NY, London and Tokyo. These are cities at ‘the commanding heights of the world economy'. This assumes a hierarchy or ranking which is asymmetrical power. Key point: if some have more power, others must have less.

  3. Alternative thinking on power This most commonplace idea of power is only one version which we can call “power over”. In contrast “power to” is a different power: the power to make things happen and not necessarily at another's expense. This is power without domination (to be dominant is not the same as dominating). This is a more fragile view of power.

  4. In summary (i) power over means power is located means capacity radiates out from the city which is exercised at the expense of other cities because power is a limited quantity and therefore power is a zero sum game (ii) power to means a means to an end means enabling to run the world and so power is not located at a centre but rather it is the ability to mobilise resources to do things efficiently so that there is not a limit on the quantity of power and therefore power can be a positive sum game (other cities can gain).

  5. World city literature Two key thinkers Sassen and Castells both employ “power over”. Sassen is concerned with the effective capacity for control in sites of production for power capacity (global city as a concentration of command functions). Castells differs from Sassen by concentrating capacity for control from city to flows between cities. In the network of flows there are ‘power switches' (hubs) where a new cosmopolitan elite can decide on flows of resources between cities. Therefore power is not located in NY, London and Tokyo but is transnational, moving around cities. Position in the network matters. For Sassen cities run networks, for Castells networks generate cities as sites of power. But both focus on competition between cities in a zero sum game.

  6. Alternative world city power argument It is true that some cities have more power to run the world economy than others but this is the “power to” facilitate the world economy. This is to mediate, to broker, to get things done, to hold the network together, to provide new links where none existed before – in other words this is power as the ‘glue of the world economy'.

  7. Mediating elites These are the people with the “power to” through persuasion, negotiation with the authority to do so as elites. They do not have power by bureaucratic rules (power over) but earn respect to give them the authority. Thus they are not ‘in authority' they are ‘an authority'. These are not tight interlocking elites (like the English ‘old boy network' where ‘who you know' matters), it is a network of provisional relationships, pragmatic links for the task that sometimes work, other times don't. This can produce a positive sum game based upon division of labour between cities. Here cities do different things well and therefore both can grow at the same time (e.g. Singapore and Hong Kong; London and Frankfurt).

  8. Too rosy a picture? “Power to” is not always at nobody else's expense. What of the cities outside the network (e.g. unconnected cities in Africa) where mediating elites make little or no connections? Even within the network there can be different power relations. For instance Berlin is ‘back in play' (after the Cold War) but cannot rival Frankfurt and Munich in what they do – but there is no sense that Berlin is suppressed by these other German cities: Frankfurt may be dominant but it does not dominate Berlin. On the other hand Singapore has long developed as the regional hub for south-east Asia, and more recently Kuala Lumpur has been trying to do the same thing. This looks like a zero sum game but the latter city has its own niche as an Islamic world city, different from Singapore.

  9. Conclusion Three key things to remember about the alternative version of power for cities: it is about running the world; it works through mediating elites, and it does not lead to a zero sum game.

Edited and posted on the web on 13th January 2006