GaWC Research Bulletin 64

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This Research Bulletin has been published in Stadt und Region: Dynamik von Lebenswelten, Tagungsbericht und wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen, 53. Deutscher Geographentag Leipzig, 29. September bis 5. Oktober 2001. Edited by A Mayr, M Meurer and J Vogt. Leipzig: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Geographie, 2002, 97-105.

Please refer to the published version when quoting the paper.


Marketing World Cities in a Global Space of Flows: Collaboration or Competition?

M.A. Doel and P.J. Hubbard


This paper brings two literatures into dialogue. The first is the world cities literature which explores the strategic importance of key cities in the global economy. The second focuses on the efficacy of city marketing in boosting urban competitiveness. Here, it is suggested that both are fixated on an atomistic conception of urban processes that sees cities prospering on the basis of their indigenous characteristics and/or their position in a functional urban hierarchy. Drawing on post-structural ideas, this place-based perspective is rejected in favour of a relational, networked perspective that reconceptualises urban success as resulting from a city's ability to attend to an ever-changing 'global space of flows.' The paper therefore concludes that successful city marketing relies on pursuing a spatialised 'politics of flow' rather than a place-based 'politics of competition.'


Despite many attempts to clarify the nature of world cities and refine their analysis, serious doubts remain about their ontological, epistemological and methodological status. In this light, it is not surprising that Markusen (1999) recently singled out 'world city' as an exemplary 'fuzzy concept' in economic geography. She argues that while fuzzy concepts connote, unfuzzy concepts denote.1 On that score, 'world city' is a fuzzy concept because it has not one meaning, but at least four: a leadership role at the international scale (whether through emulation or domination); an external orientation towards the global economy; a high ranking in the world's urban hierarchy; and a major gateway for immigration (see Beaverstock et al. 1999). The multiple connotations of 'world city' thus create the kind of ill-definition that eludes an empirical grasp: obviously, if sense is unstable, then reference is hampered. Hence, Markusen demands a definition of 'world city' that would enable one to identify real-world referents with precision, suggesting a simple test to ward off fuzziness: "How do we know it when we see it?" (Markusen 1999, 870). The difficulty with this argument is threefold. First, since denotation depends upon the play of connotation, undecidability is ever-present. Second, polysemy is not at all incompatible with rigorous conceptualization - quite the contrary. World cityness may be framed dialectically as the outcome of systemic contradictions - such as the need for centralised monitoring of dispersed economic activity - or else as the co-relation of multiple economic and non-economic variables. Finally, the empirical cannot be reduced to what is supposedly fully present. Not only do most things have immaterial components (from ideas to software), but everything ultimately exists in a network of relations. If reality were reducible to what is merely present, relations and structures would simply cease to exist!

And yet for all that, Markusen is right to suggest that the notion of 'world cities' does indeed require clarification: not by eliminating its polysemy in the hope of isolating a kernel of truth, but by taking its seemingly oxymoronic status literally - that is to say, materially, not just metaphorically. The 'world' of 'world city' refers neither to an orientation (a city turned towards the world) nor to a status (a key city in the world): it refers to an actuality - the city does indeed exist as a world. In other words, our understanding of the city needs to be radically re-scaled, with notions that a world city is a 'bounded place' plugged into a global space of flows rejected in favour of a perspective that sees world cityness as an achievement of performances and encounters that are distributed across the globe with varying degrees of clustering and dispersion.


The notion of world cities is by no means new, having first been coined by Patrick Geddes in 1915 to refer to those places where a disproportionate amount of the world's business is conducted. Despite the apparently self-evident nature of this definition, the meaning of the phrase 'world city' has become increasingly complex as different attributes have been considered as evidence of world cityness. Hence, to qualify as a 'world city,' a city is required to possess a disproportionate quantity of some essential attribute. This may be assessed against some abstract yardstick on a city-by-city basis (e.g. if the producer-service sector is the largest sector, then city X is a world city) or else determined vis-à-vis other cities (if the producer-service sector of city X is greater than that of N other cities, then city X is a world city). Either way, the disproportionate quantity serves as a critical threshold beyond which a city can be said to qualify as a world city. In this sense, a world city is defined as a 'big' city by global standards: large, powerful, important...

Extending this logic, many writers have used the method of comparing quantities to establish a global urban hierarchy, within which one can find levels of world cityness (e.g. Singapore may be more of a world city than Hong Kong, but less of a world city than Tokyo). Common attributes for determining world-city status include presence of TNC head-quarters, numbers of service-sector employees, proportion of foreign residents and equity-market capitalization. Yet there is little agreement on which attributes are most suitable for measurement purposes. Friedmann (1986), for example, suggests seven indicators of world cityness: financial assets, transport infrastructure, population size, the growth of the business-services sector, manufacturing output, headquarters of TNCs and the presence of international institutions. Other researchers have added: the presence of advanced telecommunications and Internet domain names (Townsend 2001); public-private partnerships (Kresl 1995); and measures of cultural vitality (Smith and Timberlake 1995).

However, and despite the complexity of many existing analyses, it is important to note that these quantitative and comparative approaches remain fundamentally atomistic: each city is a clearly-defined, bounded spatial entity with quantifiable attributes that are in its exclusive possession. (In this regard, a world-city balance sheet of assets and liabilities is much like a company balance sheet: both maintain exact boundaries in order to determine what is included.) So, London is not New York, and London bankers are not New York bankers. Exclusivity holds: only on that basis may one calculate the 'disproportionate' thresholds of world cityness. Above all, then, it is this atomistic conception of world cities that we oppose in this paper. Nevertheless, as we move towards a full-blown worlding of cities, we will also need to take issue with structural conceptions of world cityness.

Structural perspectives on world cities begin not from a quantitative analysis of the proportions of various world-city attributes held within cities, but from a qualitative analysis of the world economy as a global structure. For structuralists, the system is not reducible to either its parts or even the sum of its parts. The system exceeds its manifest content. So, the system of world cities exists over and above the cities that ostensibly constitute it. Such reasoning often has a functionalist and teleological slant: the effect solicits its own cause; the result engenders its own computation. For example, if the system 'needs' to be reflexively monitored, then certain places will come to fulfil these needs. The shift from atomism to structural functionalism is decisive. It is the first step in the worlding of cities.

However, one does not need to be a structuralist to recognize that world cities have taken on a new strategic importance in the contemporary world as a result of globalization, a suite of processes involving distanciation (the stretching of all kinds of social, political and economic relations) and time-space compression (the apparent annihilation of space by time) (Bauman 1998; Harvey 1989a). Such processes have apparently bequeathed a truly global political economy, characterised by a new geometry of flows that is overcoding the patchwork of local, national and regional space economies. Influential here is Castells (1996), who argues that global networks are becoming the new organising principles (or social morphology) of 'informational capitalism.' Insofar as the logic of networks is spreading into all spheres of human activity, Castells contends that it is radically modifying "relationships of production/consumption; relationships of experience; and relationships of power." (Castells 2000, 9). As he describes it, contemporary network society is a space of flows - an entangled knot of linkages, connections and relations - which reconfigures space and time in its own image.

Castells thus offers a highly original interpretation of world-city processes, showing that the strategic place of cities in the global space of flows is structured by a network logic. Yet in many ways, Castells' definition of world cities is quite traditional, following, for example, Friedmann's (1986) identification of London, New York and Tokyo at the top of a global urban hierarchy. However, according to Taylor (1997), the principal contribution of Castells to the world-cities literature is to shift the root metaphor from hierarchy to network, so that it becomes necessary to conceive of a world-city network that is not reducible to the cities that constitute it. Castells' writing on the command and control functions enacted by this inter-urban structure thus provides a more comprehensive theoretical context for world-city research, making world cities one important layer within an essentially heterogeneous global space of flows.

Hence, while many accounts of the strategic importance of world cities remain based on an analysis of the characteristics of individual cities, a new literature on world cities is focusing on their connectivity within an inter-urban network (Sassen 1991). However, we remain sceptical about this structuralist framework because it devotes insufficient attention to how the structure is established and maintained. It is taken as a given, rather than as an achievement. Structure can be prescribed in advance - as is the case in Castells' work - or else it can be an on-going and emergent property that remains in perpetual suspense: just like the Law is for Josef K. in Kafka's (1992) The Trial.

With the latter, we are very close to post-structuralism: structure is set in motion; a variable consistency rather than an immutable constant (Doel 1999). Eschewing distinctions of 'inside' and 'outside' (e.g. the idea that places are contained within a global system that shapes their destiny), this is an account in which everything is in play. With post-structuralism, "a particular form of urban theory which sees the city as the stamp of great and unified forces which it is the task of the theorist to delineate and delimit is left behind. Instead, the city is seen as a partially-connected multiplicity which can only ever be known partially and from multiple places." (Thrift 1997, 143). Emphasising partial, hesitant and polycentric networking - the idea of world cities as ongoing performances - avoids both the pitfalls of atomistic urban studies, which tend to be either additive or comparative, and the fait accompli that is the hallmark of structuralist urban studies. In a related paper (Beaverstock et al. 2002) we accordingly argue that although world cities are strategic mediators of the global space of flows, their position is not self-evidently assured. Their key role within the world economy must be performed and sustained by a variety of attendants. At least four of these appear pivotal - firms, sectors, states and cities (each of which is attended to in turn by a host of human and non-human actors). In the remainder of this paper we focus solely on the latter, exploring the way that city networks may attend to the global space of flows so as to influence the position of a particular city within this (contingent) network. As we will see, a world city is always a work in progress, its status subject to the clause: 'until further notice.'


Amin (2000) notes the dominant mode of thinking about the global economy is as a patchwork of place-based economies struggling for competitive advantage over and against one another. This spatial atomism leads many to conceive of urban economic success as resulting from the spatial agglomeration of know-how and capacity in the city.2 This is exemplified in the work of Kresl (1995), who is adamant that external aspects must be excluded from any analysis of the determinants of a city's competitiveness. Likewise, he insists that "a city's international competitiveness is quite different from the concept of an international city." (Kresl 1995, 54). While Kresl argues the latter concerns connectivity (at the inter-national scale), the former concerns only the city in question. In his view, a city can be extremely competitive without being connected into a network of other cities, just as a city can be fully plugged into a network without being at all competitive. This is why Kresl (1995) can claim that "a city may dramatically increase its competitiveness, even its international competitiveness, without being or increasing the degree to which it is an international city." (Kresl 1995, 52).

For Kresl, city competitiveness and success unquestionably derive from the internal characteristics of a city. Similarly, Deas and Giordano (2001, 1413) argue the source of urban competitiveness is the "initial stock of assets present in a geographical unit:' its outcome 'the result of firms to exploit these assets." This form of spatial atomism exemplifies the oxymoronic notion of 'hierarchies without networks' which is implicit in the vast majority of work on city competitiveness, even when the context is explicitly global. Likewise, in the influential work of Krugman, which dismisses the notion of competition and holds to the idea of strategic economic complementarity, urban success derives from agglomeration economies at the local scale (Boddy 1999). Hence, the idea that building up economic infrastructure is essential for economic success is endemic among those groups which act and speak for the city - the 'urban regimes' that unite private and public sectors in a pro-growth politics. Deas and Giordano (2001, 1413) argue these are the actors "who are able to create, exploit, supplement and replenish city asset bases and transform liabilities into assets."

Although some growth coalitions are more pro-active than others in this regard, most are allocating increasingly large budgets for promoting the city as a favourable environment for business. There are often remarkable similarities in the key elements of such promotional policies, leading many to talk of a generic 'entrepreneurial' approach to place promotion (Hall and Hubbard 1998). Indeed, almost every 'wannabe' world city now has its requisite series of promotional pamphlets, posters and other cultural products communicating selective images of the city as an attractive and vibrant international city in which to live and work. What is also evident is that this marketing of place seldom restricts itself to extolling the existing virtues of a city, but seeks to re-invent it as a knowledge-rich and culturally-diverse technopole by manipulating its indigenous assets.

This has been particularly evident in the construction of developments (variously described as 'flagships,' 'urban megaprojects' or 'prestige projects') which have tried to emulate the perceived success of the rejuvenation of Baltimore's inner harbour in the 1960s (Olds 1995). The names of these monumental spaces and buildings have quickly become synecdoches for the cities in which they are located: London's Canary Wharf, Paris' La Defense, New York's Battery Park, Atlanta's Peachtree Center, Sydney's Darling Harbour and so on. Baudrillard (1990) argues these are the defining buildings of the late twentieth century - the 'monsters' of the city.

By definition, most of these projects are inherently excessive, spectacular and wasteful. Inevitably, many have been shown to be financially unviable in their own terms, but have been propped up by public money on the (unproven) understanding that they are a crucial lure for global investors (Loftman and Nevin 1996). The fallacy of such thinking becomes obvious in the light of our post-structural take on world cities: after all, a world city is not secured by the development of Prestige Projects, nor defined by its agglomeration of particular businesses, nor brought into being by the demands of systemic and functional imperative. Viewed from a post-structuralist perspective, a world city is less a site whose strategic importance in the global economy is determined by its connectivity, than a configuration of heterogeneous materials and practices that attend to the intersection, bifurcation and cultivation of innumerable flows: especially practices that allow the incommensurable to be rendered commensurable (everything from data processing to risk assessment and multi-jurisdictional law). Simply put, a world city should be thought of as a constellation of practices (which may or may not have consistency and efficacy) rather than as a portion of the Earth per se.

Acknowledging that world cities are first and foremost networks of translation and calculation rather than 'islands of economic competitiveness' (Amin 2000, 18) undermines the spatial logic of embedment that underpins dominant versions of entrepreneurial place promotion. When one stops thinking of cities as fixed places with tightly-circumscribed administrative boundaries and starts thinking of spaces of flow, the notion of city competition changes. Here, the urban economy is no longer reducible to its locally-embedded resources, but concerns the flows that it works on. To talk of these flows benefiting one city to the detriment of all others is clearly nonsensical. From a post-structuralist perspective, these various 'centres of calculation' do not primarily compete with each other since there needs to be collaboration and a division of labour for the global space economy to 'work.' Sassen (1991) illustrates this with reference to the financial deregulation of the 1980s. This occurred at a time when the relations among the major centres - New York, London and Tokyo - were seen as one of straight competition (so that the 1986 Financial Deregulation Act, for example, was supposed to enhance the competitiveness of the City of London). Sassen suggests that deregulation favoured no one city over the others, but enabled all three to enhance their position in the world-city network. Likewise, New York's domination of investment banking and fund management may well have been considerably more important than growth within the UK space economy for strengthening London's position in the world city network.

The fact that there seem to be important linkages between cities in the global space of flows does not mean that the notion of competition disappears altogether. Indeed, it is relevant to talk of competition in the sense that the position of cities in the world-city network can change for better or worse. As cities like Frankfurt, Miami and Osaka become more significant as translators and mediators of flow, others like Detroit, Glasgow and Milan may become less strategically important. This, as we suggested above, is a conjoint but unintended outcome of the actions of four key attendants of the global space economy - firms, sectors, states and cities. Within geography, most attention has been devoted to the former, with the decision-making of TNCs often depicted as the key factor shaping global flows through the world-city network (Dicken 1992). But this should not overshadow the work performed by state organisations (whether national or international), sectoral organisations (trade unions, institutes, societies) and indeed cities themselves in attending to the world-city network.

What we are suggesting here - that the city can attend to its own position in a global space of flows - may seem confusing. This may be clarified if we distinguish between, on the one hand, the world city as a centre of translation and calculation in a world-wide network of heterogeneous flows, and, on the other hand, the world city itself as a heterogeneous assemblage of practices, materials and actants drawn from within and without the city limits. Taking world cities literally, we must arrive at the conclusion that there is a potentially world-wide network that attends to the relative importance of a city in a global space of flows. This 'city' network comprises a multiplicity of groups and individuals who feel they have a stake in the economic prosperity of a specific city. In a seminal analysis of how networks of actors carry out governing decisions for the city, Stone (1989) suggested that these 'urban regimes' characteristically include property interests, utility groups, trade unions, universities and 'local' businesses. Consequently, when one refers to London's city network, one would routinely include local institutions and agencies such as the City Corporation, the London Assembly, the London Boroughs, the Cross River Partnership, the London Pride Partnership and so on (Newman and Thornley 1997). But in addition, one must follow Cox and Mair (1989) and include actants who are not necessarily 'based' within that city: network translators may act at a distance. Thus, one must remember that world-city networks may involve the epistemic communities, businesses and knowledge-rich individuals that are often described as being disembedded from the cities in which they work. Far from being hypermobile, these supposedly 'fast subjects' necessarily exist in city networks that materially embody circulation and provide the basis for the creation of new business practices (Thrift 2000).

So, the suggestion that world cities are irreducibly networked phenomena does not mean that Prestige Projects and place promotion cannot play a role in enhancing the position of a city in the world-city network. To the contrary, we suggest that city networks can manipulate the global space of flows to the benefit of particular cities via such projects. Yet to do so it is crucial that these city networks replace their place-based way of thinking with a focus on connectivity, performance and flow. Understandings of both the local and the global need to change, and city networks need to extend through time and space as they seek to perform world cityness. Hence, for a city to become plugged into the world-city network it needs to use such projects to establish connections and manipulate flows. As an analogy consider the construction of an international airport as a means to enhance a city's place in the world-city network. Building a fully-functioning airport is not enough. For it to work one must attend to and manipulate existing flows of air traffic by establishing flight routes, making connections with international carriers, liasing with air traffic controllers, securing international freight, passengers and transfers, etc. This means that the work involved in creating connectivity - and urban success - may be widely dispersed. On the other hand, it might not (cf. Thrift 2000).

Our argument, then, is not that work beyond the confines of the city needs to be prioritised over work within. Nor are we arguing for a "geographical imagination which can look both within and beyond the city and hold the two things in tension." (Massey 1999, 191). Rather, we emphasise a need for policy-makers and academics alike to revise understandings of inside and outside, local and global, near and far. Instead of a place-based politics of competition, we hold to a distributed politics of flow whose degree of concentration, dispersion and efficacy will be contingent and context dependent. Prestige Projects may play a role in this, but what seems to be badly lacking at the moment is any monitoring of the way such projects succeed in establishing flows and the work they do in enrolling people, ideas, products and capital into city networks.


We no longer live in a space of places, but in a global space of flows. Extending this logic, and elaborating an ontology of space that holds to the idea that world cities are networked phenomena, this paper has sought to clarify the consequences of this for urban competitiveness. This has made clear that the city is not a localised place of economic competitiveness (i.e. a hub in this space of flows), but is a constellation that lends consistency to these flows, working on their heterogeneity. Accordingly, cities can only enhance their competitiveness by recognising that world cityness is not determined by a city's location in a pre-existing structure, but needs to be performed and worked at. It is this work that creates the global space of flows, a complex and contingent achievement that requires constant attention. This becomes most evident in moments of urban crisis, when the role of a city in translating flows is brought into question. But the network is always becoming, and there will always be winners and losers (i.e. cities that are becoming more or less important). However, our conclusion is that the principal losers will be those who imagine themselves to be in competition with the winners and focus on manipulating 'indigenous' assets rather than attending to the global space of flows. In the final analysis, then, collaboration, not competition, is the key to urban success.


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1.This definition departs from the more common treatment of 'fuzzy concepts' as chaotic, rather than merely polysemic. The phrase 'unfuzzy concepts' is our own.

2. Spatial atomism is invariably framed in terms of a zero-sum game: the success of one player is always at another's expense (Harvey, 1989b).


Edited and posted on the web on 29th October 2001

Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Stadt und Region: Dynamik von Lebenswelten, Tagungsbericht und wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen, 53. Deutscher Geographentag Leipzig, 29. September bis 5. Oktober 2001. Edited by A Mayr, M Meurer and J Vogt. Leipzig: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Geographie, 2002, 97-105