The Next Capital of the World?

Now that I have built up the pride of all you New Yorkers, here is the other side of the coin: no city gets to be capital forever. While I’d guess that the reign of New York has at least fifty years, perhaps much longer to run, the title will pass on sooner or later. Sometimes these things change more quickly than we expect. When the US first built the world’s tallest building in the 1890s, and then went on to set new records in the 1930s and 1970s, few expected that we would lose that title before the end of the twentieth century – and to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, of all places. (The Petronas Towers, built in the late 90s, are for the time being the tallest buildings in the world.)
What city might be the next capital of the world? This is a question worth considering, because the winner will be on the rise during our lifetimes. In fact, the race has already begun.
First, let’s look at some of the contenders that are not likely to get the job. Los Angeles is in many ways the prototypical early twenty-first century city. We used to talk about how New York had more Jews than any other city outside Israel, more Italians than any city outside Italy, more Irish than anywhere outside Dublin. Today, the same kinds of claims can be made about the Cambodians and Guatemalans of Los Angeles. Like the world of our impending future, Los Angeles is large, sprawling, media-obsessed, and largely Latin and Asian. But two things will prevent LA from becoming the next capital of the world. First, it divides its power over California with San Francisco. Second, and more important, there are other cities that will be even more thoroughly suffused with Latin and Asian influences, and that will therefore accumulate more people and ultimately more economic clout.
Twenty years ago, one might have thought that the next world capital would be Tokyo. In many ways, this city parallels New York – big, hustling, intense, vertical, all business. I believe that Tokyo will have a brilliant future. It is powerful within Asia, and will remain the capital of Japan, economically as well as politically. But Tokyo is relatively inward-focused, and it’s in a country with limited resources and limited growth. It’s one of the few cities where English has not been widely adopted for business purposes. Tokyo lacks large numbers of Italians or Irish or even Cambodians. Look at the past capitals of the world: they have always been very international. Even ancient Constantinople had meaningful enclaves of traders from Venice, Genoa, and more distant cities. By contrast, Tokyo is, above all else, a Japanese city rather than a city hell-bent on being at the center of the world constellation.
I think there are three real contenders for the next capital of the world: Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore. You can make a case for each of the three. All are business and economic hubs, and have been for many years. While Shanghai dropped out of the game during most of Mao’s years, it is back with a vengeance, building a whole new business city called Pudong across the river. All three have a huge ebb and flow of commerce and people. And two of the cities, Hong Kong and Singapore, are really city-states in the best Greek or Hanseatic tradition.
Most important, all three cities are in East Asia or Southeast Asia, the areas of the world that will see the most explosive growth in the years immediately ahead. We may see this same kind of progress in Latin America, South Asia, and some day even in Africa, but it is not going to happen as soon as it will in East and Southeast Asia. It is happening there now, today. Thus, a head start for these three cities.
The city I think is most likely to win is Hong Kong. Although Hong Kong is now part of China, the Chinese government has pledged to leave its capitalist system in place for at least fifty years. Hong Kong is today probably the most vital major city on earth. The feeling of electricity in the air is rivaled only by New York. With a powerful business infrastructure, leaders with global capabilities (Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa is investing $11 billion in European wireless), and immediate access to China, the world’s largest market, it is easy to visualize Hong Kong’s continuing rise.
What could prevent Hong Kong from attaining world-capital status? First, strong competition from other cities – not just Singapore and Shanghai, but also Los Angeles, Tokyo and even Sao Paulo. But the bigger risk for Hong Kong is its limited view of the world. It’s a city whose past has changed abruptly and whose future has usually been uncertain. This has resulted in a culture focused on making the next dime, keeping the wolves at bay, and getting rich fast. In Hong Kong shopping centers, you see every prestige brand on earth, from Gucci to Rolex. You see Mercedes bumping fenders with Rolls Royce on the streets. But this is not a city with great cultural wealth – you don’t see giant bookstores or art students sitting on the streets painting the views (many of which are fabulous). As in some American Sunbelt cities such as Dallas, the museums are slow in arriving. In order to rise to the top of the world’s cities, Hong Kong will have to play a leadership role in more than just money.
The upshot of all this is that there will be a new world capital, and it will almost certainly be in Asia. This same style of analysis can be applied to any set of competitive cities – on your continent, in your country, or in your state. As the service economy allows more people to live where they want, as the airline system and the Internet facilitate more fluid intercourse, and as city power becomes more disperse, the world’s capital in the future may never have quite the dominant role of Rome, or even of New York in the 1950s. These three Asian cities will share power more evenly, and other cities like New York, Sao Paulo, and Milan will retain or achieve enormous power. But your enterprise will be more successful, and your life more interesting, if you watch what is happening among the world’s great cities in their competition for dominance and power and respond to the cultural, political, and economic trends these struggles set in motion.

Signature Cities

Now that I have made a big deal about these giant, energetic, and dominant world cities, you may be feeling pretty bad because your life and your enterprise are centered somewhere else: in Oklahoma City, San Diego, Annapolis, or perhaps in Antwerp or Adelaide. Don’t I have anything nice to say about those more modest cities?
Indeed I do. For residents of these cities are living in real hometowns, cities that accurately reflect life for most of us and that are more typical of your nation and its people.
I call cities like this signature cities. They are more representative, more typical, more true of their countries than the great metropolises – and often more livable. This difference really struck me when I left New York last year. I had spent a month there, immersing myself in the life of the city and enjoying every minute of it. I hated leaving and did not look forward to my next stop. How could Minneapolis compare with the Big Apple? Impossible!
But in Minneapolis I found a city where people were apt to say Hello to one another on the street (a solid sign that I was back home in middle America), a city with clean streets and (mostly) free-flowing traffic. I heard no horns blaring, honked by out-of-control drivers at other out-of-control drivers. While Minneapolis could not compete with New York for new experiences, here was a city that made me say, “What a nice, pleasant, easy, living-room city this is.” And the same could be said about Austin, Texas; Antwerp, Belgium; Chiang Mai, Thailand; or Curitiba, Brazil. You can even make a case that the greatest American city is Chicago, a city that genuinely reflects our nation’s strengths and weaknesses in every way, less reflective of Europe and Asia than our coastal giants. As I’ve traveled the world, I have found that I can’t really understand a country until I have spent at least a couple of days in such a signature city. Each city on earth, no matter where it is on the constellation, is a home to people. It has a history, it has a character, it has strengths and weaknesses. Savor them all.



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