Do city rankings really matter?

Medellin, Columbia: a city with a brand problem. Image: Getty.

Cities are engaged in a global popularity contest with a lot at stake. Each competes to be judged the happiest, the healthiest, the most liveable, or the least violent, to name but a few. Perhaps they also aim to win the title of “most reputable”.

The winners (and the losers) become the subject of media reports that unpack both their assets and their failings. And these results tend to stick. While the title of “Most Liveable City” may help attract the next wave of expats or foreign students, winning “Most Violent City” risks scaring tourists away altogether. In today’s uncertain times, a label like this is enough to make people turn their backs on a city without a second thought.

“It’s possible that people could change their opinion [of a city] based on these results,” says Fernando Prado, the managing partner at Reputation Institute, a global reputation management firm responsible for the annual Reputable Cities Index, which Sydney won this year. “I don’t know if it’s a strong effect, but there’s certainly an effect present.”

Most city rankings are the product of research conducted by international consultancies, agencies and think tanks. Their methodology tends to rely either on traditional market-research opinion polls, which Reputation Institute uses, or on collecting and analysing a variety of city-related data.

Whether either of these are the most effective tools for the job is the subject of some debate. “City brand rankings work more as a ‘shouting platform’ for the city’s image,” says Eduardo Oliveira, a PhD candidate in strategic spatial planning at the University of Groningen. “Yes, rankings can influence people’s perceptions of a city. But it’s important to stay critical about the position of a city in any ranking.”

Prado uses Colombia as an example, in particular the city of Medellin, which has improved significantly over the last decade. “It used to be unsafe, so the stereotypes among G8 people are still not good – drug dealers, kidnapping, and so on. But perceptions and reality are two different things.”

In other words, potential tourists from the US and Europe tend to focus on overall perceptions of Colombia, rather than the reality of life in its cities. This will make them less likely to visit, despite significant improvements on the ground.   

In rankings based on opinion polls, the type of people surveyed also tends to influence the end result. For example, the Reputable Cities Index surveys 19,000 respondents from across the G8 countries (France, Germany, Italy, UK, US, Canada, Japan and Russia).

Surveying G8 respondents makes sense, Prado says, because most of the world’s tourism and foreign investment potential comes from these locations. But this approach doesn’t necessarily represent a global viewpoint. Instead it produces a ranking with a heavily “Eurocentric” perspective, failing to consider the opinions of large (and economically significant) portions of the world, such as China or India.

José Torres, CEO of Madrid-based place branding agency Bloom Consulting, offers a different perspective on existing place rankings. His team’s newest project, the Digital Country Index, was created using big data: over half a billion online search terms. It ranks 180 countries according to their performance in the five categories judged most important to a strong brand: tourism, investment, exports, talent, and national prominence.

“It’s a new angle, a measure of people’s proactive interest that focuses on the digital world,” Torres said. “The act of searching for a specific country or city is a clear indicator of how interesting that place is.”

Data used in the Digital Country Index comes from global online searches, as performed in nine languages. By using a scope as broad as this, the results might help to provide a balanced picture of the world’s interest in different places.

As the name suggests, the initial Digital Country Index focuses on countries. But Bloom is already using this methodology to advise a range of city governments. The agency has collected trillions of search keywords for cities, so it’s only a matter of time before a “Digital Cities Index” emerges.

It’s easy to get carried away with city rankings. But perhaps the most important consideration should be how a city’s position in a ranking affects the quality of life of its residents. Oliveira cautions that cities need to make wise use of these rankings, if they're to be for the benefit of their residents.

“What would make residents happy is affordable housing, safe and useful public spaces, more job opportunities, fair and open access to health and education, along with public services that serve the community’s needs,” he says. “City rankings would be far more valuable if politicians used them as a tool to actually improve cities, rather than just communicating their top position to the world.”

The intangible nature of many rankings means that cities may struggle to interpret the results and turn them into practical action. This can be problematic, because a city brand needs concrete plans and strategies in order to improve.

City rankings can offer a useful way to compare and contrast city performance. But to ensure cities benefit, their governments should only use the results to enhance their existing city development strategies. A ranking that publicly singles out a city’s poor performance, for example,e may encourage increased efforts by public authorities improve social and economic conditions.

Or to put it another way: for the best chance of success, cities’ responses to the rankings should be rooted in practical action that keeps the needs of residents firmly at the forefront.

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CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.