World’s leading city in 2050

For this year’s Wealth Report I asked a selection of commentators from various backgrounds to predict what the world’s most important city will be in 2050 and received some pretty interesting responses – some pinpointing particular cities, others offering slightly more complex answers.

Here’s what they said (take a deep breath):

SHANGHAI: The city is a catalyst for cultural and technological innovation and represents Chinese modernity – in 1980 there were no skyscrapers, today it has twice as many as New York. By 2050 its population is projected to reach 50 million. Market liberalisation will help Shanghai become a global financial centre and it is forging ahead as a cultural hub and global tourist destination. Tim Hancock and Rohit Talwar, Foresight Director and Chief Executive, Fast Future Research, London

SHANGHAI: The most important city in China in the past and it will be again. As China opens its economy, currency and markets, it will continue to grow. It also has a well-educated and strong labour force. Democracy, human rights and freedom of speech have been improving for some time now and I believe will continue to do so. Thirty years ago there was just one newspaper, radio station and television channel. Now there are many media outlets, and demonstrations take place each year where no one dared before. Shanghai does have its drawbacks: the traffic and pollution are terrible because the economy is growing faster than the infrastructure. Jim Rogers, Investor, Singapore

SHANGHAI: The “head of the dragon” has more freestanding buildings over 400 metres than any city in the world, and a cityscape to rival the West’s most impressive. With the Chinese economy on course to overtake the US as the largest in the world, in some estimates as soon as 2020, Shanghai is poised to take this mantle. Doubts persist about whether the state capitalist “one-party” model can continue to balance growth while pacifying the growing and vocal middle class. But these concerns are likely to be overcome due to the sheer size of the market, a maturing of the economy and inevitable, incremental, political reform. Nicholas Holt, Asia-Pacific Research Manager, Knight Frank, Singapore

SHANGHAI: It has the world’s largest container port, fastest train, longest metro system and is currently working on the world’s second tallest building. But what is vitally important in a global city is a strong brand. Frankfurt and Hong Kong lose out to New York and London as global cities because nobody dreams of “making it big” in Frankfurt. A true global city is one with a brand people recognise, an image to which they aspire and a place where they dream of living. Shanghai performs well on all these and is where the next generation of ambitious entrepreneurs and visionaries will dream of making their mark. Bryn Anderson, Valuation Director, Brand Finance, London

LONDON OR NEW YORK: The most significant driving force of any city is its people. It is crucial to have a liveable environment for increasingly mobile populations, and to attract a significant foreign workforce. More than one-third of people in New York and London are foreign-born. Despite their astonishing growth, Asian economic powerhouses fail to reach that level of cosmopolitan culture. New York or London will continue to top the indices, but only if they ensure their strong cultural offers are unmatched and maintain open immigration policies. David Adam, Managing Director, Global Cities, London

LONDON: The global cities of the future will remain those that can provide security and diligence to international firms and clients, while evening out inequalities at home. London will continue to be one such centre if it continues to follow structural adjustments in its economy. These include bringing large institutional investors into the rental market, which will turn Londoners into renters rather than owners and divert the surplus from real estate into more productive capital. Dr Savvas Verdis, Chief Executive, Rankdesk, London

VARIOUS: A shift is taking place from developed to developing economies – not a simple West to East shift, but a multi-directional one to places such as Sao Paulo, Mexico City and Istanbul. The East is increasingly important, with China’s plethora of 1 million-plus cities, led by Shanghai and Guangzhou. But demographics alone are not the deciding factor. I think the cities of the future will include Cairo, Lagos, Johannesburg and Mumbai, as well as established global centres such as New York, London and Moscow. We will also likely see a number of new players emerge. As a final thought, let us not forget that some refer to the the social media site Facebook as the world’s largest country. Technological developments mean people can live where they want, which may affect the pre-eminence of cities in time. Renato Grandmont, Chief Investment Officer, Citi Wealth Management and Citi Private Band in Latin America


It is no longer just a story about the rise of megacities such as Shanghai or Mexico City. We believe the cities to watch in 2050 are the 400 emerging market “middleweights” – fast-growing cities with populations between 200,000 and 10 million. This dynamic group includes many cities that are not household names today: Linyi,  Kelamayi and  Guiyang in China;  Surat and  Nagpur in India; and  Concepcion and  Belem in Latin America. Yet collectively they are global growth engines, reducing poverty, expanding the global middle class by millions of households, and creating new market opportunities for local and multinational companies.

Jaana Remes, Senior Fellow, McKinsey Global Institute, San Francisco


Most people will not have heard of these three cities. But Waterloo in Canada,  Suwon in South Korea, and  Eindhoven in The Netherlands are working together as part of an important fraternity and movement. These three, along with about 100 others, have transformed themselves into what we call “intelligent communities” – cities and communities that have worked diligently to produce a very good quality of life for citizens. Each has entered an international awards programme and been reviewed by academics and experts in order to be given this title. They are modelled on a holistic set of criteria including good telecommunications access, a knowledgeable workforce, innovation in their local governments and culture, and activities aimed at closing digital and social divides. Broadband and the emergence of a global digital infrastructure have made these improvements possible. By 2050, no matter where a person lives, they will be able to participate in the global economy. 

Louis A. Zacharilla, Co-founder, Intelligent Community Forum, New York


(Article by Professor Saskia Sassen)

Predicting which cities will lead the world in 2050 is not a straightforward economic story; it is about geopolitics, as the global city is an international actor of sorts.

The emerging urban geopolitics is centred in networks of cities – mostly, but not exclusively, global cities. This began in the late 1980s and now serves as important infrastructure for the global economy.

It has become clear over the last few decades that our geopolitical future is not going to be determined by the ‘G2′ combination of the United States and China. It will instead run via 20 or so strategic urban networks. These networks have grown in importance on the back of the globalisation and urbanisation of an increasing number of economic activities. Those cities that work together begin to matter more in the global economy and in geopolitics than their respective countries.

Firms that sell to other firms rather than consumers thrive on the specialised differences of global cities. Consider London, New York and Paris – they are all major financial centres, but they are specialised in very different sectors of finance. What matters to these firms is not the city as a supermarket, but as a specialised shop. By this rationale, different firms will prefer different city networks. The various city rankings and indices do measure something that matters. But for many firms, if they can avoid locating in London or New York, where costs are high, and if Copenhagen serves their purposes just as well, there is little doubt as to where they will go. The mass-consumption sector is the opposite: the more cans of coke or mobile phones you can sell, the better.

These are the geopolitical urban vectors underlying the global economy that I believe will shape the future:

WASHINGTON/ NEW YORK/CHICAGO: These cities are becoming more important geopolitically than the United States is as a country. Chicago is rising fast as a geopolitical actor – think of the state visit by Chinese president Hu Jintao in January 2011, when he stopped not just in Washington but also in Chicago.

BEIJING/ HONG KONG/SHANGHAI: Beijing is the centre of power, but Hong Kong’s global intermediary role is critical. Shanghai is the leading national industrial and financial centre.

BERLIN/ FRANKFURT: With Berlin the seat of the European Union’s most powerful economy and Frankfurt the seat of the EU Central Bank, this axis is the bulwark for the EU. If there were no EU, they would not be as significant geopolitically.

ISTANBUL/ ANKARA: Istanbul, long the East/West and North/South hinge city, in combination with Ankara, is rapidly becoming a major global policy nexus.

SAO PAULO/ RIO DE JANEIRO/BRASILIA: The new politico-economic heavyweight axis next to now-established China. The Brazilian Development Bank is richer than the World Bank, and its economic power is large and ascendant.

BRUSSELS: The EU may be struggling with economic crises in several member states, but its institutions and capabilities are unlike those of any other union of states.

CAIRO/ BEIRUT: They rearticulate what the Middle East means as a region. Beirut has long had politico-economic networks worldwide; Cairo has a history of empire.

GENEVA/ VIENNA/ NAIROBI: These cities have the critical mass and mix of institutions devoted to social questions and justice for the powerless, with Nairobi increasingly important in a rapidly urbanising world. They have long been overshadowed by global finance and mega-militaries. But they will emerge as critical actors in the global commons.

Professor Saskia Sassen is co-chair of the Committee of Global Thought at Columbia University and coined the term “global city”. In 2011 Foreign Policy Magazine named her among its Top 100 Thinkers.

Related articles:

London the most important city to the world’s wealthy

Luxury house price growth polarized around the world

Wealth Report: Launch poll confirms London dominance

Wealth Report 2012 – ready to read now


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