Contributed by Dave McCaughan, Regional Strategy Planning Director of McCann WorldGroup Asia Pacific

Dave McCaughan

Well of course it is. If you are reading this you already get that. But it is interesting to see how Singapore fit’s into the context of cities that are framing the transformation of the world today. And Cities do play a key part in our view of the world. We all have opinions on the cities “we want to visit”, “ the ones we are not interested in”, “ that always seem exotic , or boring”, “ that you want to visit for food, fashion, museums, to see the past, or the future”. And a thousand other reasons. Everyone has a view on which cities matter, which don’t, which are the places the cool products, services, media content, ad campaigns are coming from. So as part of our McCann PULSE program’s constant exploration of what matters to people we thought asking about cities might help us understand where to look for ideas.

So last November we asked a 150 Strategy Planners in the McCann world to think about a simple question …” which five cities, other than your own, do you think will be the places transformations come from in the next few years”. All those Planners are experienced in working with multinational companies, most with experience in two or more countries. We also asked 30 senior marketers and academic advisors for their POV. We then looked at the results and put together a report titled 13 TRANSFORMATIONAL CITIES (just let me know if you want a copy). We ended up with responses from people based in over 50 cities from all over the world. Why 13 ? Well if you know McCann you know it’s our corporate lucky number (and no that is not a Mad Men fiction).

In total over 60 cities big and small got nominated. Some many times, some by only one person. We worked through an admittedly imperfect analysis and actually we ended up with three lists of 13 cities. The “top 13” made up of cities that many people nominated and that had supporters from all over the world, a “next 13” that were not so universal in nomination and usually were there for a specific regional or category reason and a “surprising 13” which were some cities that were raised by only a few people but had a very interesting reason for being places to watch. For example way back in November if you said that you thought Sanaa was a city that would drive transformation most people would have had to Google it. A few months later and the three people who suggested it are looking pretty damn smart.

WARNING!! You won’t agree with these lists. The one thing we have learnt is that no one agrees on this subject. In fact the response has been surprising in the vehemence of some of the attitudes. We have been abused because Montreal did not appear, well abused by some Canadians. I was surprised that Rome did not get a mention at all, the more so given that my in-laws are all from there. So please feel free to pick a fight next time you see me in a bar. But as ammunition to many future debates here are our lists of cities :

THE 13 TRANSFORMATIONAL CITIES : cities that most people nominated or appeared at least ten times and from all regions of the world :

The San Francisco Bay Hub, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, London, Paris, Seoul, Los Angeles, Beijing, Mumbai, Rio de Janiero, Teheran, facebook ( yes you will have to send me a note to explain facebook, and no Teheran was not just about terrorism and “axis of evil”, it was mostly about soft power).

THE NEXT 13 : Places that had strong regional or category reasons for being seen as transformational :

New Delhi, Washington, Dubai, Detroit, Lagos, Mexico City, Miami, Copenhagen, Berlin, Sao paolo, Dublin/Athens … and SINGAPORE.

THE SURPRISING 13 :

Dhaka, Masdar, Sanaa, Accra, Warsaw, Jakarta, Las Vegas, Salzburg, Melbourne, Boston, Bali, Istanbul, Alaska ( sure a couple are not exactly cities but it makes sense when you think about them ).

So what is it about SINGAPORE that we found so many people were impressed with ? Well three reasons really explain why it is seen as transformational :

(1) IT WORKS

We heard a lot of people giving us comments like this one from Malaysia – “meritocracy, a corruption free government and where everything works”. Or from Buenos Aires – “ Singapore is one of the most technological cities in the world”. Singapore is seen universally as a role model for cities that want to re-create themselves as efficient. It’s a place town planners study, copy and plagiarise. It’s a place marketers look at as a role model for efficiency. It’s a place social watchers think of as transforming ideas on urban living and ideas of how a city can change it’s image. As one academic pointed out it’s probably the only major city in the world that has re-created or is re-creating itself for the third time in the space of just two generations. So it’s a model for transformational possibility itself as much as place where transformational products and services come from.

(2) IT CREATES MONEY

And the truth is it works, as one Tokyo-based nomination said “ because of the capitalistic, driven business economy”. It’s role as a transformation hub in the world economy was summed up by a New York based observer – “ one of the most important international financial hubs, symbolic of the shift in global markets that is happening so fast”. Or as we heard from Dubai – “ From a business and commercial perspective the “young” Singapore is forming close ties and in some ways an example to the more “experienced” nations”. A city that is driving the transformation of the new world order.

(3) IT IS SEXY

Yep … real sexy. From Dhaka – “economically sophisticated and “the next place to live” for so many Asians after their own home”. From KL – “the sexy girl next door which is seen as the “go to” destination for Malaysians who crave the hip lifestyle and not forgetting the high wages”. From Bangkok – “the financial hub that influences the economy in Thailand… Business models that work, country policy that drives growth and many initiatives such as Marina Bay Sands, F1 night racing puts Singapore at the forefront as SE Asia’s representative to the world that the region can represent the future”. A modern, clean, lifestyle that works. A place that is experimenting. And one where many other Asians just think life is better, cooler, more fun.

So what?? Well our study is acting as a guide for the places that we are watching and helping our clients to watch for new ideas. Singapore is a place that for much of Asia is now a proving ground but also an innovator in many aspects of business and personal life. So if you live there or are visiting look out for the transformations. Because the rest of the world is watching Singapore.

Oh, and what of the view from Singapore? We had a few Singapore based experts in the mix and they tended to nominate the expected in thinking that San Francisco, London, NY, Beijing, Shanghai and especially Tokyo and Seoul were the places where transformations would happen that would effect their city in the next few years. BUT also like most people our Singaporean contributors also had some interesting things to say about neighboring cities that were driving special kinds of transformational learning for their own city.

Probably no surprise that many thought KL would need to be watched, even if it was for possible problems. As one of our experts from Singapore said of Kuala Lumpur …”an unhappy neighbor could mean trouble for Singapore – water, racial troubles, transportation”. And quite sensibly a couple mentioned Jakarta and the effect the tremendous growth of the fifth BRIIC’s capital was and would have on the delivery of services and offerings from Singapore. Jakarta was also mentioned by one Singapore based expert for the same reason we saw it discussed by half a dozen panelist from around the world : the massive technology surge among it’s youth. At the end of last year Indonesia was being touted as the second highest Facebook adoption rate after the USA and that figure seemed ( and still seems ) symbolic of a massive structural and societal change. And as happened in KL there was talk of Melbourne – “ with an emerging emphasis on the arts, Singapore will look abroad to it’s culturally rich regional counterpart as a model for cultivating a more creative society”.

But I was also interested to see a couple of people talk about Chennai and it’s ongoing influence on Singapore. Probably the relatively recent success of Tamil language film “Einthiran – The Robot” in setting some box office records played a part. But then the role of soft culture was consistently a part of the way people saw the influence of cities around the world.

And that was one of our “big lessons learned”. Soft culture is key to how we see cities, countries, people, transformations. Marketers, academics, international communications planners are in the end just people. They define the world in terms of “what they know”. But they also react to offerings from places, by what they know. So the study of cities as symbols of sources of change, new ideas, new opportunities seems a perfect way to understand what matters.

And that I can talk about endlessly. If you’re interested.

(FYI .. it’s only fair to admit I have lived in Sydney, Rome, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Tokyo since 2003. Love them all and in some way have been transformed by them all ).