Published on Sustainable Cities

Can other cities be as competitive as Singapore?

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Photo: Joyfull/Shutterstock
Singapore is an example of one of the most competitive cities in Asia and in the world. Many, many other cities want to be the next Singapore. In fact, Singapore has been so successful that some believe that its success cannot be emulated. They forget that in the 1960s, Singapore faced several challenges – high unemployment, a small domestic market, limited natural resources, not to mention that most of the population lived in overcrowded unsanitary conditions in slums. Challenges that would sound very familiar to a large number of cities in the developing world.

And so, what better place than Singapore for the Asia Launch of the Competitive Cities for Jobs and Growth: What, Who & How report. The World Bank Group, along with the Centre for Liveable Cities and International Enterprise Singapore co-sponsored the launch as part of Urban Week held in Singapore from 8-11 March, 2016. The roundtable was attended by over 100 delegates representing cities from 23 countries.

The competitiveness potential for cities is enormous. Almost 19 million extra jobs, annually, could be created globally if cities performed at the level of the top quartile of competitive cities. Of this potential, more than 1/3, i.e. equivalent to an additional 7 million jobs, comes from cities in East Asia. Between 2000 and 2010, nearly 200 million people moved to East Asia's urban centers – these people will need jobs. Where will these jobs come from? How will they be generated?
Here are some of the highlights from the discussion at the report launch:
  • Competitive cities rely on tradable sectors such as manufacturing, transport and logistics and tourism - these grew 2.5 percentage points faster than non-tradable sectors, with high spillovers. Panelist Razeen Sally emphasized the important role played by the tradable sector in cities’ success – also a finding of the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness of Cities report. This might seem obvious, but there are far too many cities whose economies are dominated by the non-tradable sectors and especially the informal economy.

  • Competitive cities also pay attention to the needs of the private sector – on retaining existing firms and attracting new investment. Sylvia Koh, our panelist from Jones Lang LaSalle, spoke from her vast experience in helping multi-national firms in their location decisions. She gave the example of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where transport infrastructure was considered a bottleneck to foreign investment. She cautioned the public sector in her comments that as cities allocate scarce resources to big infrastructure investments (such as a metro line), cities need to ensure that these investments respond to existing needs and demands of the people and firms--it is not the infrastructure itself but the pervasive use of the infrastructure that brings about differences. The city currently boasts 8 million motorbikes for a population of 8.2 million, with the vehicles a symbol of economic status and a way of living. Surveys revealed that only 5% of the city population would consider using the metro for commuting when completed. When these figures were presented to multi-national firms, the attractiveness of these transport infrastructure in increasing a city’s competitiveness was dramatically decreased. 

  • Mayors and city leaders don’t see lack of data, analysis and documents as their main challenge - what’s tricky is to get implementation right. Here, the report found that successful cities built growth coalitions with their private sector – not just coordinating with them, but co-creating economic development strategies. Changsha employed problem-solving techniques which depended, at their core, on three critical ingredients: effective meetings, alignment of incentives, and the right support staff. Accountability and capacity of public officials were key drivers of effective delivery.
The launch of the report attracted significant attention, including an opinion column in the Straits Times and an interview by Bloomberg TV. The team will now focus its energies helping city leaders organize better for delivery – e.g. using a multi-day executive training program to take city officials through an accelerated decision-making environment. We can help with tools, mindsets, coalition building, peer-to-peer exchanges, and we are excited to work more closely with our clients to tackle the what, who and how of making cities competitive.
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We would like to express our gratitude to the donors of this competitive cities initiative the Competitive Industries and Innovation Program (CIIP).


Sameh Wahba

Regional Director, Sustainable Development, Europe and Central Asia, The World Bank

Megha Mukim

Senior Economist, Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience Global Practice

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