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London is Open And The Rise Of The City-State Brand

Andrea Fabbri

“London is the best city in the world.” This bold and slightly provocative statement considering the venue, echoed around the trendy WeWork’s office in downtown Manhattan a few weeks ago.

The messenger was Sadiq Khan, the recently elected Mayor of London. He is on a mission to visit major US cities as part of a global communications campaign launched during the summer and themed #LondonIsOpen. It was a rainy Monday afternoon less than 48 hours after an explosion nearby injured more than 25 people on a sunny Saturday afternoon, but Mayor Khan was not deterred.

Acutely aware he was on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s home turf, Mr. Khan continued, ”London is creative, international, entrepreneurial and full of opportunities. I’m very proud to be Mayor of a city that’s so comfortable with its diversity and I am very optimistic about its future.”

His message to New Yorkers comes after the seismic Brexit vote on June 23 that revealed a deep divide between London and the rest of the UK. By a narrow margin, the UK has chosen to go its own way outside of the EU market. Most of London voted to remain. The capital is an affluent, vibrant global city and Mayor Khan’s mission is to reassure the world that London sees its future health and vitality not just as part of the global economy, but also as a global city very much in charge of its own destiny.

There is certainly much to celebrate about London, but as I was intently listening to Mr. Khan’s speech I was struck by a thought.  The globalization of finance and business, brands, popular culture and personal mobility is producing a phenomenon of what could be called the “Global City State.” Indeed, on this basis, I would venture to suggest that London has more in common with New York than it has with British provincial cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Newcastle.  

Are we witnessing the beginning of a new era where global city-state brands, not countries, shape the destinies of global business, politics and societies? 

Post-Brexit, London may have to reaffirm its global role as a place apart from the UK; indeed, the city is quite different compared to the rest of the country. Along with New York, the city is one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse urban environments in the world: roughly 8.6 million people and more than 230 languages spoken. London contributes 22% to UK’s GDP and is a dominant force in the global economy: the London Stock Exchange and more than 250 international banks and 40% of the world’s top companies have HQ operations in the city, which in recent years has also become a hotbed for technology and start ups as testified by the fact that the city leads Europe in patent registrations in healthcare, wireless technology, video games, multimedia and software.

Business can count on an incredibly diverse and well-educated talent pool as well as access to an education system that is probably one of the best in the world with over 40 higher education institutions without counting foreign Universities with London branches. And last but not least, there is culture, culture and more culture: museums, restaurants, entertainment, theatres, music, parks. Much so like the city where I live, New York, London is a country within the country: a unique, open, diverse, thriving, optimistic, collaborative, creative environment the binds together people from all around the world as they take advantage of the benefits and opportunities enabled by globalization.

So, it’s no wonder that Mayor Khan has been advocating for an active role in UK’s exit negotiations from the EU.  It’s also not surprising to learn that famous entrepreneurs, global businesses, universities, celebrities, and other London-based organizations, are all backing the #LondonIsOpen effort: they are intimately affected by the effects of Brexit and, like the rich merchants of Florence in the 1400s, realize that they need to take a more controlling role in the city’s future.  #LondonIsOpen shows foresight and a keen understanding of the role that global cities like London will play in the geopolitical, business, and technological landscape of the future.

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