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Research First Look: Behold the Global City

Hyper-connected metropolises have a lot to say about international commerce and the behaviour of multinational corporations

Research First Look: Behold the Global City

Global cities are typified by global interconnectedness, cosmopolitanism, and an abundance of advanced producer services. They have everything that multinational firms crave. A growing body of management research is looking at the impact of global cities on everything from international trade and national economies to corporate decision-making and cultural attitudes. Anthony Goerzen, Donald R. Sobey Professor of International Business at Smith School of Business, has been studying global cities for a number of years. In this conversation with Smith Business Insight, he offers his views of the evolving field.

Looking Beyond National Boundaries

The notion of global cities has been a longstanding focus in many areas, like urban planning. It started to appear in the management literature about five years ago. Our 2013 paper in the Journal of International Business Studies was one of the first to make the case that global cities are an important unit of analysis to understand how multinational corporations make strategic location choices.

It’s also part of the literature that looks at the concept of “international” as being not simply the crossing of national political boundaries. Countries are not monoliths. For example, China is not a single cultural entity —  it’s a bundle of several languages and cultures and capabilities. The same for Canada. Countries need to be understood as complex, contoured places, and firms make choices that vary based on those contours.

To think of nations as defined by political boundaries that were, in many cases, drawn arbitrarily — and to look at business decisions as being fundamentally driven by these political boundaries — is hiding as much as it's revealing.

Global Cities Drifting Away

There are a number of different strands of management research that look at this question more carefully. One is examining North America versus Europe versus Asia. It's no longer countries but regions.

Another effort is similar in its premise but very different in its focus, which is that there are differences inside countries that are important to understand. In this global cities literature, we see that firms make different choices around global cities, and there are profound changes as a result.

We're working right now on research that looks at global city culture. The basic question is, Is there a such a thing as global city culture? For example, does Toronto share a similar culture to New York, Chicago, or even Frankfurt? We make the argument that because of the unique connectivity between global cities, ideas and practices start to blend: people’s opinions about issues — like being open to change— and ways of understanding what culture is. We're examining whether or not these types of similarities exist.

You can say that there are huge differences — for example, there they speak German, here we speak English. That is a big difference. But when you look at the kind of work global city inhabitants do, the problems they deal with, the ways in which they view the world, the kinds of products they consume, their ways of commuting, their ways of purchasing, the education they have, suddenly you can’t tell the difference between Toronto and Frankfurt. So it's a matter of thinking about the similarities and the differences and trying to understand the nature of those similarities and differences.

We’re also measuring whether global cities are becoming different than their own hinterland. In other words, is Toronto becoming different than Kingston? Are global cities somehow becoming disconnected [from smaller neighbouring cities] economically, politically, socially in terms of guiding ideas or perspectives?

Interview by Alan Morantz