UK: Global Cities, Global Talent - London's Rising Soft Power

Last Updated: 8 March 2016
Article by David Sproul, Angus Knowles-Cutler and Harvey Lewis

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017


London is a global city – arguably now the world's foremost business hub, of vital importance to the national, European and global economies.

Long seen as 'neck and neck' with New York on a number of key measures, developments in recent years suggest that London is now in a class of its own. In terms of high‑skill, knowledge‑based employment, Deloitte's work suggests that in a period of just three years, London has added 235,000 new jobs while equivalent employment in New York has marginally declined. Latest official data suggests that London now employs approximately 1.7 million workers in highly skilled roles compared to 1.2 million in New York, its nearest rival.

London's power to shape the business world also derives from its ability to influence the preferences of others by appealing to, attracting and developing leaders – a concept known as 'soft power'. Our work suggests that London is the most global of global cities, with its business and public sector leaders drawn from the widest range of countries. Many of these people were educated or have worked in or around London, attracted from overseas by the strength of the city's financial businesses, the quality of its universities and the vitality of its creative and digital start‑up scene. Those London 'alumni' who have since relocated overseas are the most widely dispersed of any global city and have gone on to become influential leaders of some of the world's top organisations.

This dynamic 'flow' of skills and leadership talent, and the connections and networks formed by business executives and public sector leaders, are the true lifeblood of a global city. However, our research also demonstrates that all of the top global cities – including London – need to shift gears to promote greater diversity, fill the growing high‑skills gap and inspire the next generation of leaders.

Deloitte's ongoing 'futures' research provides insights into business in the future, examining the impact of digital technologies on the labour market, on occupations and industry sectors. We also support a number of initiatives that promote the development of vital skills among schoolchildren. We have programmes to encourage women into leadership and technology roles, to support mothers and military personnel in their transition to work, and to enable people of all backgrounds to enjoy the same opportunities for employment.

We hope that you find this report thought provoking and we look forward to your feedback



This study is intended to stimulate thinking about the way in which soft power has the potential to shape the economic and social progress of global cities. As well as the latest data on high skills, the study uses data supplied by BoardEx to understand and quantify the dynamic flows of leadership capital through London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, Singapore and Sydney. This data has allowed us to investigate the career movements of more than 50,000 executives and public sector leaders from over 40,000 organisations in 160 countries, using observations of where people have been educated, their nationality, gender and the roles they have occupied as well as the sectors in which they have worked.

Our analysis of these flows provides surprising insights into the rising urban economy:

  • Global cities require diversity to drive economic prosperity. London's executive alumni are drawn from 95 nationalities and reach 134 countries, making it the most global of the world's global cities.
  • Global cities need to address an explosion in demand for higher skills to remain competitive. London has added 235,000 new high-skill jobs in the last two years, making it the high-skills capital of the world.
  • Global cities need to make use of the 'small world' networks of their alumni to support the leaders of tomorrow. The social network of London's alumni has just three degrees of separation, enabling greater connection and collaboration between businesses.

Introducing soft power

"Many newly successful cities on the global stage have sought to make themselves attractive to businesses based on price and infrastructure subsidies. Those competitive advantages can work in the short term, but they tend to be transitory. For cities to have sustained success, they must compete for the grand prize: intellectual capital and talent."1
Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York

According to the Brookings Institution, the world's 300 largest metropolitan economies accounted for nearly half of global output in 2014.2 Some of the world's largest cities have populations larger than many small countries. In many respects cities are the new countries. The Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD) seems to think so, deeming them to be "the most relevant level of governance, small enough to react swiftly and responsively to issues and large enough to hold economic and political power".3

Among this list of mega‑cities is a network of around 50 so‑called 'global cities', a phrase popularised by sociologist Saskia Sassen in her 1991 work, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo.4 A global city is generally considered to be an important node in the global economy based on indicators such as economic output, physical capital, financial maturity, human capital, cultural experience and quality of life. The top six global cities, according to The Atlantic's broad assessment, are New York, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris and Singapore.5

The concept of a global city was originally based on the idea that cities became strategic territories because their location facilitated manufacturing, trade and government administration. Since the early 1980s, though, there have been significant shifts in the structure of business and especially the financial sectors of global cities, driven primarily by advances in information and communications technology.6 This has been accompanied by exponential growth in both tech industries and the cultural sector.

But it is not the case – as argued by Thomas Friedman in The World is Flat – that these digital technologies have nullified the effect of location.7 Rather, it is the opposite: the digital age has become the main driver of the modern global city.

Today, global cities are strategic because they have access to large pools of skilled workers and the intellectual, social, physical and digital infrastructure to support them. Crucially, as suggested recently by academics Thor Berger and Carl Benedikt Frey, these highly skilled workers are more easily able to adapt and shift faster into new occupations as digital technologies and automation are introduced.8 Conversely, old manufacturing cities with access to predominantly lower‑level skills are struggling to compete, suffering increasingly from lack of investment.

So as the world's population continues on its path of rapid urbanisation, an important driver of sustainable economic growth will be the global cities' ability to attract, welcome, retain and export the right talent and skills to meet the shifting global needs of the digital age, and to develop leaders of the future.

Are London and the other global cities wellplaced to meet this challenge?

One way of thinking about this question is to consider a city's 'soft power' – a concept first developed by Joseph Nye in his 1990 book Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power.9 Soft power is the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction, as distinct from 'hard power', which arises through coercion, the use of force or by giving money. Nowhere is this more important than in the attraction and development of business and public sector leaders, and the appeal of a global city to global firms and their workers.

This study is intended to stimulate thinking about the way in which soft power has the potential to shape the economic and social progress of global cities. We have used data supplied by BoardEx to understand and quantify the dynamic flows of leadership capital through London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris, Singapore and Sydney. This data has allowed us to investigate the career movements of more than 50,000 business and public sector leaders from over 40,000 organisations in 160 countries, using observations of where people have been educated, their nationality, gender and the roles they have occupied as well as the sectors they have worked in.

Our analysis of these flows provides surprising insights into the rising urban economy. On the following pages, we examine the influence that London and the other top global cities have on the business world and challenge many popular beliefs about diversity, gender, skills and the strength of business networks. In light of our analysis, we explore how city policy makers, businesses and educators can take effective steps to recruit, develop and retain the best executive talent and build the businesses of tomorrow.

Our data and methodology

To understand which cities have the greatest soft power, we examined a subset of data kindly provided by BoardEx from their repository of nearly three‑quarters of a million executive and director profiles across a searchable index of more than 1.2 million organisations. A wide range of data sources are used to compile and maintain BoardEx's repository, including, for example, in the UK, company announcements and press releases, annual reports, the Regulatory News Service, London Stock Exchange, Companies House, Parliament and the Cabinet Office. Equivalent official and commercial sources of information are used to identify and validate profiles of executives in other countries.

Each of the more than 147,000 records in our subset was included because the individual could be directly associated with London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore or Sydney by virtue of the universities they attended in those cities or nearby, domiciled businesses or public sector organisations that employ them or by any other reasonable association. These records describe an individual's gender, nationality, organisation and current role or roles, as well as details of the role that led to their association with one of the seven global cities. In total, our data describes 50,200 unique individuals of 115 different nationalities, affiliated with 44,282 unique organisations across 160 countries. Our data is based on an extract from BoardEx's repository dated November 2015.

We have also refreshed the data on high‑skill jobs, originally published in Globaltown: Winning London's crucial battle for talent.10 This refresh used various official data sources, including, for example, for London, the Business Register and Employment Survey compiled by the Office for National Statistics and the London Employment Survey conducted by The CityUK, and, for New York, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.11,12,13

Throughout this report, we refer to individuals associated with the global cities as 'alumni'. Alumni of London, for example, at some stage in their career have attended university in or around London or have been employed by a business or public sector organisation based in London; and while many of these alumni may still work in the UK, some may now be employed in a role based in another country.

The metropolitan melting pot

"Strength lies in differences, not in similarities."
Stephen R. Covey, educator and author

In his 2011 book, Economic Warfare: Secrets of Wealth Creation in the Age of Welfare Politics, the author and investor Ziad K. Abdelnour wrote "talent attracts capital more effectively than capital attracts talent."14 Writing for the Financial Times a year later, Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York, added that talent more effectively and consistently attracts capital.15 Both assertions might lead one to conclude that the greater the number of executives and business leaders a city grows and nurtures, the more potent its economic success.

However, the absolute number of executives, while necessary, is not sufficient to guarantee economic prosperity. Many other factors influence success – in particular, diversity of talent. Cities that want to attract, retain and inspire future leaders and business makers must offer appropriate work, social and cultural opportunities, and, in Michael Bloomberg's words, provide a "fertile breeding ground" in which new ideas and innovations can be spawned.16 The more diverse the backgrounds and skills of the people drawn to a city, the hotter the melting pot of opportunity.

Which global city has greater diversity?

Our analysis shows that London attracts leadership talent from the widest pool of nations: London's executive alumni are drawn from a total of 95 different countries, five times more than Sydney and three times more than Singapore. However, more than two‑thirds (68 per cent) of London's executive alumni are British so the distribution of nationalities is heavily skewed towards the UK's indigenous population and the proportion of alumni from other countries is relatively low. Singapore's alumni, on the other hand, are made up of only 27 per cent Singaporeans, suggesting more diverse ethnicity in this global city.

London also 'exports' its leaders to more countries than any other global city: its executive alumni have reached an impressive 134 countries, 12 per cent more than New York, for example, and 24 per cent more than Paris.

Analysing the data suggests a strong correlation between human capital flows inward to a global city and flows out, as illustrated in Figure 2. In other words, the greater the diversity of nationalities attracted to a city, the greater the global reach and influence that city ultimately enjoys through its alumni.

But which global city creates more executive opportunities for women? The answer is Sydney. The proportion of women executives in Sydney's alumni group is 12.2 per cent compared to 10.5 per cent for London. However, even though Sydney has a higher percentage of women among its executive alumni than any other global city, the number of women in leadership positions is very low universally. The picture is similarly bleak from a country perspective. For example, considering all 50,000 individuals in our dataset, just 11.7 per cent of executives in the UK are women, the same percentage as in the US. In South Africa and Singapore, the proportions of executives who are women are 15.5 per cent and 13.3 per cent, respectively. Given the emphasis currently placed by policy makers and businesses on gender diversity and women in leadership, it is sobering to find in the data that fewer than one in eight executives are women.

Why diversity matters

There is good reason for shining a spotlight on diversity: in what is now considered a classic work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, author and activist Jane Jacobs highlights the significance of creativity and diversity as 'engines' of city growth.17 Similarly, in 2002, American academic Richard Florida found that diverse communities tend to grow more quickly and create more jobs in creative and high‑technology industries than less diverse communities.18

In his paper, Florida explores the geography of bohemia – a term associated with the stereotypical lifestyle of artists and intellectuals – and the relationships between it, human capital and the tech industries. His underlying hypothesis, supported by extensive statistical research, is that the presence and concentration of bohemians in an area tend to create clusters of innovative economic activity and attract other types of talented or high human capital individuals of many nationalities.

The relationship between diversity and economic success seems to be borne out in London. We have found that executives linked to the UK's capital city by education or employment are unquestionably the most ethnically diverse of the seven global cities in our analysis. London is also home to more than one‑third of all European Fortune 500 firms, and also attracts three times more corporate headquarters than any other city in Europe.19,20 This investment by foreign corporations creates a dynamic, multi‑cultural exchange and attractor of talent both inter‑ and intra‑company. London is also the only city in our study to appear in the list of top 30 fastest growing metropolitan economies, according to the Brookings Institution, with GDP per capita growth of 2.5 per cent and employment growth of 3.6 per cent in 2014.21

Diversity is a strong predictor of prosperity because the creative and tech industries, which Florida says will profit from the melting pot, have themselves become significant drivers of growth in global cities. For example, according to the Greater London Authority (GLA), The Gross Value‑Added (GVA) of London's creative and tech industries has increased by 16.4 per cent since 2009, and contributes Ł35 billion to the capital's economy every year.22 This accounts for 10.7 per cent of London's total GVA and just under half of the UK's total GVA from creative industries. There's another benefit, too: the GLA found that London's creative industries are 25 per cent more productive (in terms of GVA per worker) than the average for London's economy as a whole, and over 40 per cent more productive than the average for equivalent creative industries elsewhere in the UK. Global cities, it seems, not only party hard, but they work hard, as well.

Challenges yet to be overcome

Much of the UK's labour market growth in the last 20 years can be attributed to improvements in female participation and employment, with maternity policies, subsidised childcare services and tax incentives playing important roles.23 Similar efforts can be observed to a greater or lesser extent in both developing and developed economies around the world. However, before we congratulate London and the other global cities on achieving improved diversity and participation, we should reflect on one of the remaining 'grand talent challenges' of our age – that of attracting more women into executive positions.

Writing in the Financial Times, recently, Baroness Martha Lane Fox made the point that "Products, services and ideas that are not founded on diverse thinking will never be as competitive as those created by gender‑balanced teams".24 This is not just a statement about the outputs of a business, it is also a fundamental tenet of leadership.

Whether in the private, public or any other sector, organisations that embrace diversity – in gender and all its other forms – will benefit from the widest possible range of skills, experiences and perspectives when formulating and executing their strategies. But women and other segments of the population are still struggling to participate in London's labour market, as reported by the Economy Committee of the London Assembly.25 They and others point to ongoing challenges that are limiting gender and ethnic diversity among executives in global cities, such as:

  • rising inequality – while some jobs are of high quality and are paid very well, the 'hollowing out' of jobs in the middle of the labour market limits opportunities for many workers to progress upwards on the skills ladder
  • cost of city living – the already high and ever‑rising cost of living in global cities makes it difficult for overseas students and incoming workers, men and women, alike, to stay for prolonged periods while simultaneously paying for education, accommodation, childcare and provisions
  • lack of flexibility – many firms are yet to embrace fully more agile and flexible working practices, which limits opportunities for part‑time workers to contribute to the economy
  • complexities of immigration – tightening rules that restrict the ability of foreign workers to enter the country can make it difficult for businesses to access the skills they need, which may have a disproportionate impact on global tech firms.26

London has clearly done well in the past couple of decades when it comes to attracting the global creative class, notes journalist and social entrepreneur Rohan Silva in a recent article for the Evening Standard.27 But the cost of housing, the decay of cultural facilities and additional complexities associated with immigration are all making it harder for talented people to come to the capital. The same problems are faced to some extent by all global cities. Meanwhile, tech entrepreneurs and creatives are starting to take their talent and ideas elsewhere, to places such as Berlin, Lisbon and Los Angeles, delivering a welcome fillip to their urban economies but potentially restricting growth prospects for the current network of global cities.

To read this Report in full, please click here.


1. "Cities must be cool, creative and in control", Michael Bloomberg, Financial Times, 27 March 2012. See also:‑72ac‑11e1‑ae73‑00144feab49a.html#axzz3yMvTURCn

2. "Global Metro Monitor 2014: An Uncertain Recovery", Brookings Institution, January 2015. See also:

3. "Trends in Education 2016", OECD Publishing, Paris, January 2016. See also:‑2016‑en

4. "The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo", Saskia Sassen, 1991.

5. "Sorry, London: New York Is the World's Most Economically Powerful City", Richard Florida, The Atlantic CityLab, March 2015. See also:

6. "Cities in today's global age: An exploration of the new economic role of cities and the networks they form in an increasingly globalised world", chapter from "Connecting Cities: Networks", (A Research Publication of the 9th World Congress of Metropolis), Metropolis Congress, Saskia Sassen, 2008. See also:'s-Global-Age.pdf

7. "The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty‑First Century", Thomas L. Friedman, April 2005.

8. "Technology Shocks and Urban Revolutions: Did the Computer Revolution Shift the Fortunes of US Cities", Thor Berger and Carl Benedikt Frey, 2014.

9. The concept of soft power was first developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University in his 1990 book "Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power". The concept was further developed in his 2004 book "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics".

10. "Globaltown: Winning London's crucial battle for talent", Deloitte LLP, November 2013. See also:

11. See:‑s‑sectors/resource/7cc8d222‑3325‑489a‑9934‑40275f860f56

12. "London Employment Survey", The CityUK, October 2015. See also:

13. See:

14. "Economic Warfare: Secrets of Wealth Creation in the Age of Welfare", Ziad K. Abdelnour, 2011.

15. "Cities must be cool, creative and in control", Michael Bloomberg, Financial Times, 27 March 2012. See also:‑72ac‑11e1‑ae73‑#axzz3yMvTURCn00144feab49a.html

16. Ibid.

17. "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", Jane Jacobs, Random House, 1961.

18. "Bohemia and economic geography", Richard Florida, Journal of Economic Geography, Volume 2, 2002. See also:

19. "Regional Contribution of UK Financial and Professional Services", TheCityUK, 2013.

20. "The Jobs and Growth Plan for London", London Enterprise Panel, Greater London Authority, April 2013. See also:

21. "Global Metro Monitor 2014: An Uncertain Recovery", Brookings Institution, January 2015. See also:‑3

22. "The creative industries in London", Working Paper 70, Lara Togni, Greater London Authority, October 2015. See also:‑industries‑in‑london.pdf

23. "Completing the job: the pursuit of full employment", Resolution Foundation, July 2015. See also:‑content/uploads/2015/07/Completing‑the‑job‑briefing.pdf

24. "Gender equality in the tech sector will benefit the global economy", Martha Lane‑Fox, Financial Times, 18 January 2016. See also:

25. "The Hourglass Economy: An analysis of London's Labour market", London Assembly, Economy Committee, February 2016. See also:

26. "Plan for UK visa clampdown threatens tech companies", Gonzalo Vina, Financial Times, 20 December 2015. See also:‑a021‑11e5‑8613‑08e211ea5317.html#axzz3yM2o80EK

27. "Cheaper Berlin and Lisbon are luring London's crucial creatives", Rohan Silva, Evening Standard, 25 January 2016. See also:

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