[SCMP Column] Liveability indices

August 16, 2018

Few things get my hackles up like the annual cycle of global city rankings. I admit that this is partly because almost everyone seems to underappreciate Hong Kong, and consistently to prefer its inferiors Singapore, Osaka and Tokyo.

I know I am blatently biased. Having long ago selected Hong Kong as the single best city in the world from which to work – based on a lot of journalistic globetrotting – my own judgment is obviously being challenged. But I really do think I have a point. Scratch behind the headline rankings, and the methodologies behind most of these rankings, and you find they are shot through with ignorance and cultural bias – if their reports even let you glimpse into the methodology at all.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Index, released this week, shows the best and the worst forces at work. First is the very concept of “liveability” – though the report’s author, Roxana Slavcheva, says it is simple: “liveability... assesses which locations around the world provide the best or the worst living conditions.”

The rating “quantifies the challenges that might be presented to an individual's lifestyle in 140 cities worldwide.” In truth, the concept is complex and vulnerable to a wide range of biases.

The report’s target is not a community at large, but international companies that have to send their executives to cities around the world, and need to decide how much extra cash they should offer to induce staff to go with their families to some of their more far-flung and challenging locations. Think Exxon having to persuade staff to commit to a two year assignment in Port Moresby supporting their massive project in Papua New Guinea.

The EIU’s racy headlines trumpet that Vienna dislodged Melbourne for the number one slot, and that Hong Kong overtook Singapore to “recover” to 35th place  (Singapore ranked 37th) because of diminishing fears over unrest linked to the “umbrella revolution” in 2015. But look at the footnotes and you see that 66 of the 140 economies surveyed achieve the 80-out-of-100 score needed to demonstrate that there are “few, if any, challenges to living standards”.

In reality, and despite extensive bluster to disguise that reality, the tiniest methodological differences are made to imply huge differences: it is a brave person who seriously claims that Osaka (ranked 3rd) is more liveable than Singapore (ranked 37). And after a couple of weeks earlier this year arm-wrestling my way around Tokyo’s inscrutable city rail system, I challenge anyone to argue with a straight face that it should rank in anyone’s “Top 10”.

Agreeing your methodology is every ranking organisation’s nightmare, and to be fair to the EIU, it is at least moderately transparent. It explains that each city is assigned a score for over 30 qualitative and quantitative factors across five broad categories of Stability, Healthcare, Culture and environment, Education and Infrastructure.

But it is here that my arguments start. In its “stability” segment it considers petty and violent crime, the threat of terror or of civil unrest. But what about economic stability?

What about the threat of inflation or devaluation (if your salary package is denominated in local currency this can powerfully impact an expatriate’s view of “liveability”).

What about attitudes to non locals, and about political disruption (think Brexit in the UK, or the emergence of extreme-right political parties in Austria, home to number-one-ranked Vienna).

In the “Culture and environment” category, it irritates me that heat and humidity are “punished”, but that long freezing winters are ignored. Has anyone in the EIU ever lived through a winter in Calgary (ranked 4th) or Toronto (ranked 7th)?

Does it count for nothing that in Hong Kong I have never needed to own a car because the public transport system is so efficient, and that after a 30 minute commute from my Central office I can be home with impressive mountain walks behind and a wonderful swimming bay in front? Or that I have wild boar, and Burmese pythons, and 270 species of butterfly in the country parks around me? If this is not the quintessence of liveability, I don’t know what is.

Again to be fair to the EIU, they acknowledge some of the biases that emerge from their chosen methodology: “Those that score best tend to be mid-sized cities in wealthier countries. Several... also have relatively low population density.” Five of the top 10 liveable cities have populations below 2m. Only Tokyo, with 8.3m, has serious heft.

They note that global business hubs like New York, London and Paris “tend to be victims of their own success”, with “higher levels of crime, congestion and public transport problems”.

A further conundrum for me is that even though this ranking is openly focused on the desires of the average expatriate flung across the globe, it takes absolutely no account of where most of these expatriates are actually being flung.

It does not matter how “liveable” Vienna or Calgary may be. If a company’s business is driven by activity in the US or China or the EU, your staff are never going to be sent to such liveable places. Rather than tantalise us with the idea of balmy lives in lovely quiet backwater cities, surely someone at the EIU ought to be noting that a huge proportion of international companies are in reality only choosing between a handful of “cities that count”, and devoting time to comparing liveability between this handful.

And one final gripe, on internal consistency. Just a month ago, the EIU worked with Buzzdata Software to run a Best City Contest comparing 70 cities worldwide. This was described as a “spatial-adjusted liveability index”, and was judged by Italian architect Filippo Lovato. Ranked number one? Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is a very compact city that has managed to maintain its natural heritage, create a dense network of green spaces and enjoy extensive links to the rest of the world,” Lovato concluded.

Could someone not have suggested that he and Global Liveability Index author Roxana Slavcheva  compare notes?
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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