Chicago's Global Strategy

June 7, 2017

Global cities are hubs of the urbanizing world and increasingly influential players on the world stage. Their banks and markets finance the global economy, and their corporations shape that economy. Their universities both imagine the future and train the next generations who will make it happen. Global communications and global fads radiate from global cities. They have the potential to promote their local interests in the world and act to enhance them. Yet to date, few cities have assembled a cohesive, coordinated plan to mobilize all their stakeholders to pursue their common, globally facing goals.

Chicago should be among the first.

Chicago is the gateway to America’s heartland, and its leaders regularly engage in simultaneous— but disconnected—international engagement efforts across the four pillars of urban life: civic, commercial, education, and artistic and cultural. While many activities touch the same markets, too often they do so in isolation from one another. There is no coordination nor overarching plan. As a result, activities are transactional—tactical rather than strategic.

The attributes that got Chicago this far are no longer enough to push it forward on its own. What Chicago needs to thrive—indeed, what all global cities need—is an explicit global engagement strategy to promote and advance its interests in this increasingly competitive age of cities. Without one, Chicago risks falling behind other more ambitious, connected, and influential cities.

The vision for Chicago’s global strategy begins with an inventory of the city’s assets, needs, and opportunities:

  • Civic pillar: Chicago has long benefited from strong mayoral leadership and public-private partnerships. It is a noncapital city, which means it enjoys an independence unknown to peers that are national capitals. It has 28 Sister Cities, numerous memoranda of understanding with cities worldwide, and more than 85 foreign consulates. The city’s dynamic philanthropic organizations, diverse foreign-born population, and smart city and sustainability agendas are showcased when hosting foreign dignitaries and international conferences. Yet despite these civic assets, the city lacks the infrastructure, resources, and institutional coordination to support the level of international engagement needed to advance the city’s interests. It also struggles to mobilize a citywide effort to address the local problems that adversely affect international perceptions of the city. 
  • Commercial pillar: Chicago is a regional, national, and international hub for manufacturing, corporate and financial services, and transport and logistics. Home to more than 400 major corporate headquarters, its regional economy is one of the most diverse in the world. It has been recognized as the epicenter for financial technology (fintech) activity in the Midwest, and its vibrant entrepreneurship sector is establishing a unique Chicago identity. Exports have grown in recent years, and the region has redoubled its efforts to increase foreign direct investment. Nevertheless, Chicago’s economy is stagnant. It ranked 277th in the world for growth performance from 2000 to 2014. And while Chicago joins just two other US cities, New York and Orlando, in drawing more than 50 million domestic and international visitors a year, it ranks ninth among US cities by number of overseas visitors. The city lacks the resources, marketing, and infrastructure to increase international tourism and investment. 
  • Education pillar: Chicago’s globally connected universities are a huge asset to the city It is home to two top-25 world universities, and four universities have satellite campuses overseas. The consortium America’s Urban Campus represents 22 Chicago not-for-profit, higher education institutions and found that collectively these institutions contribute more than $10 billion to the economy. Chicago is ranked sixth among US metros by number of international students, and Chicago Public Schools has the largest International Baccalaureate program in North America. Yet Chicago is not seen as a top international destination for education, and there is little coordination among the city, the universities, and the other pillars to enhance Chicago’s global relationships. 
  • Artistic and cultural pillar: Chicago’s cultural assets are magnets that draw diverse visitors and promote the city’s vibrancy and creativity worldwide Its architecture is unparalleled. The museums, symphony, opera, theaters, and restaurants are consistently ranked among the best of the best in the world. The city’s professional sports draw worldwide viewership, and the city is the undisputed home of the blues. Many institutions are also home to cutting-edge research and community development. But market research on Chicago’s international image—largely associated with high crime rates, fiscal problems, or elements of the past— shows that the city’s reputation does not reflect the creative metropolis it is today.

Chicago needs a comprehensive plan for global engagement that effectively harnesses the city’s broad range of international relationships and activities and coordinates all efforts to serve the city as a whole. To create Chicago’s global strategy, the task force offers the following recommendations:

  • Ensure effective and efficient cross-pillar collaboration. Leaders from across the four pillars who manage global relationships should communicate and coordinate their projects with other entities in Chicago when appropriate rather than work independently. 
  • Establish a more effective international narrative for Chicago. Given the power of reputation and branding, Chicago must promote its distinctive attributes, tackle its urban challenges, and engage more actively in reputation-building efforts that draw on the four pillars. 
  • Build Chicago’s policy-relevant leadership role on the global stage. Chicago can be a leading voice for global cities and global citizens to take on leadership roles in existing international organizations. 
  • Promote a global mind-set among all Chicagoans. The way Chicago residents and leaders understand the city’s role in the world will determine the course of the city. 

Some Chicagoans may argue that Chicago must first fix its local problems such as poverty, income inequality, violence, fiscal imbalances, and population decline before pursuing its global ambitions. Indeed, assuring that all its residents can benefit from the advantages of a global city must be a top priority. A city in which the path to a better life is beyond the reach of a sizable portion of its population is not a successful city. However, Chicago need not choose between fixing problems at home and expanding its global reach. Cities that invest in their local assets will be better positioned to tap global markets, and those that thrive globally will have added resources to improve the foundational institutions and services for all. Cities that drop out of the global race will be a poorer place for all their residents. As such, we expect Chicago’s global strategy to be judged on whether it ultimately strengthens the city’s ability to fix its fiscal and social problems. 

This report outlines the elements of a global strategy, an ambitious plan for Chicago that can also serve as a model for other cities around the world It is the task force’s hope that leaders and residents throughout the city embrace this vision Its success will be determined by their active participation

Chicago's Global Strategy