By Karin Frick, Detlef Gürtler and Peter Gloor

Whose ideas engage people most frequently? Who are the most influential thinkers? To find answers to these simple questions, we initiated a complex process of evaluation, using software-based calculations to produce a simple "influence rank" – a measure of the global importance of creative minds.

It is a record for the ages. Malala Yousafzai was just seventeen years old when she became a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The award, according to the Nobel Prize Committee, is to recognise her fearless advocacy of education for girls. And the story of the student from a Taliban-dominated region of Pakistan had indeed moved the whole world – particularly after an attack on her that she only barely survived, and that led detractors to complain that what apparently made Malala worthy of the prize was managing to get herself shot.

It is of course not yet a life's work for which Malala Yousafzai has been awarded the most prestigious prize in the world. But there is no doubt that she has put a subject, a thought, on the global agenda and that she has influenced the thinking of many people, and this is precisely what constitutes a global thought leader. In the global thought leader ranking, compiled by GDI in collaboration with MIT researcher Peter Gloor for the third time this year, Malala Yousafzai comes in at number 58. This placement is likely to improve considerably next year, because the measurement of "betweenness centrality" visualized in the Thought Leader Map, on which a large part of the evaluation is based, took place in the summer, well in advance of the Nobel award.


At the top of this year's global thought leader ranking is also a newcomer to the list of candidates: Pope Francis. During last year's selection of candidates, he was still known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and a long way from being a thought leader. In 2014, he was included for the first time in the initial selection of 236 candidates, managing to reach the number one position (if only narrowly), and followed closely by "pope of the Internet" Tim Berners-Lee and the Indian economist Amartya Sen. Places four and five also went to thought leaders who didn't make it onto last year's list: Czech writer Milan Kundera, and Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

All three newcomers in the top five are illustrations of borderline cases in terms of candidate selection:

That theologians like Hans Küng and religious philosophers such as Tariq Ramadan qualify as members of the group of thinkers is beyond dispute. But what about the Pope? Is he more a thinker (and so in) or rather a doer (and so out)? We have decided this year in favour of inclusion, as we have for Fethullah Gülen, the spiritual and political leader of a Turkish movement with a pronounced religious leaning (number 81 in the global ranking).

Last year, we considered writers only if they were not from North America or Europe – outside the Anglo-Saxon cultural sphere, those working in the humanities tend to be less organised, with thinkers from the realms of culture and politics having greater influence.  Thus for example were Paulo Coelho, Mario Vargas Llosa or Arundhati Roy included in 2013 – whereas the European Milan Kundera was not. This year, however, he was included, because although the Czech Republic is part of Europe, it is certainly not part of the broad Anglo-Saxon culture. The very intensive adoption of Kundera's ideas, particularly in Latin America, was what put him in the leaders' group.

Is Muhammad Yunus a doer, as founder and long-time director of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, or rather a thinker? Rather the latter, we say today – and probably also should have said last year, when we did not include Yunus in the list of candidates. A mistake on our part.


Of the ten highest ranked candidates last year, none made it into the top ten in 2014. The best performance among last year's leaders was by Jürgen Habermas, falling from second place to achieve twelfth place this year. 2013 number one Al Gore, however, came in at place 30, while Australian philosopher Peter Singer dropped from 3 to 68.

We see three main reasons for this volatility:

1. The very large fluctuations in the blogosphere component of the ranking.
The trends in this category, characteristic of the media segment, are very short-term. Depending on the events currently shaping the debate, placements can vary greatly from measurement to measurement. Al Gore, for example, who took a very convincing first place last year in this category, came in at number 198 this year. No doubt the volatility of this category would be reduced if multiple measurements were distributed over the year, but this would involve considerable additional expense. The Wikisphere ranking, however, is much more stable in a year-on-year comparison: Seven of the highest ranked thinkers in this component were also among the top ten in 2013.

2. The inclusion of new additional criteria.
Compared with last year, two additional measurement categories were added – betweenness centrality in the Twittersphere, and the number of Wikipedia pages in different language versions. Twitter communications with or about Paulo Coelho, Stephen Hawking or Edward Snowden, to give some examples, gave them a high betweenness rating (people talking with and/or about them) and therefore a good ranking for this criterion, whereas Jürgen Habermas did badly in this area. The number of different language versions in Wikipedia is an indicator of the global importance of a thinker. The inclusion of this new criterion contributes to a reduction in Anglo-Saxon dominance in the overall result: While five of the top ten intellectuals last year were from the United States, this year it is down to just two. This factor is also noticeable in the overall ranking, albeit less pronounced: forty of the top 100 come from the US – three less than in 2013, but still by far the largest group.

3. Changed weighting in the initial list of candidates.
Any change to the people selected leads automatically to a change in the networks between the people studied. Particularly for groups of thinkers whose members communicate heavily with each other, such as physicists or Arabic-speaking scientists, this can influence the measurement of betweenness centrality in the sample as a whole. For example, a higher number of Indian thought leaders among the candidates has probably contributed to the fact that an Indian economist, Partha Dasgupta, came in at first place in the blogosphere component of the ranking – but managed an influence rank of "only" 139 overall.


Given these factors, the results of the global thought leader rankings are comparable only to a limited extent from year to year. This is especially true for changes in the placement of individuals, which is why we deliberately refrain from publishing lists of winners or losers. Our self-imposed mission to compile a realistic and credible influence ranking of global thought leaders will lead to adjustments to criteria, candidates and weightings in the coming years – just as the criteria for Google's Page Rank algorithm are regularly changed to produce search results that are useful to users. And now, here’s the 2014 ranking:

The patterns found in the aggregated data in particular are credible in the sense discussed above. Here also, comparison with previous years allows observations and assertions that point towards social developments. A quantitative comparison of the top 100 with those of the previous year can be found in the.

We now present the most striking observations from the 2014 global thought leader ranking.


The debate about values​in the infosphere currently appears to be more important than economics or technology. This is supported by the continued good rankings for philosophers, although the density of philosophers has decreased in the top group. It is also supported by the increase in theologians at the top – whose number actually also includes the anti-theologian Richard Dawkins in 19th place.

This placement is also an indication of why the debate on values is so predominant: there is much to argue. The relationship between the state and religion has become an emotive issue primarily due to the rise of Islamism, while at the same time, the new Pope has also initiated a whole series of debates within the Catholic Church. The challenges posed by migration and refugee flows is also providing many opportunities for debate and shaping the social discourse.

The trend among economists is the reverse. While during the first decade of the 21st century it was they who were at the centre of public attention, fighting out the issues of prosperity and adversity in the national and world economies, the discipline has become calmer in the fifth year since the second world economic crisis of 2008/2009. The main economic and financial policy decisions have been made – and regardless of whether they are now considered right or wrong, they have established facts that curtail the appetite for academic debate. The economists ranked highest this year are known less for their positions with respect to debates on economics or taxation, but instead for discussion of issues relating to values: Amartya Sen (3rd place) and Muhammad Yunus (5th place).


At least since the time of Homer, if not thousands of years beforehand, storytellers have held people under their spell. The teachings of the great religious scriptures are also packed in large part into adventure stories. And what is still the best selling archaeological work of non-fiction of all time, "Gods, Graves and Scholars", appeared in 1949 with the subtitle "The Story of Archaeology". Good stories seem to inspire more people than new technologies or the economic situation. And despite big data and high-tech, it is still the storytellers who capture peoples' imaginations. This is true in the strict sense for poets and novelists: no less than eight of them have made it into the top 100, with three among the top ten: Milan Kundera, Mario Vargas Llosa and Paulo Coelho. And it is also true in the broader sense for journalists and non-fiction authors, including for example Naomi Klein, Jaron Lanier and Douglas Rushkoff, people who have the ability to attach big ideas to a big definition and convey it to a wide audience. Ideas are rarely read in the original, and these intermediaries therefore have a major role in bringing thought leaders together with the rest of the world.


Although there is a surprisingly strong mix in the upper echelons of this year's ranking – whether by region, age group or discipline – the dominance of the traditional stereotype of the thought leader as an old white man remains pronounced: 88 of the top 100 are men (four more than last year), 71 of whom are sixty years old or older, and 73 are from North America or Europe (six less than 2013).

As far as age is concerned, any fundamental change in this pattern is unlikely: effective history and life experience are two of the most important elements in exercising serious influence, and cases like Malala Yousafzai or Edward Snowden (the two youngest people in the top 100) remain exceptions.

With regard to gender, a change in the pattern is at best possible in the medium term: While the selection processes that lead to the appointment of leading positions in government, business, research and culture have been gender neutral for some time now, it may well be decades before this effect is reflected in the global thought leader rankings.

And a change in the pattern with respect to being part of the West would be possible immediately if the major cultures that cannot be measured with the method chosen here could be included in the evaluation: China and the Arab world. The thinkers in these two regions are to a large extent cut off from the global discourse conducted in English. There are also language barriers in other cultures, but for the main thinkers at least, for example Jürgen Habermas in the German-speaking world or Esther Duflo and Thomas Piketty in the French-speaking world, translations are made and ideas find their way into the international sphere. This is not the case for China and the Arab world (and only partially for Russia and Turkey). In terms of debate at least, globalisation does therefore appear to have some fixed borders.


Short and sweet: In the global context, Swiss thinker play virtually no role. As in last year's survey, only the theologian Hans Küng (ranked 13) and Tariq Ramadan (76) are to be found among the global top 100. From a purely quantitative perspective, this is not such a bad showing: 0.1 percent of the world's population provides 2.0 percent of the most important global thinkers. But it by no means reflects the Swiss people's understanding of themselves as world leaders in issues of theology.

Oh well, maybe next time.