Global Thought Leaders 2013


Who are the thought leaders shaping today's discourse on the future of society and the economy? Whose ideas are defining and changing our lives? Where is the impetus for innovation and social change coming from? Working together with Peter Gloor, GDI now presents the second "Global Thought Leader Map", and the resulting "influence rank", which may prove to be an effective tool for measuring the influence of the world's most important thinkers.

Here is a PDF of this article.

By Karin Frick, Peter Gloor and Detlef Gürtler


And faster. Rankings used to be simple – the most frequently played song, the best-selling book, the most cited expert. With the volume of information now available and the rise of new media and new communication technologies, the number of ways to measure the dissemination of information and the influence of an idea or a product or an actor or a thinker have also grown. Rankings and ratings can be created today in a split second, and everything from the most popular topics on Twitter or Wikipedia, Amazon's sales figures, the most streamed songs on Spotify, the most watched videos on YouTube or the most searched terms on Google can be tracked in real time – just like a stock ticker. The trend is moving from the hit of the year or week to the real-time, or instant, hit. One television appearance, one viral video, one outlandish tweet can be enough to make you talk of the town – or talk of the world – just not for very long. When you measure thought leaders on a minute-by-minute basis, everybody's chance of fifteen minutes (or seconds) of fame gets bigger. Andy Warhol would have loved us.

And fame is now not only more fleeting – the stages it plays out on are also getting smaller and smaller. Every website now offers its own ranking of the most frequently clicked, most liked, most shared, most commented posts. What matters now is no longer so much pervasiveness, popularity or sales as a whole – the essential thing is to be at the forefront of the specific target group or "filter bubble". This has given rise to countless new micro-hitlists and peer group rankings. You could almost feel sorry for the television producers thirty years from now whose job it is to make the equivalent of today's "80s shows" for the youth of that time – but then again, in thirty years’ time there probably won't be anything resembling what we today call television.

And more generally. In contrast to the micro-ratings, which survey the number of hits in ever finer niches – actually bunkers of a sort – the global thought leader ranking is our attempt to identify the thinkers and ideas that resonate with the global infosphere as a whole. The objective of this study, which was developed jointly by GDI Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute and Peter Gloor and his company Galaxyadvisors, is nothing less than to identify the world's most influential contemporary thinkers using software specifically designed to do so.

In our analysis, the importance and influence of a thinker and/or idea is measured not only by how well they come across in a particular segment or on a specific platform such as Twitter or YouTube, but also how heavily they are networked and linked. We measure "links and likes" (Norbert Bolz). Unlike other rankings, global thought leaders in this study are not simply reduced to a place number: the analysis also shows how the world's leading thinkers are networked, and which of them are relevant across countries and subject areas, which are being talked about, and which are triggering wider debate.

For the sociologist Randall Collins, one of the world's leading experts on the origin and development of ideas, the progress of thought and ideas originates in networks of intellectuals (see interview page 40). Traditional ranking and survey methods are not conducive to recognising such networks – Time magazine has after all never chosen a "Network of the Year" as opposed to a "Person of the Year". The advantage of the method applied here is that both the individual and the network are taken into account. Using this method, an "influence rank" was determined for each thinker under consideration (a table of the top 100 can be found on page 17), and also the relative position of each thinker within the global, English-speaking infosphere.

In accordance with the study design, an initial selection of over 200 thinkers from all disciplines and from throughout the world were measured in terms of their influence, centrality and networking in two different environments: the blogosphere and the Wikisphere.

The extent to which the leading thinkers in the blogosphere are networked is shown on the right. We see this primarily as a measure of influence that tends to be short-term. Each individual is measured here in terms of the intensity of debate surrounding them. The yellow dots represent the sources included in the study, while the red dots represent the individuals. Quite a number of people did not make it into the assessment because they did not meet the specified criteria: working predominantly as a thinker, known beyond the borders of their own discipline, and influential (see page 21 for more on the methodology of the study).

The position of a thinker or an idea can be influenced by current events that happen to focus particular attention on an individual during the period of the study. Last year for example, this can be assumed to be an important reason why the controversial German pundit Thilo Sarrazin landed second place in the global ranking – his book "Europe Doesn't Need the Euro" had just been published, triggering fierce debate not only in Germany, but also in other European countries. A year later, with no new book and no new controversy to generate debate, Sarrazin came in at 70th in the blog ranking and 116th place in the overall result.

The extent of networking within the English-speaking Wikisphere, which was not included in the assessment for last year's ranking, is shown here on the left. Working on the assumption that Wikipedia citations and their wording provide a relatively neutral and objective view of the relevance and influence of each individual thinker, the quantity and quality of relationships with people and concepts were measured. In the illustration, the pink dots represent individual concepts, terms or institutions, while the red dots represent people.

The larger number of unlabelled dots here compared to the presentation of the blogosphere on the previous page can be attributed mainly to the significantly higher number of deceased thinkers, such as Immanuel Kant or Milton Friedman, referenced as important influences in many entries. Some examples of these are labelled in the graphic in grey.

We see the position of these intellectuals within the Wikisphere as a more medium-term measure of influence. Whereas ardent and clamorous short-term debates are rarely reflected in a lasting manner in a thinker's Wikipedia entries, those who exercise an enduring influence on social debates with their books and articles are for the most part acknowledged accordingly by Wikipedia's authors.  


Probably the most important single factor in determining the outcome of the study was the determination of the people to be included in it. As with any analysis of networks, the work of the Coolhunting software used by Galaxyadvisors for this study is highly dependent on input – the nodes must first be established before the connections between them can be used to create a network. In our view, the demarcation of thinkers from doers is an important distinction and worthy of discussion. As thought leaders, we have defined those who exercise influence primarily through their words as opposed to their actions. With a small number of exceptions, active politicians and top managers for example were therefore generally not included.

In Europe and America, making this distinction generally poses few problems and proves difficult only at the boundary between the two, where, however, borderline cases are not necessarily the exception. In some cases, this resulted in individual decisions on inclusion among the thinkers that were contentious among our study team: we have for example included Al Gore among the thinkers, but not Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter. The entrepreneurs Craig Venter and Elon Musk made it into the circle of thought leaders because they have changed the world with their own products – whereas for their colleague Bill Gates or Larry Ellison, we have considered the focus of the debate to be rather on their business activities in the strict sense, and therefore not included them in the assessment. The speculator George Soros is in, because he is also heavily involved in the social debate, while the speculator Warren Buffett is out, because he cares for little else except making money. For us, great journalists like Malcolm Gladwell or Frank Schirrmacher belong to the thinkers, whereas the investigative journalists Julian Assange or Glenn Greenwald do not.


While in our culture the most influential thinkers tend to work in the humanities, and often in universities, we were forced to apply a different search mode throughout the Spanish-speaking world, where the role of the key social thinker is traditionally occupied by writers, such as Gabriel García Márquez or Mario Vargas Llosa. We have also included figures from the world of poetry and fiction among the candidates for thought leader in a number of other cases, including for example the Indian author Salman Rushdie.

In emerging and developing countries, we effectively abandoned the attempt to distinguish between thinkers and doers. One reason for this is that the concentration of intellectuals is so low that the best thinkers are often to be found in senior political roles, such as the Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who, after several years in the top management of the World Bank, is currently serving as Finance Minister in her home country.

Another is that the western model of the division of labour between thinkers and doers is a long way from being applied so stringently around the world: China, for example, can look back on a tradition of several thousand years in which the most desirable career goal for the best minds in the country was invariably to become a civil servant. Indeed, another factor here is that while our basic assumption – that the English language is the most conducive to thinking globally – appears to hold true throughout most of the world, that is clearly not the case in China. We were not able to measure the extent of networking between Chinese and other thinkers in either the blogosphere or Wikisphere: of the four Chinese people in the group of 216 thinkers examined, none made it into the top 100 list.

So what does our study of the thought leaders presented here tell us? It sees one discipline well in the lead, a discipline about which it is often claimed that it is subject to the competition of the attention economy: philosophy. The Australian Peter Singer, the Slovene Slavoj Žižek and the American Daniel Dennett (places 3 to 5) all work in this discipline, and with regard to the thinker with the second highest influence rank in this year's study, the German Jürgen Habermas, one could argue at length and in detail about whether he belongs in the camp of the sociologists or the philosophers. The alleged flattening of public debate is not discernible, at least from the results of this study.

Nor do the philosophers in the leaders' group owe their good position in the overall assessment so much to a top ranking in one of the two categories, but rather to solid positions in both. This makes them somewhat of an exception among the key thinkers examined – in many cases, the picture for the separate rankings within the blogosphere and Wikisphere are very different (the top 20 in each category can be found on page 38). For the blogosphere ranking, it must also be assumed that some people only made it so far up the list because they happened to publish a controversial book during the period of the study. This may again lead to some rather surprising placements in the world ranking in the coming years, as was the case with second place for Thilo Sarrazin in 2012 or fourth place for the German columnist Frank Schirrmacher (Ego) this year.


In last year's study, we felt compelled to state that there were apparently no outstanding thinkers at that time. That is not the case for this study: both in the blog and in the Wiki rankings, Al Gore is out front with a clear lead. However, with all due respect to the former US vice-president, Oscar winner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, this is arguably due not so much to the originality of his thought, but instead to his ability to popularise ideas and build bridges between science, politics and society. In his 2006 film "An Inconvenient Truth", he popularised the fight against climate change without having himself contributed any new insights to the discussion. The same may be said of the two terms coined by Gore two decades ago, and with which he is associated to this day: "information superhighway" and "global Marshall Plan". That he can still achieve such a singular result today suggests above all that the world lacks personalities capable of building such bridges between thinkers and doers.

Significantly larger in the thought leader ranking is the proportion of thinkers who build bridges between disciplines and can help other regions of the world join in the public discourse. Most of them are listed in the table as "Pundit" – personalities such as Frank Schirrmacher or Malcolm Gladwell (or even Al Gore) who are good at packing other thinkers' ideas into good stories and popularising them. That they are not simply copying existing ideas is evidenced by their outstanding ability to coin neologisms. Thomas Friedman's "flat world" or Malcolm Gladwell's "tipping point" have given new life to existing ideas by giving them new terms.

In last year's thought leader study, we saw a particularly high concentration of front runners from the United States, and of men and economists. We were uncertain as to whether and to what extent this result actually reflected their importance in the networks of thinkers, or whether it may perhaps have been due to our selection criteria. In compiling the 2012 list, we have therefore taken particular care to comply with minimum country, gender and discipline quotas.

This more varied mixture for the initial selection of the thought leader candidates is also reflected in the final outcome. While one might expect the rankings of candidates initially selected under a quota system to fall back in the competition itself, such an effect was almost nowhere to be observed in this study: the proportion of women among all candidates was 12.5 percent, and women accounted for 16 percent of the top 100 and 10 percent of the top 20. And although economists still represent the largest contingent among the thinkers, their share fell from about a third to 19.1 percent. Natural scientists, however, continue to be somewhat under-represented. Biology and physics each contribute four of the top 100 thinkers, representing the best of the natural scientists and taking sixth place among all disciplines.  

With respect to national distribution, the continuing overwhelming importance of the United States remains unshaken. 43 of the 100 highest ranked candidates are US citizens, and when dual citizenship is taken into account, almost half of the most influential thinkers in the world come from the United States. The result is likely to be even more unambiguous if place of residence or work rather than citizenship is taken into account, which was not the case in this study. At four percent and fourth place in the national ranking, India is considerably better represented than in the past, unlike China, which does not appear in the top 100. To what extent the major non-western cultures will need to be given more prominence in future thought leader studies is discussed in a separate article on page 32.

"Anyone wishing to change the world must, even today, still write a book." That was one of the findings of our study last year. We're not so sure about it anymore. It is now clear that beyond books, there are other, increasingly important ways to make an idea known. Video talks, and especially TED talks, are particularly relevant in this respect: no less than 13 of the thought leaders in the top 20 have delivered a successful TED talk or YouTube video with over 500,000 views. Which makes it all the more surprising that leading thinkers make it into the top 20 without TED, YouTube or a major marketing machine behind them. Books by Al Gore and Hollywood films may be heavily marketed, but we can be pretty sure that the marketing machine behind Jürgen Habermas is pretty modest.
For the global thought leader ranking, we worked with the Coolhunting software supplied by the company Galaxyadvisors. This software ranks the relationships between the subjects studied in the English-speaking infosphere, and the frequency and relevance of citations. Two separate assessments of influence were undertaken, one for the blogosphere and one for Wikipedia entries.

The initial selection of candidates was made with reference to qualitative influence rankings (including for example Foreign Policy, Prospect magazine), thinkers included in last year's GDI thought leader rankings, or participants in high-profile events (for example speakers at TED events), provided they met the criteria for inclusion: working predominantly as a thinker, known beyond the borders of their own discipline, and influential. Additional candidates from previously under-represented disciplines, regions or languages were also included.

In both categories, the Wikisphere and the blogosphere, an influence indicator was determined for each of the 216 candidates in the initial group. For the weighting of the blogosphere sources, the network analysis software calculates a topic-based relevance coefficient. The influence indicator is not an absolute value (such as Google's page rank for instance). Instead, it depends in each case on the composition of the statistical population: a change in the group or to the selection of the underlying sources would change the absolute value of the indicator.

In both categories, a place number for each candidate was derived from the influence indicators. These two numbers were then added together– the lower the sum, the better the overall ranking. Where the sums were equal, the rank was decided by the number of Google Scholar hits. The resulting placement is the influence rank.