The theme for this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting is The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business. Rapid urbanization is clearly one key force driving that change, and new research from Jones Lang LaSalle indicates that real estate is emerging as a major factor reshaping the world’s cities.

Traditional thinking sees real estate as a product or consequence of a city’s success: successful cities attract real estate investment. What we’re finding, though, is that real estate can actually drive a city’s success, attracting investment capital which then contributes to a city’s ability to attract the new business that will make it more successful.

Which cities benefit? While investors around the world are increasing their allocations to real estate, they’re focusing on specific city types.

We’ve looked at the world’s 30 top cities for direct commercial real estate investment. We’ve divided them into three groups: “super cities” (think London, New York, Tokyo or Paris), “primary cities” (Los Angeles, Singapore and Beijing among them) and “second-tier” markets (Seattle, Berlin, Osaka and others).

Over the past decade, these 30 cities have accounted for half the $4.6 trillion total in direct real estate investments. If real estate markets were football/soccer teams, these would be competing for the World Cup.

The dynamics are interesting. Growing cross-border capital investment has boosted demand for commercial real estate in super and primary cities, from London to Beijing. This flood of capital means there are no longer enough attractive property investments in these markets, causing investors to look to somewhat riskier places to allocate their funds.

Second-tier cities are profiting. In particular, second-tier cities that combine good governance, sound educational systems and innovative city planning are gaining momentum. They are focusing on flexible, well-designed real estate: open, sustainable and collaborative work spaces in urban settings with amenities that appeal to the knowledge workers companies are increasingly trying to hire. This approach attracts investors by attracting tenants in high-growth sectors like tech and healthcare.

Since the global downturn, large corporate tenants have tended to focus on containing costs and managing their existing portfolios. With many markets regaining economic momentum, this is changing. Companies are shifting operations to second-tier cities and expanding to new areas to address business needs, access new skills and take advantage of new opportunities. Such movement encourages investors to follow the corporations into new markets.

Thinking in terms of super, primary and second-tier markets not only offers a new way to think about global capital flows into real estate, but also to anticipate the successful cities of the future.

Global capital allocated to commercial real estate is still concentrated in the world’s super and primary cities. But as real estate investors broaden their horizons to new markets, innovation and reinvention will guide the definition of successful cities.

Colin Dyer is president and chief executive officer of Jones Lang LaSalle, a World Economic Forum Strategic Partner. He is participating in the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos-Klosters. Watch a Jones Lang LaSalle interview with him here.

Image: A man takes a photograph of the Tokyo skyline August 8, 2007. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao