Super TED

In Dubai, Marketing, Opinion, Published journalism on November 24, 2010 at 3:47 pm

TEDx Dubai’s mixed bag of speakers might have spouted the odd cliché, but they knew how to hold an audience

Originally published in Communicate, November 2009

Last month saw the first TEDx Dubai, a regional spin off of the globally renowned ideas conference, in which key speakers and big thinkers can share ideas across a limitless range of topics with each other – and a local audience.

Those who wanted to attend had to fill in a form explaining what they were passionate about and why they should be at the talks. This was an early problem for Communicate, since we are aware that chocolate digestives and are not considered admirable, or even acceptable, passions in polite society.
Fortunately, our half semester of creative writing with the online School of International Journalism, Screenwriting and Stock Trading held us in good stead. As far as TEDx is now concerned, we spend most days designing augmented reality microfinance apps for Android phones and studying the work of Post-Impressionist painters.

The acronym TED stands for technology, entertainment, design. We were rather hoping the “x” indicated some sort of extreme element – maybe some wakeboarding of BMX stunts. Alas, it was not to be; it signified that the conference was independently organized, rather than being run by the New York organization that has hosted such luminaries as former US president Bill Clinton, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and chimp expert Jane Goodall.

It may not have been the original article, but expectations were high. If chosen, attendees could hear 20 speakers presenting topics as diverse as biophotonics and Arab stand-up comedy. Communicate wondered briefly if these two would be combined – sadly not, as it turned out.

Some presenters were flown in from abroad, such as technology commentator Leo Laporte, the European director of TED Bruno Giussani, and “design evangelist” Paul Bennett. Others were more local, such as the UAE’s Mohmmed Saeed Harib, creator of television show Freej; Naif Al Mutawa, the Kuwaiti behind The 99 comic books; and Dubai-based founder of The One furniture store, Thomas Lundgren.

A hastily convened game of buzzword bingo found these “conversations” “excited” great “passion,” even providing the “inspiration” for us to “redefine” out work. We will now be using “unfocus groups” to provide “authentic voices” and find “solutions” that can help us take that “leap.”

Chief buzzword culprit was Paul Bennett, creative director of design agency Ideo. The topic of his speech was, “What is your dream for Dubai?”

“I’m just here to hold up a mirror and answer some questions,” he said, as audience members began choking to death on the torrent of self-satisfaction that came flowing from the stage. “I’m not sure if the word ‘designer’ is the right word for what I do any more,” said Bennett. “I think I’m more of an educator.”

And educate us he did. “Design is what happens between dreaming and being,” he imparted. “You guys are professional strength dreamers – I would encourage you to take that by the horns and run with it.” Credit to him, though, he was also refreshingly honest. “As a designer, you are trained to have an enormous ego,” he said. He is clearly well trained.

The One’s Lundgren, meanwhile, brought a touch of the new age to proceedings by making the audience give backrubs to one another, before explaining how an angel told him to save the world from big corporations. “How many of you have seen angels?” asked the boss of a not-insignificantly-sized corporation.

Weirdly, around 10 hands went up. Immediately. We suspect they thought he was about to finish his sentence, “…and Demons? It was better than The Davinci Code, wasn’t it?”

Many of the talks fell on the wrong side of the divide between inspiration and self-promotion, but some speakers were genuinely inspiring. Masarat Daud’s descriptions of the work her Eight Day Academy has done in Rajasthan’s villages, in particular, almost sounded more rewarding than working in marketing.

TEDx Dubai was well organized and, importantly, it cost nothing. There was a mixed bag of speakers, and the audience stayed put, obviously approving; at least 80 percent of the seats were still filled at the end of a very long day.

And, best of all, everyone got something out of the event. TEDx provided just as much creative inspiration, if not more, than the big, shiny, expensive seminars that so regularly roll into town.


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