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The Big Idea
Those that recognise TED react to it with enthusiasm and near-addiction. Meet the U.S-based nonprofit dedicated to spreading ‘ideas worth sharing’
April 10, 2012 2:15 by kippreport
TED You know you’ve seen the now infamous acronym somewhere before. And though to many it remains vague, those in the know react to it with enthusiasm and shameless recognition of a near-addiction.
As sky blue as it may sound, TED is a US-based non-profit dedicated to spreading “ideas worth sharing.” Today, an estimated half a billion individuals worldwide are familiar with the concept, with a particularly important proliferation in the Middle East, especially over the past couple of years.
The California-born TED concept, founded by American architect Richard Saul Wurman in 1984, started as a series of conferences with experts presenting ideas in technology, entertainment and design. But since its inception, “TED talks” evolved in both style and content, currently offering insight into all realms of life by speakers that include anyone from Bill Clinton to Bill Gates, political prisoners to behavior psychologists, international noble prize winners to local entrepreneurs.
The core of the non-profit’s work continues to be an annual series of conferences in California, with a more recent set of chapters opened in the UK under the name TED Global. Over the decades, it has expanded
through a number of TED-related events and activities that take place worldwide.
Attending the live event costs $1000, a hefty price tag that many TED loyalists say guarantees attendees are
wholeheartedly engaged. But in the year 2004, limited access to the phenomenon was broken as 20 years into its creation, the non-profit went virtual.
“Once online, TED talks changed forever,” said half-British half-Italian Girogio Ungania, who has been smitten with the phenomenon since then, and who attended TED Global in the UK in 2005.
According to him, putting the talks on the web only nurtured people’s desire to be part of the live conference, regardless of its price tag, as anyone from wealthy people to house wives or students, who save up for several years, attend the gathering, said Ungania, who is executive director of Zayed University’s Media Initiative in Dubai.
Five years later, TED was yet again, revolutionized as the concept of TEDx came to life.
“It basically lets you run a small version of the conference, as long as you follow basic guidelines,” said Ungania, who applied for the license as soon as the idea was revealed.
The fully independently organized events can be linked to a specific theme, such as last year’s TEDxGreen Beirut, which, in honor of World Environment Day, centered on the theme of being green. A number of other TEDx events are linked to a location, most frequently a city. This past November, TEDx Youth events took place in 44 countries, including Cairo, Amman, Manama and Dubai.
“One of the things I had been witnessing [in Dubai’s media field], is that we always had the same people talking at conferences. It was not giving the younger generation the opportunity to participate […]. So I thought this type of conference would provide this avenue,” said Ungania, who holds the TEDx Dubai license.
TEDx Dubai was among the first TEDx happenings in the Arab World, while today, the events seem to be mushrooming throughout the region, from Cairo to Beirut, Wadi Rum to Muscat.
“Because its content is so diverse, and usually isolated from religion and politics, it has an impact on Arab youth, especially in the realm of technology and education, and especially in light of the Arab Spring,” said Zeid Abdul-Hadi, who after attending TED Global 2010, decided to bring the experience to Jordan last spring.
Abdul-Hadi said he was inspired by the non-traditional format of the event, in which “speakers are given up to 18 minutes to present their ideas in innovative and engaging ways.”
He also feels TEDx provides “hidden talents [with] the center stage void of any bureaucratic barriers to entry.” As such, he organized last month’s TEDxYouth Day in Amam.
Similarly to him, organizers such as Lebanon’s Patricia Zougheib told TRENDS “TED was too good not to be shared,” as last September, she co-created Lebanon’s first large-scale TEDx Beirut that attracted an audience of almost 1,000.
And in Egypt, last fall, TEDx Cairo received over 7,000 applicants, said Bassem el Hady, who at only 23 years old brought the concept to Cairo with two close friends in 2010.
A special “filtration team” had to go through the “horrible process” of weeding out contenders, said El Hady, while noting the audience was made of an interesting mix.
Although entrance fees can be charged to help cover the costs of logistics, most organizers strive to nix an entrance fee to their event, meaning they sometimes end up with exponentially more applicants than they can manage.
Halim Madi, a nano-economist who spoke at the Beirut event, said he thought the TED audience was not so much a primarily young audience, but rather one that is “wired, and very much in touch with news about tech and science,” which he deemed common ground to all TED and TEDx attendees he had met.
“There’s a strong belief that science has a lot of answers. When discussions tackle spirituality, they can also be very deep, but science and tech talks are always sources of amazement to everybody. So it’s not young people who are concerned here, it’s most probably young, connected people,” he said, and it seems that against today’s backdrop of Arab revolutions, being connected is often at par with being politically aware.
Although according to TED guidelines the talks must refrain from addressing politics and religion, the high strung nature of such themes in capitals such as Beirut and Cairo means avoiding them is not always easy, especially when, to some, talking about the problem is part of finding the solution.
“We cannot talk about politics, which is not always easy given the state of the country post-revolution,” said El Hady, who is also TEDx Cairo’s head of marketing and communications team. He expressed hope, however, that the talks would yield positive results in an indirect way.
At present, Egypt is going through a difficult transitional phase, where mostly pro-revolutionaries are finding themselves at odds with the military, as symbolized by clashes in October, when the army brutally cracked down on peaceful demonstrations protesting the burning of Coptic churches in the city of Aswan.
In addition to avoiding politics, the content of TEDx must be bias-free, and void of commercials and religious affiliation. Each presentation must be under 18 minutes, and the event can last no longer than a day.
TEDx Cairo’s latest installment, brandished under the theme of “Resurrection”, came only a few months after the Egyptian revolution and managed to keep itself globally clean of contentious topics.
But as distant from politics as it tries to be, with happenings such as the Arab Spring, the lines are somehow blurred. Last March, while planning for TEDx Cairo 2011, El Hady and his partners received a phone call from Chris Anderson, the curator of the TED conference, based in the US.
“He told us what had happened in Egypt was amazing and that he wanted to know the insides of the revolution,” El Hady said.
Within 36 hours, he and his partners prepared a special “Wonders of Tahrir” edition of TEDx Cairo that was screened live during the main TED conference 2011, “The rediscovery of Wonders,” which took place in California in March. Speakers included four of the most popular figures of the Egyptian Revolution.
Last April’s TEDx Ramallah, which highlighted Palestinian achievements, also came face to face with politics, as due to travel constraints, organizers had to provide simultaneous instalments of the conferences in Beirut and Amman to ensure access to those forbidden from travel to the occupied territories.
Among its speakers was the famous Jamil Abu-Wardeh, well known in Dubai’s standup comedy scene and producer of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour, who had spoken at TED Global in 2010.
Indeed, with anything from talks about the chemistry of love and attraction within the brain to secrets to achieving entrepreneurial goals, the architecture of Tahrir Square to surpassing confessionalism in Lebanon, TED talks inspire viewers in an infinite number of ways.
Pending on the installment, speakers are chosen or apply to participate via a selection process that is competitive. But what is certain is that whether speaker, or attendees, organizer or volunteer, participants are all on a sort of “TED high.”
“Participating in the event was one of the best experiences of my life,” said Yorgui Teyrouz, who had spoken at the Beirut event in September. As for prospects in the region, he feels they are both positive and significant, as long as the content does not get too politicized, he said.
By Aline Sara
First published in TRENDS magazine.