"Average" is not a word that easily lends itself to a description of Giorgio Ungania. Much about the co-founder of TedxDubai, from his six-foot-five height to his unabashed war against what he calls "media dinosaurs", deviates from the realm of the ordinary. It is a sensibility that led the producer and new-media proponent to bring the concept of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), a high-profile conference that focuses on spreading new ideas through innovative guest speakers, to Dubai this past October. Reflecting upon the event's production and the release of the TedxDubai film last week, which features all the talks from the October event, Ungania says it was a project he took on because it seemed undoable.
"You have to be crazy enough to take the risks for success," he says in his distinct accent - a product of time spent in Italy and Australia. "Otherwise I would have never done it." Planned during Ramadan and launched the week after Eid al Fitr, the production presented Ungania with logistical as well as operational challenges that at times made it seem impossible. Key decision-makers were absent, sponsors were out of reach and venues difficult to secure - at one point, he had no hotel for his guests. "I knew it was going to work out," he says. "I didn't know how, and I didn't know when, but I knew it would."
One thousand people ended up attending the one-day event, which featured speakers such as Mohammed Saeed Harib, the creator of Freej; Joichi Ito, the CEO of Creative Commons; and Bruno Giussani, the European director for TED. Ungania considers it an impressive roster for an independently organised TED event, given the time constraint and location. The parent conference is known for its ability to draw star power: Al Gore, Bill Gates, Isabel Allende and a number of Nobel Prize winners have all been speakers.
In taking on such projects, it is not so much blind optimism that drives Ungania as sheer curiosity to see if he can succeed. As a student of music and a rock-star hopeful who morphed into a tech-savvy producer, Ungania says that most of his life has been spent in pursuit of intellectual stimulation."I get bored very easily," he says. This is what partly drew him to Dubai; as a producer for Orbit TV in Rome, he found it strange that he was creating content in a European country for an Arab country. So he decided to come over and investigate - just out of curiosity.
Four years on, he says: "I consider Dubai my second home. It's funny, because when people ask me where I'm from, and I say Rome, they ask why I'm here. I reply that if I go back 150 years from now to Rome, everything will be the same: nothing changes in Italy. It's static life. "But Dubai is always looking to the future, and there's always something new happening. I mean, you might get lost when they change the road signs," he quips. "But it's adrenaline for me. You never know what's going to happen next."
TedxDubai seems to support that idea; as an invitation-only, free event, its format was unprecedented in the UAE. Sponsors such as Philips, the SAE Institute, Ford and THE One donated their services. There was no advertising - popularity spread through word of mouth. "We didn't go to the media," says Ungania. "In fact, the media came to us." Part of the strategy lay in Ungania's belief that new-media models are slowly replacing the old distribution chain of command, which can place numerous middlemen between producer and consumer. "Because technology is changing and evolving, we can start directing and producing and going directly to the consumer. All those other steps that are adding no value to the consumer are cut out."
The TedxDubai film follows this model. The idea is viral promotion - fans using networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook advertise availability, while free content platforms such as YouTube, or in this case, Vimeo, allow consumers easy access. As a compilation of the TedxDubai talks, there is something head-scratchingly hyper-real about the set-up; a movie on the web about talks on ideas uses ideas on the web to promote a movie on talks. It's just one of the many iterations in content creation that Ungania sees gripping the media industry as companies struggle to squeeze out a bottom line in the age of cyber-democracy, where content tends towards free.
From today, Ungania begins planning TedxDubai 2010. Though he's not sure how this year's event will turn out, he's confident that the emirate for which it is named will not disappoint. As he says: "Dubai does not do routine; it's history in the making." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org