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COMMENTARY: It’s not the rice pudding, it’s the $8 experience…

What do these have in common: a $4.50 cup of cappuccino in one of Starbucks’ warm-and-cozy stores and an $8 bowl of rice pudding at Rice to Riches, a far-out, space ship-design New York eatery, where diners are surrounded by flat screen TVs extolling the virtues of the gooey dish (“21 delicious flavors: Chocolate Carnivore, Cinnamon Sling, Caramel Yogurt Crackdown,” etc.)?

Both, says Andrew Zolli, take a product and surround it with a compellingly-designed environment to create “an experience.” Rather than a simple cup of Joe or a hunk of sweetened rice, they encase their products in an image that attracts customers willing to pay a premium price.

Zolli, a futurist for Z+ Partners, a Brooklyn, N.Y., firm that consults with companies to understand and shape their future and develop forward-looking brands and businesses, says we’re moving rapidly into the “experience economy.”

“Design is becoming increasingly important, as companies seek ways to encourage people to spend more,” he said at a recent conference for editors of Primedia Business Magazines and Media (which include the Farm Presses) at St. Petersburg, Fla. “Increasingly, companies are moving away from a service economy toward one characterized by creativity. Starbucks is the classic example: They take 10 cents worth of coffee and turn it into a $4.50 per cup experience.”

Another major shift, Zolli says, is away from the “green” movement of the ’60s and ’70s and the ecological sustainability movement of the ’80s and ’90s to “evocation — ecological thinking combined with innovation, using nature as a source of business competitiveness and as a source of technology.”

Example: The lotus plant, which grows up through mud and muck, yet keeps a clean leaf surface in order to most effectively collect the sun’s rays. Science has analyzed this very specific biological mechanism and a commercial company has transferred it to a house paint, Lotusan, that repels dirt and stains. The same principle is being used in easy-to-clean floor surfaces

And, Zolli says, in Zimbabwe there is an extraordinary building, the country’s largest commercial/shopping complex, that uses dramatically less energy by copying the principle indigenous termites use to keep their mounds at a constant temperature 24/7.

“These are just two of many ways research and business will combine green thinking with green science.”

The biotechnology that has revolutionized much of agriculture will, over the next 50 years, be “as important as information technology has been over the past 50 years,” Zolli says. He refers to it as “hacking the genome.”

There’ll be more “pharming,” growing crops for medical purposes. “We’ll see plants growing cancer cures tailored to the individual, based on his/her genetic code, as well as solutions to malnutrition and other health problems.”

Longer life spans are also in the cards. “Scientists have recently been able to get a microscopic nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, to live the human equivalent of 540 years. That is astounding.” Pharmaceutical companies “are betting heavily” on life-extending research, Zolli says, which will increasingly raise the questions: How much longer do we want to live? And at what cost?

“We’re reshaping what it means to be a human being,” he says.


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