Winnipeg Free Press: Bees remind us we all have a role in innovation

The provincial government is inviting Manitobans to help plan the 2019 budget. With a core deficit, and economic uncertainty from trade wars and price fluctuations, efficiency is the word of the day.

Staying innovative is also critical to the economy. Supporting business growth — regardless of business size — and enabling development is an investment in our long-term prosperity. As we budget for the future, we need efficient innovation.

In my experience as an entrepreneur, I have found that true innovation results from holistic approaches that consider the entire ecosystem. What that means is stepping back, listening and being objective so we’re solving the right problems.

When it comes to budgeting, how we invest may be more important than how much we spend. Whatever the amount, we need flexible, multi-sector support that encourages broad thinking.

It’s a lesson we can learn from bees.

In the agricultural sector, technology is transforming the industry. Farmers can invest in autonomous tractors and combines. They can use soil sensors. They can manage fertilizer and irrigation through advanced software. In 2017, investors contributed US$1.5 billion to agtech startups.

New technologies help farmers plant faster and farther. An automated tractor will help a farmer add 100 acres in less time and for less cost than ever before.

But it’s hard for a bee to keep up.

When larger crops are planted quickly, rather than in phases, the bloom cycle is shorter. A crop like canola needs pollination, which is at risk if bee development doesn’t keep pace with agriculture. Climate change throws another question into the mix. Our increasingly variable weather patterns make crop timing more and more unpredictable.

Sometimes, we’re so focused on technology that we miss the point — and the profits. If a farmer spends millions on equipment to increase a crop by five per cent but then loses 20 per cent to a lack of pollination, that’s a missed opportunity to see innovation holistically.

New technologies can, of course, help support these ecosystems. But they need to address the right issues. When my company, Function Four, developed a new system for apiary management, the project evolved as we looked at the ecosystem.

Our initial goal with Durston Honey Farms was to build software for record keeping and management. The apiary needed to automate its records to meet new standards for food traceability.

But the project quickly became more challenging as we realized we needed to track dozens of in-hive and environmental factors that affect honey production. We weren’t simply automating the current record keeping; we were adding new components.

To increase our capacity to solve the problem, we aligned provincial ag innovation funding with Mitacs, an organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada. Mitacs helped to align us with researchers across multiple disciplines from the University of Manitoba. Together the team developed specialized sensors in the hives to track bee population, hive temperature, hive weight and more. The sensors measured the bees and the hive, and the software used machine learning and AI to help interpret and make the data accessible to the beekeeper, even from hundreds of kilometres away.

This partnership enabled our business to share its challenges with academic expertise to find a viable solution beyond a software system. The academic-industry partnership solved business challenges by considering multiple factors at once.

I work in the tech space and know, undoubtedly, technology is helpful. But it’s not our saviour. If we put our faith exclusively in technology, we don’t realize how much we may be losing from nature. Keeping our eye on the end goal — what we’re really trying to achieve — is most important.

The same principles apply to health care, education and investing efficiently in our economy. As we consider our provincial budget for 2019, let’s ensure we step back and recognize we are an ecosystem — all businesses, regardless of size, number of employees or annual profits are important parts of Manitoba. Our investments need to be symbiotic. Funding that’s flexible and supports groups working together will go further than silos that cut people off.

After all, in an age of efficiency, it’s critical we make wise decisions. The stakes are high these days. We might be betting the farm.


Bruce Hardy is the president of Function Four, a Winnipeg-based consulting, research and software development firm, where he leads teams of researchers, scientists, doctors, farmers and innovators aligning human health and wellness with intelligent food production systems for a more vibrant and healthy society.

Byline: Bruce Hardy