Innovation Sighting: The Great Sunflower Project

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July 25, 2011

Innovation Sighting: The Great Sunflower Project

On average, one of every three bites of food you put in your mouth depends on “animal pollination” – the movement of insects, particularly bees, between plants. They play a crucial role in flowering plant reproduction and in the production of most fruits and vegetables. About 80% of all flowering plants and over three-quarters of the staple crop plants that feed humankind rely on animal pollinators like bees. But bees are in trouble. Scientific studies have suggested that both honey bee and native bee populations are declining. Scientists fear this will harm pollination of garden plants, crops and wild plants. They could help bees if they could collect simple data about their presence at certain times in certain locations. With this data, they can devise ways to conserve and improve the bee population. How do you track bees on such a large scale? By assigning the data collection task to an external resource – everyday gardeners.

On average, one of every three bites of food you put in your mouth depends on “animal pollination” – the movement of insects, particularly bees, between plants.  They play a crucial role in flowering plant reproduction and in the production of most fruits and vegetables. About 80% of all flowering plants and over three-quarters of the staple crop plants that feed humankind rely on animal pollinators like bees.

But bees are in trouble.  Scientific studies have suggested that both honey bee and native bee populations are declining. Scientists fear this will harm pollination of garden plants, crops and wild plants.  If they could collect simple data about their presence at certain times in certain locations, they can devise ways to conserve and improve the bee population.

How do you track something as small as bees on such a large scale?  By assigning the data collection task to an external resource – everyday gardeners.

Started in 2008, The Great Sunflower Project enlists 100,000 participants to count bees for 15 minutes and submit data online. It all happens on the same day, July 16th.  Researchers use the data to map areas that bees are doing well and where they need help.  San Francisco State University Professor Gretchen LeBuhn is founder and director of The Great Sunflower Project.

This is an example of the Task Unification technique, one of five techniques in the S.I.T. innovation method.  Task Unification works by assigning an additional task to an existing resource.  There are three versions of it (The Great Sunflower Project is version 3).

  1. Choose and internal component and make it do something extra, either a specific or non-specific internal task.
  2. Choose an internal component and make it do the function of an external component (it “steals” the external component’s function)
  3. Choose an external component and use it to perform a task within the product or service.

“Simply by taking that 15-minute step, you’ve made a contribution to saving bees,” she said. “It’s remarkable having all these different people willing to participate, willing to help and interested in making the world a better place.”