(Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 17, 2018)
By Paul Vogt
The new Innovation Centre that Red River College is building in Winnipeg’s Exchange District has been making headlines recently but for all the wrong reasons.
The Winnipeg Free Press has covered extensively the uncertainty this crucial project is facing due to unrealistic construction deadlines set by the federal government. Despite raising alarm bells with Ottawa in recent weeks and months, RRC is still waiting for a resolution.
This is unfortunate because the better story is what the new Centre will bring to our city and our province – what it will mean to the students it will serve; to the surrounding cluster of start-ups and leading edge industries in Innovation Alley; and to the unique, urban ‘gem’ the revitalized Exchange District is quickly becoming.
The $95 million, 100,000-square-foot Innovation Centre, announced last April, is merely Red River’s latest contribution to the ongoing revitalization of our historic Exchange District.
It started 15 years ago when RRC took a risk and opened its first building on Princess Street, bringing 2,000 students, faculty and staff downtown and creating a catalyst for the renaissance that has been taking place in this iconic neighborhood ever since.
That building, later named the Roblin Centre, set a high bar for RRC’s presence in the Exchange, preserving the architectural heritage that makes the area a unique and appealing destination while incorporating modern classrooms, labs and equipment. Behind the facades of the old mercantile shops, a state-of-the-art campus was built for students in computing, business, design and communications.
Five years ago we did it again, taking the old Union Bank Tower on Main Street – vacant and derelict for 17 years – and transforming it into a leading-edge culinary and hospitality training school with dining areas and a 90-bed student residence. Now known as the Paterson Global Institute, the school has helped spark an emergence of exciting new restaurants in the area, many involving RRC alumni.
Our new Innovation Centre will live up to the standards of its award-winning predecessors. It will be located on a site that includes an old market warehouse on Elgin Avenue. It is a century-old structure built to serve for another century. Our design will preserve this heritage building in its entirety, while incorporating a new structure that is modern, green and outfitted to meet the needs of 21st century education.
The very design of the new facility is central to the Innovation Centre story. It is also the story of Red River College and how we have always been about turning major challenges into new opportunities and historic pivot points.
Our mandate is to provide students with job-relevant skills; to produce graduates who can hit the ground running wherever they are hired. We are, in fact, a little obsessive on this point. We survey our students six months after they graduate and the results show that 94-96 per cent of our grads are employed in the fields they were trained for.
We also get high marks from employers, but are also constantly reminded that we cannot rest on our laurels, that RRC must keep changing in order to meet the needs of our students, employers and match the accelerated pace of today’s workplace.
Across all sectors of our economy, workplaces are undergoing rapid transformation, driven by the introduction of new technologies and process or product innovations. Employers are looking for technical skill sets that match their innovation strategies. They are also looking for a more general set of skills – the so-called “power skills” – that contribute to an employee’s resilience and adaptability. These include the abilities to problem-solve, work effectively within a team, communicate well and acquire new competencies as needed.
Our response to these emerging needs is college-wide, but the new Innovation Centre is where the changes will be most apparent. Modeled on a similar facility recently opened at Waterloo University, our Innovation Centre is designed to facilitate an approach known as collaborative- or problem-based education – where teams of students learn by working directly or “colliding” with local firms, social enterprises and entrepreneurs.
In one sense, we are just doubling down on the college’s existing strength, which is our close industry partnerships. The growth of Red River’s applied research program – to the point that we are now the top applied research college in Western Canada – has added a new dimension to our partnerships, supporting Manitoba companies and enterprises in product and process development.
At our Exchange District Campus we work closely with Innovation Alley (now North Forge) to provide entrepreneurs and start-ups with facilities and expert advice. The pay-off to the college, of course, has been to expose our students to leading-edge innovations and the real-world challenges of getting ideas off the ground. The Innovation Centre will feature this form of collaboration on a much grander scale.
In another sense, this is about the changing face of education. The Innovation Centre won’t have many traditional classrooms, where rows of seats are aligned to face “the sage on stage.” The rooms are designed for collaboration, with open space to mingle, wall-to-wall whiteboards, and connected alcoves where industry partners can set up shop and become part of the learning process.
The Centre will bring an additional 1,200 students to the Exchange District. It will allow us to accommodate rising demand for our existing programs in computing, business and communications. We will also be bringing our language training programs to the Exchange and adding new programs in Indigenous entrepreneurship and social enterprise. Most importantly, we will be breaking down boundaries between our program areas, offering RRC students the opportunity to acquire different combinations of skills, with an emphasis on problem-solving and innovation.
This model of education is taking root across Canada and North America. If Red River College loses this opportunity, we run the risk of falling behind other jurisdictions when it comes to modernizing and innovating our college system. We need the federal government to honor its promises to Manitoba and ensure our students and employers have the same competitive advantage as others across the country.