Seeds planted in rural areas helping Innovation Challenge grow

Stephen Ross registered for the Manitoba Open Innovation Challenge the moment it hit his inbox.

As Superintendent of Schools & CEO of Western School Division, and as Chair of Manitoba Education Research and Learning Information Networks, participating in an initiative to improve literacy and numeracy skills for Manitoba’s children is a natural fit. But he says his role as a Manitoban is what motivated him the most.

“One of the greatest things about being Manitoban is when you get to see people from all walks of life come together to solve a problem,” says Ross. “You can’t expect things to change if you simply try harder doing the same thing and diversity is crucial to developing innovative ideas.”

The Manitoba Open Innovation Challenge was launched earlier this year by North Forge Technology Exchange to harness community input to address prominent social issues. As its first initiative, North Forge is challenging participants to target our province’s low ranking in childhood literacy and numeracy skills.


The ranking comes from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation & Development (OECD), which places Manitoba youth 8th and 9th out of all ten provinces when measuring literacy and numeracy skills. Provincial research also shows that this gap begins at a very early age, with data showing in some Manitoba communities up to 77% of kindergarteners are not ready for grade 1 literacy and numeracy curricula.

The Challenge website,, offers extensive information to help guide those wishing to take part, and Ross also attended an ideation session facilitated by inVision Edge on December 1st designed to generate discussion and creative ideas on the topic.

“To be honest, when I heard about the session I expected to hear a lot of stand pat ideas and stick-in-the-mud type thinking, but that’s not what I experienced at all,” says Ross. “What we were lead through was a very energetic and creative process that generated some really innovative solutions and outside the box thinking.”

One aspect Ross did feel was missing was a strong presence from the rural community, where he says there are even greater challenges when it comes to achieving desired targets for childhood literacy and numeracy skills.

“When you think about how hard it is to offer programs and find the parents that need help in an urban environment, just think how much harder that is outside the big circle of Winnipeg,” says Ross. “In rural settings it can be very difficult to develop effective programs to combat these trends as we’re often dealing with added transportation and poverty obstacles that make supporting rural families even more challenging.”

To make sure rural constituents had an opportunity to inject their ideas into tackling this issue, Ross approached North Forge to schedule a separate ideation session later this month, where community leaders from Morden, Portage la Prairie, Altona, etc. could offer their insight.

Ross believes one of the most important additions to this particular session will be the inclusion of rural high school students, which he feels will result in even more creative solutions.

“These kids are leaders in their respective schools… they’re working within the systems we’re looking to improve so their input is critical,” says Ross. “Plus change takes time, so it could very well be these kids who will be running with these ideas in the long term.”

For those looking to take part in this first ever Manitoba Open Innovation Challenge, offers some suggestions on where to start:

  • Interactive solutions with parents/children that families can get excited about
  • Access to personalized services with at-home solutions or through publicly available resources (e.g. libraries, community resource centres, early learning and child care programs, and public health organizations)
  • The use of technology and social media to encourage participation and engagement with all Manitobans
  • Children with additional support needs/learning challenges, Indigenous children, newcomer children, and those living in rural, norther and remote communities including First Nations
  • Ideas that are play-based

For Ross, he believes the solutions for these types of social issues are almost always environmental, but not in the way most people think.

“You really have to understand a child’s environment to solve a problem for that child,” says Ross. “The gap we’re seeing in literacy and numeracy is at a very young age. Children that young are only exposed to what we expose them to so understanding the environment in which they live and dealing with the issue at that level is very important.”

Submissions for the challenge can be made online and ideas should be developed with the following parameters in mind:

  • Have a budget of $150,000 or less to implement on a small scale
  • Can be implemented immediately and get results quickly
  • Doesn’t require significant number of staff to implement
  • Are scalable across the province