Rescuing stranded technologies to sustain our future
Looking at the future of our industry, and considering the current focus on areas such as emissions, it feels like there is a missing link in our evolution.
I grew up around equipment and technology, from my early days as an electrical fitter commissioning grinding mill drive systems, through a brief and unspectacular stint managing a trading business with a heap leach copper mine in Cloncurry, to reflecting back on a decade with two of the world’s largest technology conglomerates. Today from where I sit in an Industry Growth Centre, and while reading through a number of AusIMM Bulletin articles as I prepare to write this one, something keeps nagging me:
As an industry, have we got in too deep?
By this I mean – are we making the most of our potential to tap into innovative mindsets to solve some of our ‘big picture’ challenges: health and safety performance, mine waste and tailings management, and environmental, social and governance best practice.
Our industry has gained increasingly greater insights into our production, our processes, and our impact, be it safety, sustainability or productivity. We have a depth of information at our fingertips that enables us to make very precise and specific decisions. We also can analyse huge data sets to extrapolate the outcomes of those decisions (or what those outcomes might be). The volume and complexity of those data sets, be it accuracy, accessibility, reliability or simple visibility – require laser like focus and expertise to realise their full potential. There is a constant stream of new systems, new vendors, innovative tools and processes to help grapple with this complexity. And I am sure at some time we have all been told we could also use our current tools much better.
In my current role, I have the opportunity to participate in a range of collaborative forums, from industry workshops, research programs, government roadmaps and a wide range of activities from open door to ‘Chatham House Rule’. It can be an extremely humbling experience, seeing the genuine effort and passion in our sector. I am proud to be part of an industry that take issues like climate change, safety and sustainability so seriously. We have genuine understanding and buy-in, authentic commitment and tangible effort across the board – regardless of what any uninformed critics might say. There is also no doubt the complexity of the issue is well understood – as an industry we recognise this is not trivial, and there is certainly no single solution.
But what I can’t get my head around: why everyone is trying to solve it themselves?
In Australia we benefit from decades of sustained effort and a long track record of innovating to overcome our industry’s toughest challenges. But what was not apparent for me, well not until I stepped into this role – is the magnitude of solutions that never get the opportunity to take hold.
We have some of the worlds leading industry experts in areas like emissions. There is a very large volume of work going on within stakeholder groups, but not between them. We hold forums where mining companies, big and small, come together to collaborate around potential solutions. We see vendors holding network events and conferences trying to engage with the sector to tackle the problems head on. We see the research community highly engaged, with volumes of research effort going into both the cause and effect of emissions, or the future demand of minerals, and new ways to recover or recycle existing materials. Each group is striving for an outcome, and investing considerable time and effort to do so, but are we realising our true potential?
I was taking part in a workshop just last week. It was a virtual room full of highly engaged individuals. Each with significant decision-making responsibility representing many of our industry’s leading companies. The team were assessing a range of options gathered through an industry forum – evaluating the merit of each proposal and considering how each one may contribute to their objectives. Many of the solutions provided to the forum are well known to the sector, through the prevalence of their products and services, or from their research efforts and reputation. Each solution provided a relatively unique idea on how to address the challenge – and there were none who added little to no value to the outcome.
The subsequent conversation focused on what each solution did not have - we all went into fault finding mode. The filtering out of various options were based on 'tried and proven’ risk criteria, but they were from only one context or perspective. Before long, while the field was successfully narrowed to a manageable number of options, I couldn’t help but think we had inadvertently limited the opportunity for success. This isn’t a one off; in fact I would say this is normal for our sector.
Like many workshops the engagement was genuine, well intentioned and well structured. This was not a process issue. The group comprised a highly capable stakeholders with plenty of industry experience and track record. This was more than a simple process, this was like a lens was missing – the ability to consider what just might be possible. With our efficiency in making sense of our complex environment, do we lose sight of our innovative potential? There is something amiss.
Time and again we join a room full of great ideas, but not everyone speaks the same language. We haven’t solved the translation piece – converting insights from one perspective into opportunities for another. We have a missing link. There is no shortage of willingness or effort, with numerous industry events that all try to connect the dots. We know the importance of collaboration, but network effect alone cannot solve for context. While each engagement creates value, and progresses the discussion a little further, as a sector, we have yet to achieve momentum. Only pioneering efforts seem to jump the chasm and break through the barriers of change.
Can we do something about it?
I am extremely optimistic for our future. If we step back and take a look at what has been achieved by our industry so far it is clear there is a very bright and exciting future ahead. For decades we have been solving massive challenges, there is no shortage of ideas, innovations and solutions, that could be applied to a much larger range of problems.
There is clearly a shift away from bespoke technology, into a more open and transparent (commercially viable) innovation ecosystem. To truly capitalise we must adapt how we evaluate ideas. We need to challenge ourselves to think differently about how we evaluate different options. To attract new ideas we have to reward new ways of thinking. We must address the sustainability of innovation if we want to attract the best solutions and take full advantage of our potential.
At METS Ignited we have uncovered this mass of ‘stranded technology’. We use this term to describe the innovation research undertaken for and on behalf of the end market operators (mining and resource companies), developed by innovative SME companies, or embedded in the supply chains of mining operations that is not widely available. I believe if we can commercialise this innovation engine, and make it available for the wider Australian resources sector, we could truly realise our full potential. If this innovation was available as products and services, they would also benefit other sectors, driving Australia’s technology exports to international markets for the benefit of our national economy.
In short, if we take these stranded technologies, wherever they may be, and focus on finding a way to make them viable, we may well end up with more comprehensive set of options to choose from, not only to solve our own big picture challenges, but to help others as well.
There is a convergence of needs in the Australian market, presenting an opportunity which can only be realised by expanding our perspectives. Aggregating demand for low emissions technology, critical mineral technology, recycling and clean energy will increase speed of innovation, and improve the commercial viability of these new technologies. By increasing accessibility of innovation from the mining sector, and rewarding innovation – the flow on effects will benefit all of our critical sectors: defence, energy and even our emerging space sector.
My passion is to see our amazing innovations being delivered to global markets via Australian technology companies with sustainable commercial models. We all don’t have to solve our business challenges on our own. We can empower our Australia technology vendors to be ‘the go to channel’ for bringing stranded technology and new innovation to market. We have done it before, and we can do it again. Let’s not miss out on making the most of our innovative potential.
The time has come to step back a little further – the big picture just got bigger.