How to Innovate: 7 Lessons from Mining Leaders

The mining sector is in urgent need of innovation driven by, on the one hand, its mission to provide a reliable and growing supply of materials, especially critical minerals, for the energy transition amid waning mineral reserves and, on the other hand, its commitment to elevate its own ESG standing. But how does a company succeed in innovation? To discuss this, a panel of industry leaders got together at the Future of Mining Americas 2022. The discussion, moderated by Symboticware chief executive Ash Agarwal, featured experts from Newmont, Rio Tinto, Vale, and Teck Resources.

These are some practical takeaways from this conversation:

  1. Have a scientific mindset when testing new technology. Failing to notice and communicate that a new technology is not working as expected helps no one, Anthony Downs, Vale’s Integrated Innovation Manager, pointed out. Experimentation requires unbiased observation, honest analysis of the results, and subsequent setup adjustments.
  2. Combine top-down and bottom-up approaches to technological progress. Site talent can truly excel at debottlenecking processes and incrementally optimizing costs, while a corporate function is required to look into the future and explore cutting-edge technologies, suggested Preston Miller, Lead of Technology and Innovation at Teck Resources.
  3. Continuously engage all departments and levels of leadership. “It has to be a whole, holistic deployment, which includes all the departments, all the people, everyone that’s involved. So if it’s IT, if it’s maintenance, if it’s technical services, if it’s operations, everyone needs to be involved, everyone needs to be transparent for this deployment,” said Newmont’s Matthew Curtis. He discourages HQs from just “dropping” a new gadget on a local team in the hope that it will be sustained.
  4. Make work simpler for your colleagues on the ground. “If you add a new thing, it’d better be replacing two old things,” Teck Resources’s Preston Miller suggested. He urged corporations to remember that site teams are their stakeholders, even “the customer,” since they generate the revenues that put bread on everyone’s table.
  5. Keep customers and finished products in mind. “Companies should be attentive to manufacturers’ needs, ESG benchmarks, and vision of end products,” reminded Paramita Das, who leads ESG at Rio Tinto. She was backed up by Mitchell Smith, CEO of Global Energy Metals Corp and Director of the Battery Metal Association of Canada, who noted that remembering that the material a company produces is used to create a vehicle or device that is more energy-efficient, sustainable, and simply more enjoyable for end consumers empowers everyone on the team and brings a personal interest in scaling innovation across the entire staff.
  6. Co-invest and share. A company does not have to innovate alone. Big technological challenges require cooperation. Vale’s Anthony Downs encourages market players to participate in consortiums and work together with OEMs, academia, and startups. “It’s a way to bring a lot more talent and innovation into the system,” he noted.
  7. You can’t afford to prioritize either productivity or sustainability. The fourth industrial revolution generated unprecedented demand for raw materials, especially critical minerals, without which economic transition would suffocate. The mining industry is expected to deliver on that. At the same time, the industry itself must become more responsible regarding the environment and climate. Which of those priorities goes first is a false dilemma, Rio Tinto’s Paramita Das asserted. True innovation improves both operational efficiency and ESG scores.

Want to learn more? Review the panel recordings on our YouTube channel.