Is Mining Really Thinking Differently?

In the month of May, CIM's Annual Conference titled "Thinking Differently" ran its course.

As I try to do every year, I attended and participated in as many sessions as I could. This year I also had a lot more responsibility in its development, having helped plan the sessions and select speakers for the Environmental and Social Responsibility Society's lineup. We strived to create a lineup that really would get people thinking differently, to show everyone the potential for change, and the actual steps already being taken to make our industry's performance that much better.

At any rate, partially because I was running around with my planner hat on, partially because I was working with the Executive of the Environmental and Social Responsibility Society of CIM (I am now Vice Chair!), I wasn't able to attend the opening plenary when it actually occurred, and I only watched it recently. Some might say that's doing things backwards, but I did find it interesting in having observed the opening after the fact.

Of course, everyone takes different things away from events like these. They say "you only hear what you want to hear, only see what you came for." For me, I try to come with as open a mind as I can, but I will say that I was keen on hearing what might be "different!"

And so, did I hear anything different? Did the panel reveal anything new?

Were the panelists' messages echoed by the various speakers throughout the event? And are we truly changing, and not only "thinking differently"?

To give a short reply, I do think the answer is yes - but I say that with a caveat, for I believe that change is occurring gradually, and mainly within the large and leading organizations so far. And we are advancing more quickly in some areas than others, for certain.

We are only starting to trickle change into the smaller companies (aside from a couple of exemplary outliers) and the junior exploration realm. A lot of work still to be done - to make things "easy", or at least easier than trailblazing!

Now, to dive into some details...

As a planner, and in working with our sessions chairs and others in our support team (whom I am extremely grateful for all their work!), I feel we did a pretty good job of highlighting a lot of new ways that organizations are doing things, for the better. We also introduced a lot of work being done within the research arena, for up and coming improvements that industry might adopt once proven.

As an attendee, I experienced a similar view - the talks I attended and the conversations I heard and held, all indicated that we are doing more than just thinking about what to change. Actions are being taken, concepts tested and proven, and more ideas are moving into implementation.

On the production side, we saw and heard about new technologies, remote operations and automation, about monitoring of fleets and interoperability of equipment and controls and reporting. More and more, we are using realtime data for operational decision making and improving productivity. And between mine and mill, we have made and continue to make many leaps and bounds.

Sustainable Development & Waste Management

On the environment side, attendance seemed to have increased, where some sessions had standing room only, and sessions were busy right through until the final hours of the conference. It seems, finally, that this is a main stream topic, that projects are now looking for what more can be done, how performance can be improved, and in which ways.

And there was plenty to hear about, with growing successes using biotechnology, using our natural microbial processes to facilitate both active and passive treatment of impacted soils and water, as well as extraction. We also heard about alternate practices to be applied to tailings and mining waste management, and the risks of dwindling resources and competencies of specialists in this realm too.

The core message? We need more training, mentoring, and clear succession planning and implementation for tailings management roles!

Without it, we will very quickly put ourselves at risk in the waste management area - at a time when our waste facilities have grown to such size and complexity as to really need this expertise ever more.

In the "Developments in Mine Waste Management" session, we heard about what might be done differently with tailings and mine waste - starting with its classification. The idea being that perhaps if it were more clear to the public, and to our own developers, that much of our waste is clean (up to 80%, if you weren't aware), then maybe more of it could be used for other purposes.

What? Does that mean a potential secondary or tertiary product from our wastes? YES, please, let's move this needle forward.

The "10X Gains from Waste Monetization" session introduced several projects who are currently selling waste streams, or converting them to alternate products, and the benefits are clear. Not only can companies gain financially from the sale of these materials, but they have also eliminated waste stores otherwise requiring costly management, monitoring and maintenance and reclamation too.

They have reduced risks, long term operating and closure costs, and their financial bonds too. All benefits that can't be ignored - for me, this is all common sense and a topic dear to my heart!

How are they doing it? Through direct, synergistic partnerships... opportunities sought out for mutual benefit - something everyone should be thinking of!

Corporate Social Responsibility

Moving on, let's talk about social responsibility. This year, I was thrilled to see a full lineup assembled on inclusion and diversity, and on partnerships with communities and Indigenous groups in varying capacities, all in alignment with social responsibility, reconciliation, and shared value.

On the specific topic of diversity and inclusion, we are hearing again and again, that we need to be looking closer at how to provide additional support and development of women and Indigenous peoples, and of immigrants too, to fulfill our current and future needs for human resourcing within the sector. A couple of panel discussions focused on successes and challenges still remaining, and I do feel that we have more work to do here.

While we are celebrating many small wins with the introduction of many targets and programs focused on D&I, it is interesting how slowly the statistics are shifting, and I believe that not only do we need to broaden our lens on diversity (and think more about diversity of thought, of education, of cultural knowledge, and many other things), but also how we ensure our working environments are actually inclusive. Increasing the stats on numbers in various boxes is not the point.

On this front, there has been effort to be more inclusive and collaborative as well. This year, a special "Indigenous Day" was designed, which included six key sessions that touched on Indigenous peoples, issues, or invited leaders as speakers. These sessions were well attended, including a luncheon and a multi-stakeholder dialogue session, both focused on the topic of Reconciliation.

Great speakers, great engagement and dialogue, and another great sign - these events had been coordinated by multiple societies working together: Environmental and Social Responsibility Society; Maintenance, Engineering and Reliability Society; and, the Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

In Summary

Altogether, these are strong indicators showing that we as an industry are moving the needle in the right direction, but what I found the most appealing and celebratory to hear were the actions around collaborations - I found it was a great year to have many groups working together on topics that impact us all - moving towards "one voice."

Partnerships between research groups, between mining and other industries (particularly in the digital realm), and partnerships between societies to help find new ways, better ways to do things. Partnerships between mining companies with communities, with educational institutions, and with government - to bring economic prosperity to various regions, to bring education, training and jobs, and to bring housing and infrastructure to people who otherwise had not.

By the rapid advances that we are starting to see in automation, interoperability, and in digital transformation, it should be clear by now just how much can be accomplished and done differently just by opening our doors to "mining outsiders." The successes of recent hackathons and developments in use of realtime data and remote operations have all been realized by such collaborations. 

And I can't wait to see more of this in future - there are many more opportunities to shift and make drastic improvements. Reducing environmental risks, minimizing our footprint, repairing impacted lands, supporting the advancing circular economy, increasing shared value, and improving our business processes in general.

Pressure is rising for the mining industry to do better, to do more with less, and to do so with dwindling resources in more complex conditions. We're being forced into rapid change, into more lean and agile practices, and from my experience, this is only successful when we work together and when we allow others in to participate in exploring how we get there.

This, I found, ended up being a very similar message to that which had been conveyed in the opening panel - that we need to do things right by engaging with our stakeholders, our local communities, early, from the start, to find out what they need and want. And we need to be asking for input from a much more diverse group of people to discover unseen risks, as well as possible new ways of doing things, in order to solve our greatest challenges.

Last week, the Mine Water Solutions conference was held, and as this week passes, the Resources for Future Generations Conference is in motion. I can't wait to hear about how these turned out, and any new ideas that came from the presenters there too.

What do you think we could be doing better, and have you offered up your ideas on how??