Technology has changed the way we do almost everything – from communicating with friends, family, and strangers, halfway around the world, to buying groceries, and moving from point A to point B. In many ways, our lives are better, easier, and more efficient.
Historically, the mining industry hasn’t been known for disruptive, innovative technology. Many mines use mineral processing techniques that are over 100 years old. But that is changing. The latest mining operations use new technologies to achieve efficiencies, improve safety, and limit environmental impacts, including greenhouse gas emissions. These include automated vehicles and drilling, fully electric mines, new processing techniques, the adoption of renewable energy technology, as well as data collection and management that fuels better decision making.
Host communities benefit from technological advancements as well. For example, mobile phones have dramatically changed day-to-day life for remote mining communities, allowing people to participate in formal banking systems, access increased education opportunities, and tap into global media sources. Automation and the use of new technologies can also support better engagement, impact management, and benefit sharing around mining activities. For example:
- Social media tools like Facebook can improve transparency and information sharing both within the community and with mining companies, government, etc.
- Information management systems can help companies, communities, governments, and civil society track and monitor commitments and management plans. These systems can also support participatory monitoring, where local representatives track and monitor changes in impacts and well-being.
- Mobile phones and survey software like Ulula can support improved communication and engagement between companies and a diverse set of community members. For example, a company can send out notifications about upcoming activities or receive complaints via mobile technology.
- 3-D printing and virtual reality tools can help stakeholders understand potential impacts through digital representations of mining activities. Using these types of tools, site plans can be altered and more easily discussed with local communities. Whereas in the past, showing a community what a mine looks like involved travel and site visits, VR enables many more people within a community to have that experience at much lower cost and effort.
- w Data management tools used by organizations like Publish What You Pay and the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) help hold governments and companies accountable for royalties and tax payments, contributing to improved governance.
These technological improvements will help mining companies to achieve and maintain a social licence to operate and also support sustained positive outcomes for local communities.
However, changes in technology and increased automation also threaten to alter the economic opportunities that stem from direct employment and procurement. For most local communities, the primary benefits of mining are local jobs and procurement opportunities.
Claudia Mueller, Associate Director of the Global Mining Management MBA Program at the Schulich School of Business notes that for “local communities around mine sites, the impacts (of automation) will largely depend on the type of roles they represent in the industry. While we may see a short-term reduction in the number of unskilled workers needed, we will likely see this outpaced in the long run by the need for skilled, technology enabled employees. Unskilled labour needs will change and result in a relocation as we have seen over the last centuries with workers moving from agriculture to factories and eventually to service industries. In mining we have witnessed some of these effects already, with some truck drivers moving into autonomous truck supervision and relocating to fulfill their tasks. For skilled labour, it will become more important to be able to work with technology to improve productivity and efficiency.”
Technology and automation will fundamentally alter the way local communities benefit from the mining industry. The skills required to compete for jobs may become harder to acquire, creating hurdles for local communities to participate in direct employment opportunities. Employees at mine sites around the world, from Nevada, to Ghana, to Peru, are concerned about their ability to participate in increasingly technical job tasks that they haven’t been trained for.
Changes in the workforce will also lead to changes in procurement opportunities. For some mine sites, automation will mean that a larger portion of the workforce will work remotely. As a result, there will be fewer workers ‘on site’ and less demand for the procurement activities where local communities typically have priority, such as catering, janitorial services, and transportation.
Fewer on-site opportunities will also reduce the local spin-off benefits to local businesses, such as in food services, accommodation, transportation, and recreation, that stem from local population growth.
These technological disruptions to workforce and procurement demand present two important questions.
- Without direct economic opportunities, will local communities be supportive of mining activities?
- Do the benefits of technological advancements that improve transparency, communication, and accountability offset or replace the benefits of traditional economic opportunities?
Disruptions to local economic opportunities require all stakeholders to reimagine the benefits of mining.
Companies need to align long-term business strategies based on automation with their social performance strategies.
Some companies are refocusing their social investment strategy to support science, technology, engineering, and math education, particularly at the elementary, high school and college levels. This can help develop and maintain local talent pools and support local participation in more automated, or technology- intensive jobs. Collaboration between companies, government and educational institutions is also an important element of ensuring local communities can participate in a changing economy.
Communities that have a clear vision for the future and have articulated how mining activities can support that vision will be better placed to both take advantage of technological opportunities and manage changes to their local economy. A clear community- led vision sets the roadmap for the future and helps different actors align their activities. The visioning process also facilitates a broader conversation about what are the benefits of mining for a community. As job and procurement opportunities decrease, they could be replaced by more direct financial benefits. Communities are increasingly receiving direct royalties that support diversified local economic development.
Furthermore, more communities are now taking equity stakes in projects, which also provide a consistent income stream that support a diversified economy. The future will require some re-imagining of the traditional relationships between host communities and mining companies, but with some creativity, this can lead to lower dependency on companies and strengthened and better diversified local economies – a win-win.
CAROLYN BURNS is director of operations at NetPositive, a non-profit that works with diverse stakeholders to help local communities see sustained positive outcomes from mining. JANE CHURCH is a co-founder and director of collaboration with NetPositive.