February 2011

Voices from Industry

Creating a culture of innovation

By Douglas Morrison, deputy director, Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation

In some ways, creating a culture of innovation is easy — people have a natural gift for creativity; the challenge is not to stifle it. There are several factors that allow a culture of innovation to develop and these are coming together as never before.

Openness: There are many good people with good ideas out there, and the most important step in creating a culture of innovation is being open to new ideas. Of course, we cannot do everything at once. Any research organization with a particular focus, such as mining, has to manage the development of new ideas in the context of all the other things that are going on at that time. So rather than say “no,” we may say “not yet,” or “how about we try it this way.” But in saying no to someone’s idea it is important not to discourage them from bringing other ideas forward.

Practicality: Another consideration is what outcomes you want. People want to see new ideas result in a change in how things are done by mining companies. That is why CEMI (Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation) is not a centre “of” excellence, it is the centre “for” excellence in innovation. Our focus is not to retain innovation in a static centre but, rather, to make sure these ideas translate into innovations that are implemented in the real world.

Significance: An important factor in innovation is the scale of change — focusing attention on innovations that will result in a “step change” in the way the industry does things. Many of our partner and client organizations in industry have internal programs focused on continuous improvement. These will always have a role to play, but I believe the mining industry today is facing major challenges that can be addressed only with a significant departure from current practice.

Challenge: People will always be motivated to rise to a challenge. Current demand is such that in the next 25 years, we have to produce the same amount of copper, nickel, zinc and steel that has ever been produced in the world historically. We have to do this at a time when existing deposits are harder to mine and process, and when discoveries in remote locations lack the infrastructure that could bring these resources to market. It is increasingly difficult to supply remote mine sites with water, power and material, and climate change could make this ever more difficult. We need to reduce the footprint of existing operations and ensure that future operations have a much smaller environmental impact than ever before, all while enhancing the economy and the social fabric of those communities living close to mining operations.

Synergies: The range of technical disciplines that have to be brought in to address the issues confronting the mining industry in the 21st century is far broader than ever before. In addition to the traditionally required geologists and engineers, we will be drawing on the expertise of specialists in biology, ecology, chemistry, biochemistry, climatology, as well as social sciences and commerce to work together. The advantage of this approach is that cross-fertilization from many disciplines makes for a more dynamic and interesting intellectual environment.

Enthusiasm: An influx of new people also brings a level of enthusiasm that has been missing from mining research in recent years. For too long, industry’s response to new ideas has been “that won’t work” or “we tried that already,” perpetuating the mindset that nothing radically new can be done. This may have helped companies survive during the 25 to 30 years of low or fluctuating commodity prices, but that era has come to an end. Demographically, we need a huge influx of young people — a generation that wants to make a positive difference in the world. We need to make them realize that this is an industry that can offer an exciting and dynamic professional environment. Yes, mining companies have to focus on production issues, but those that also take a prominent role in supporting and funding research and innovation will attract the best and brightest from every field.

Timing: The final critical ingredient for creating a culture of innovation is simply timing. The major mining corporations all recognize that almost every aspect of the way their mines will function in the future will change significantly. At CEMI, we are looking forward to collaborating with all of the groups — in academia, government and, most importantly, in industry — that have been working for years to bring new ideas forward. Now we need to address the newer problems such as climate change, but also to brush off ideas that might have been dismissed prematurely and rejuvenate techniques that were abandoned for the wrong reasons. This is an exciting time for mining innovation; it is the time when Canadian researchers can take the lead in shaping the global mining industry of the future.

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