March/April 2012

“Innovation is like beauty”

Mining players pursue the elusive ideal at CMIC signature event

By Virginia Heffernan

CMIC President presents medal to former Director 

The timing could not have been better: just as Prime Minister Stephen Harper lamented the sorry state of research and development in Canada and pledged to make innovation a key element of the upcoming budget, the mining community gathered to hammer out solutions to this age-old Canadian problem.

At the end of January, representatives from industry, government and academia met in Toronto to discuss the need for innovations that could solve the nagging challenges of water shortages, deeply buried deposits, and energy availability and conservation. The event was sponsored by the Canada Mining Innovation Council (CMIC) and included speeches from many respected industry leaders, for example, François Robert, vice-president of exploration at Barrick Gold, Dave Lynch, dean of engineering at the University of Alberta, and Geoff Munro, chief scientist at Natural Resources Canada.

Although everyone agreed on the need for collaboration among these disparate groups, a consensus was not reached on the definition of innovation and what its most significant barriers are. “Innovation is like beauty, it’s in the eye of the beholder,” said Munro.

Survey results from a discussion moderated by John Thompson, Teck’s vice-president of technology and development, indicated that 31 per cent thought breakthrough change was the most pressing need, while 24 per cent chose cultural change and 18 per cent wanted to see increased collaboration between industry and academia. Few chose incremental change as the best way forward. “We specialize in incremental innovation and yet the breakthroughs rarely come from within the major mining companies,” noted Thompson.

Most agreed that one of the key barriers to exploration and mining innovation is the lack of highly qualified people in a sector where half the workers are 45 years of age or older, and one third will be eligible for retirement by 2015. Mining Industry Human Resources Council’s director of research Martha Roberts urged mining companies to “keep an eye on mid-career folks.” They, especially women, have left the industry in droves due to a lack of opportunity preceding the current boom, as well as dissatisfaction with work-life balance.

Still, Munro praised the mining industry for emerging as a leader in collaborating to encourage innovation. “Our innovation system is badly fragmented, but you are moving at lightening speed,” he said. “This kind of transformation in a sector is very powerful.”

Munro sees the role of government as trying to “defrag” the system by integrating science with policy in a more effective way. He admitted that this will be a challenge because scientists and policy analysts speak such different languages.

As for universities, they must be willing to invest in their own resources if they want to contribute to innovation, said Lynch. To do that, they need to tap into long-term funding from industry and alumni to selectively build undergraduate and graduate programs.

For example, the University of Alberta expects to graduate 80 mining engineers by 2016, compared to just two in 1993, and its chemical engineering department is the largest in North America. The investment has paid off: 25 per cent of the engineers working in the oils sands industry hail from the U of A and the number of industry-university research projects in that sub-sector has skyrocketed.

Lynch, who noted that university start-ups have had a dismal success rate, urged academia to stop protecting intellectual property rights “to the point where industry-university collaboration never happens.”

Perhaps the most difficult challenge will be to change the culture of an industry that is greying, lacks diversity and tends to be risk averse. “There’s a substantial story here around culture,” observed Thompson, after a lengthy audience discussion that expressed envy over Australia’s “give it a go” attitude, disappointment in the conservative nature of the sector’s financiers, and frustration over an entrenched reluctance to share research and technology.

But in the less than three years since it was officially incorporated, CMIC has become a sector leader in collaboration, making significant headway in exploration research, and progressing in the areas of deep mining, process efficiency and the environment.

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