Ian Thomson

Distinguished Lecturer 2015-16

Ian Thomson

The social license to operate: The reality, the myths and the dark side

The concept of a social license to operate emerged in the late 1990s and was quickly adopted by the mining industry and its stakeholders. For many years the phrase was a useful metaphor to describe situations where there was (or was not) local community acceptance or approval of a mining project. More recently, the normative components of this social phenomenon were identified and subsequently quantitative metrics developed such that comparative statements can be made as to the quality and controls behind the social license at any project.

The last few years have seen the concept of a social license to operate migrate out of the mining sector and be applied to oil and gas projects, wind farms, highway construction, big box stores, hotels, casinos and other situations where there is development that interacts with local populations. The term has even become part of the language of politicians.

The presentation will explain the fundamentals of the social license to operate and, using case histories, describe how it plays out in a variety of situations. Emphasis will be given to distinguishing the myths that have surfaced from the reality on the ground and a dark side that has to be recognized, understood and controlled.


Ian Thomson has more than 40 years of experience in the mining industry, working for the last two decades to advance and refine the management of social issues in resource development projects. His area of expertise includes stakeholder engagement, capacity building, design and development of sustainable social relations and guiding multi-stakeholder processes. Thomson has led development of new standards and guidelines for best practice management of social issues during exploration, facilitated construction of the Principles and Guidance for Responsible Exploration for the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC), and was a prime mover in developing both the concept and metrics of the Social License to Operate. He is principal of Shinglespit Consultants Inc. He was a founding member and principal of On Common Ground Consultants Inc. and has held management positions with Orvana Minerals Corp and Placer Development Ltd.  

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