Rio Tinto CEO targets a reinvention of mining

Rio Tinto CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques presents at IMARC.

Rio Tinto chief executive officer Jean-Sebastien Jacques wants mining to reinvent itself and pioneer the industry into the 21st century.

Jacques, who opened the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) in Melbourne, believes mining is at a crucial time in its development.

He pointed out a number of factors that were affecting the industry, including this being a time when protecting air, water and land mattered more than ever.

Jacques said it was also a time when technology was disrupting the industry, and a lack of trust had created questions around the benefits of the corporate sector.

“What legacy do we want to leave for those that will lead our industry in the future?” he asked.

Jacques described three things that mining needed to collectively do to ensure the future of the industry.

Firstly, he reinforced the need for mining to reinvent itself. Jacques described mining as an “old industry” that had modernised by using automation and artificial intelligence (AI).

He added that mining had not, however, changed to the same extent that other industries had, including the car sector, aerospace, healthcare and the media.

“This transformation may need to start with ourselves – what we do, and more importantly how we think. Especially in a world of urban mining, where the materials we produce will be recycled,” Jacques said.

“Let me give you an example. Our technology partner Apple, has a goal to recycle 100 per cent of the metals and minerals that go into our iPhones, iPads etc. And where Apple goes, others will follow. It may take some time to get there, of course, but it is coming.”

Jacques believes this means mining needs to pioneer new ways to mine or to think seriously about business models.

He backed digital opportunities as a fundamental game changer, saying technologies like AI to the Internet of Things would force the industry to be more imaginative.

“Across industries, digital technologies are removing the barriers to entry and making it harder for incumbents. Think about Google’s experiment in energy kites. Or the fintech industry. Tech is introducing game-changing business models that upset old ecosystems,” Jacques said.

“Why would our industry be immune to these changes and how will they re-shape the way we operate?”

Our industry needs to re-define the way we partner with communities, customers, suppliers and governments.

Rio Tinto believes digital and data will touch every part of the industry’s value chain, Jacques continued, including exploration, marketing and the way we work.

“The key to this is to start small, with technology and digital pilots and scale up, and also more fundamentally, adopt a brand new spirit of partnership,” Jacques said.

The next thing Jacques urged the industry to collectively do was redefine the way it partnered with each other.

He recalled an example of Rio Tinto’s reluctance to partner in the industry when he started at the company seven years ago.

“Well, those days are over. Our industry needs to re-define the way we partner with communities, customers, suppliers and governments,“ he said.

Jacques said mining companies needed to start having honest and grown-up conversations with all stakeholders on challenging topics like: the trade-off between creating jobs, and economic and social progress versus doing an activity that does impact the environment.

“Surely the best way forward is to accept mining is an absolutely necessary and valuable activity, but hold all of the industry to account for making sure we operate in a responsible way with care for the environment, our people and society, while remaining economically viable,” he said.

“The important point here is a level playing field.”

Finally, Jacques said mining needed to ‘change the barbecue conversation’ because of the industry’s reputation as one of the least trusted on the planet.

He highlighted that mining was essential to human progress but had punched below its weight by not telling its story better. So how does mining improve its story?

“There’s not just one answer. First we need to take a page from our friends in Silicon Valley. We shouldn’t be talking about the hardware or software of our products – the iron ore and the copper – but rather how they help people to live better lives,” Jacques said.

“We need to change our language and stop talking like technocrats and start talking in everyday language.”

Rio Tinto’s efforts for reinvention have started with the launch of a pioneer lab in Brisbane that will host the company’s growth and innovation team.

The pioneer lab team will work through some pilots that will aim to move Rio Tinto into the 21st century for at least the next 12 months.