Australia must fire up technology to future-proof its economy

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By Alex Blood, Executive Director, Mineral Resources
South Australian Department for Energy and Mining

The economic rollercoaster of 2020 shows no sign of slowing.

Unemployment is rising worldwide and billions of dollars have been wiped from the markets as governments increase debts to steady a global economy that’s been locked down.

Business has found ways to continue, but make no mistake, an economic reckoning could be coming.

To help Australia stay strong, the Federal Government is sensibly backing big ticket industries like modern manufacturing and infrastructure to drive the nation’s economy out of recession and set up the conditions for post-COVID growth.

But COVID-19 fundamentally challenged many of the assumptions Australians had about work and life and the direction things were going.

Supporting big ticket industries will certainly create jobs and stimulate economic growth.

But if Australia is to truly survive and thrive amid global competition, it needs to work smarter as well as harder with technology investment and implementation as a focus. 

Diamond Drilling on the Gawler Craton

Make the COVID technology pivot permanent

If necessity is the mother of invention, it’s also the midwife of actually getting things done.

Enter COVID-19. 

Almost overnight Australia’s workforce embraced technologies like remote working, video conferencing and contactless processes because there was no other choice.

Australian businesses pushed through years worth of technological advancement in mere weeks, pivoting to a “new normal” with an almost war-time sense of urgency.

But it’s vital that these moves are not seen as mere adaptations to a temporary situation. 

COVID-19 has changed the world, and there is no going back.

Technology will drive the next mining boom

Australia’s mining sector generates close to AU$300-billion dollars in annual revenue.

However, since the emergence of COVID-19 and the global trade challenges, the industry’s future prospects are being challenged.

Australia faces an increasingly competitive international market, with other countries having lower costs for labour, construction, operation and exploration. 

Iron ore producers in nations like Brazil are stepping up production, taking advantage of their lower costs to meet growing global demand.

Meanwhile, Australia’s producers of copper and critical energy and technology minerals are facing increasing competition as manufacturers focus on environmental and social performance in their supply chains.

But with digital efficiency front and centre, Australia’s advantage could turn out to be our ability to be the most sustainable, responsible miners.

Our advantages are quality products – but with competition heating up, costs will need to be reined in without impacting our ability to deliver at a high environmental and social performance standard.

That’s a difficult balance to achieve.

By expanding the use of technology in the field and supporting innovations that make the entire mining process more efficient, Australia can retain its premiums and continue to position itself as one of the world’s leading mining nations.

That same advantage can be driven for every industry in Australia, where lessons from mining’s use technology can be shared across sectors.

Technology can be the equaliser for Australia amid global economic competition.

Creating a sustainable advantage

Another aspect of embracing technology that is often overlooked is that it can improve crucial considerations like sustainability and environmental footprint reduction.

Mining companies and large industries across the world are always looking for financial advantages – but increasingly they are looking for environmental best practice.

Australia’s mining industry is a world leader in environmental management, innovating everything from mine rehabilitation to improving process efficiency so less energy is expended.

By embracing digital tools like data harmonisation and open innovation and collaboration across sectors and borders, Australian industries can also become world leaders in sustainable solutions that can be exported, and make themselves the hub of providing global services.

For example, if Australia’s mining industry were to greatly expand its focus on green mining technology and digital support services, it would generate a significant competitive advantage, becoming a hub for new ways of thinking, and in doing that, create and sustain a wide range of businesses.

Digital offers more than just cost saving opportunities – it’s a chance to change for the better, leading the way in vital areas like lowering carbon footprints and reducing energy use.

Open collaboration will drive innovation

An example of this in action is the South Australian government’s recent international data science competition to identify new resource targets in the Gawler Craton; home to significant mines like BHP’s copper gold mine, Olympic Dam.

ExploreSA: The Gawler Challenge saw teams from around the world deploy advanced technologies like machine learning to crunch the numbers on vast open data sets of exploration data to find new economic mineral targets exploitation targets. 

It also saw almost $250M of previously inaccessible data become available online through the work of the Geological Survey of South Australia partnering with big data companies.

Under usual circumstances and methodologies, this process can take years. But the challenge participants finished the work in just five months, applying novel techniques to uncover patterns within the data that were previously unrecognised.

Buoyed by this success, the South Australian Government has invested an extra $5 million for  the Geological Survey of South Australia (GSSA) to collect new data, test competition outputs and test new mineral systems and resource potential.

Data and targets from the Gawler Challenge are all available online to exploration companies, who could make the next big discovery in the resource rich region, and to anyone interested in the approaches or the outputs.

The significance of this technology challenge is far reaching.

Imagine if these technologies were applied broadly to mining exploration? Australia could have more resource projects while cutting development time and increasing accuracy. 

But more importantly, the challenge highlights the feasibility of digitally driven collaboration using open source data and cutting edge methods. 

Collaboration and innovation in exploration activities and approaches is key to unlocking the state’s significant resource opportunity, and accelerating discovery. 

That’s why the South Australian government is making $10 million available through its Accelerated Discovery Initiative designed to co-fund exploration activities, as well as innovation in new exploration technologies.

Round two of the Initiative is currently open for expressions of interest for activities including drilling, geophysics, innovation, research and technology.

Technology will drive Australia’s future economy

While it’s vital that Australia invests in big ticket industries to grow the economy post-COVID, advancing technology must be elevated as part of our top priorities.

Every industry experienced the swift benefits that technology can bring during the pivot to remote working during COVID-19.

Now we have an opportunity to fully embrace technology and use it to our advantage, with collaborations like the Gawler Challenge showing how established industries like mineral exploration can be made more efficient and effective, as well as sustainable.

Embracing the power of technology to create new business opportunities and make places like South Australia hubs for innovation will give Australia a significant global competitive advantage.

Because the world has changed. Australia has the chance now to drive innovation into the heart of its industries so they continue to lead the way.

About the author

Alex Blood brings more than 20 years diverse industry experience to the role of Executive Director Mineral Resources within the South Australian Government, joining the division in 2017.

Alex’s professional experience spans roles at the state, national and global levels for a wide variety of mining, oil and gas, infrastructure and industrial projects across Australia, Papua New Guinea, Asia-Pacific and Africa. 

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