Is mining's sputnik moment upon us?

IN 1957, Soviet scientists sent a beach-ball sized Sputnik satellite into space, challenging America’s perceptions of engineering and technology superiority. Successive US presidents, most famously JFK, read the riot act and more than a decade later, NASA won the extraordinary race to the moon landing, writes Richard Gannon*.
Is mining's sputnik moment upon us? Is mining's sputnik moment upon us? Is mining's sputnik moment upon us? Is mining's sputnik moment upon us? Is mining's sputnik moment upon us?

Is mining's sputnik moment upon us? Image: iStock/EduardHarkonen

Richard Gannon

Fast forward to 2023. Is the tech insurgent, ChatGPT, the Sputnik moment of the world's artificial intelligence race? Suddenly, powerful emperors of the internet appear less clothed. High school students rejoice. And AI's moon landing appears closer.

In our lifetime, don't we all play a role in a moon landing? (Like at the end of Armageddon, when the young kid sees his father destroy the asteroid, and realises his dad's absolute awesomeness #spoiler).

So what is the mining industry's sputnik moment?

Well, the challenges appear easy to identify.

Mining might need US$1.2 trillion of new investment to achieve the world's 2050 commodity requirements. Yet global capital isn't rushing in. Do enormous shortages beckon?

We need breakthrough technologies to mitigate climate change. We need to economically incentivise more of our best and brightest graduates to choose science. We need scientists in charge of billionaires' philanthropy.

A new mine today takes 17 years from discovery to production. At a time when ‘digital' accelerates most things in the world, the mine permitting process has never been slower. If we look forward, we can see AI representatives joining board meetings within two years. We can see tokenisation of ownership empowering a much broader universe of stakeholders. We can see the digital currencies of China (& friends) challenging USD hegemony in commodity payments. But which CEO gets excited about a discovery today whose first production will be in 2040? We are trying to attract a new generation of workers with the leisure attention span of Netflix… make that YouTube… actually no make it TikTok… to an industry which takes 17 years to build?

If the world's future copper supply were life rafts and that floating plank of wood at the end of Titanic, it feels like there are way too many of us trying to squeeze on. Move over, Leo. (Or was it Kate?). So how can we do better?

Global mining needs to release global capital and manage politics in entirely new frontiers.

The future of mining is rapidly changing geopolitics and new global alliances. The future of metals production involves vastly greater contributions from Africa, LatAm, Indonesia, PNG and the Middle East. More broadly, the architecture of ‘supranational' organisations (such as the UN, global trade alliances, defence alliances) reflects the balance of power at the time those organisations are created. But those institutions become de-legitimised as global balances of power shift. The UN Security Council was created in 1945 to address the failings of the League of Nations, and Russia remains a permanent member today... Mining has the opportunity to create new capital cooperation which spans Chinese, Indian, Saudi and North American capital. And in doing so, create new quasi government-alliances to act as the political buffer to help smooth the relationship ups and downs that always come with transformational investment in emerging economies.

(As a side note, the ever-escalating value of major global sports franchises, and the diminishing universe of investors who can afford these valuations, is bringing focus to brand alignment issues arising with potential sovereign wealth fund investors in the franchises).

Global investors which enjoy the lowest cost of capital are those investors which are geographic agnostic. So a change of rules in one country doesn't unduly damage your portfolio, and indeed may benefit another country in your portfolio. The future of multi-billion dollar investments cannot unduly lay at the door of global mining companies. Mining companies can be incubators, and stewards of capital, but global capital has the responsibility for funding the world's climate ambitions. And to help enhance pathways to mine development.

Global mining leadership can be much more forthright in challenging the world's great aspirational brands to invest. If we can drag the logos of Apple, of Tesla, to be on the owners' sign at the mine gate, then we can evoke the story-telling capabilities of these extraordinary consumer brands about the role of commodities. We won't win the capital until we win the story-telling.

And global mining can invest so much more in shared R&D. AI will continue to enhance mine safety and production capability. But how many times in our lifetime have we seen game-changing innovation in mining that unlocked new supply? This is surely the north star of the industry. We all ship our org charts, and our mining industry can ship less silo's and more collaboration.

Our most valuable commodity is the belief in human potential. Mining has an extraordinary opportunity to help deliver energy abundance and enhance the future of humanity, in this life and the next.

*Richard Gannon is a 25-year adviser to major mining and energy companies, and led global teams for Macquarie Bank & Deutsche Bank. And Richard has very mainstream tastes in movies.

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