SME 2017: Cautious Optimism, Emerging Tools for Community Engagement

SME 2014

The 2017 SME Annual Meeting was held in Denver, CO February 20-22, 2017 with the theme “creating wealth in a cyclical world.” Anyone who knows the mining industry understands why SME chose the that theme this year. The mining industry has been going through a difficult time due to low commodity prices. This coming after a period of historically high prices, which means the industry has been running some marginal operations with high operating costs. So the inevitable drop has led to some painful decisions.

My sense was that there is cautious optimism that things are turning around. The industrial minerals and aggregates sector is healthy again after the down turn that coincided with the Great Depression. Metal prices are recovering (or at least not dropping as much as was predicted). However, the consensus (based on the conversations that I had) is that coal still has a rough road ahead. But even there, there is optimism that the new administration in the US will help make things better.

Given my academic research on sustainability, I listened to some good presentations on the topic. For a few years now, my research team has been exploring how to use some more quantitative tools in mining community engagement, particularly stakeholder analysis (see some of our published work here, focus on papers with Mark Boateng and Sisi Que).  We have explored using discrete choice theory (and models) to understand individual preferences for mineral projects and have been using agent-based models to understand the effect of information diffusion on community acceptance. Some have not been that enthused by our attempt to apply more quantitative methods. In my opinion, this is because many of those involved in community engagement are used to qualitative survey instruments, perhaps, because of their backgrounds.

However, it is becoming more and more evident that there is room for some more quantitative tools. Our research, for instance, has been well received by some stakeholders we have discussed the results with. Obviously, the journals we have published in, have received it well.

So it was interesting to me when I listened to a talk by Ms. Maureen Upton of SRK Consulting. The presentation was titled “Seeking better investment returns through social risk management: From exploration to closure.” She discussed how her group in SRK has been using some commercially available tools that analyze social media traffic to provide intelligence on social risk around a mineral project. Such work is certainly welcome and a good addition to the miner’s toolbox.

All in all, it was a good conference. And the time I got to spend with some very energetic and intelligent young Ghanaian mining professionals was also a blessing.