Designing sustainable futures with digital mining

IT leaders in mining must address global sustainable development goals, while focusing on the economic outcomes and technological imperatives of digital mining.
Rennie Naidoo
By Rennie Naidoo, Professor in Information Systems (IS) at the Wits School of Business Sciences.
Johannesburg, 24 Aug 2022

Digital technologies present both an opportunity and a challenge for addressing the United Nations Global Sustainable Development Goals.

There is an urgent need for human beings to transition toward a more sustainable society. The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

While there is already an awareness of digital mining technologies and their role in sustainable mining, the IT community needs to play a more significant role in addressing the growing ethical, moral, legal and environmental problems arising from the design and use of these technologies.

IT leaders and professionals should contribute to sustainable mining practices and recommend new approaches for policy-makers, researchers and industry practitioners to contribute to sustainability. A major dilemma for IT leaders and designers grappling with sustainability concerns is to advance narrow and sometimes deeply flawed organisational goals, while addressing pressing social and environmental challenges.

Addressing the mining industry’s legacy

The negative environmental impacts of the mining industry include deforestation, erosion, contamination of water resources, increased noise levels, dust and emissions.

Mining also has negative social impacts on public health, living standards, the human rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, and land conflict.

Digital technologies offer promising innovations for sustainable mining. Digital mining technologies can support mining operations across the general mining value chain, enabling and transforming a range of mining activities, from prospecting, exploration, construction, operation, maintenance, expansion, abandonment and decommissioning, to the repurposing and remediation of a mine.

Digital mining solutions are playing a pivotal role in fleet management, machine guidance, machine automation and collision avoidance systems, including drilling, breaking, loading, hauling and other mining activities.

However, digital mining can yield both positive and negative social and environmental impacts – that is, it can alleviate or exacerbate the abovementioned social and ecological concerns.

Moving beyond economic sustainability

Traditional management approaches continue to assume that economic sustainability is at odds with social and environmental sustainability, despite the obvious interdependence.

Perspectives should shift from a one-sided emphasis on instrumental objectives and outcomes to the sustainability of the larger ecosystem. Simultaneously striving to achieve the payoff of business sustainability with the upside of social cohesion and environmental sustainability is crucial in building a more sustainable society.

Digital technologies offer promising innovations for sustainable mining.

As emerging technologies advance, the mining industry has the opportunity to transition away from a traditional to an increasingly digital future.

IT professionals have the opportunity to positively influence sustainable business practices by leveraging promising and powerful digital technologies to improve both instrumental and humanistic goals in mining.

Practitioners should develop sustainable competitive strategies with digital technologies that simultaneously address economic goals and broader corporate social responsibility goals.

Towards a multidimensional perspective of sustainability

Sustainability initiatives should consider economic, ecological, legal, political and cultural perspectives. As alluded to, achieving sustainability is a complex, multifaceted challenge and needs to incorporate the perspectives and interests of multiple stakeholders.

Consider, for example, how a digital mining operation can lead to increases in the accuracy of mining operations and increased productivity. In one such scenario, equipment operators are removed from the operations environment and control, and information retrieval from trackless mining equipment (TMM) are now done remotely from a smart device, thus enhancing worker safety.

In other words, working from an air-conditioned office environment without high walls and numerous TMMs like shovels, excavators and haul trucks increases the employee's well-being and reduces the risk of lost-time injuries.

However, IT experts should be sensitive to the negative impact digital technology in mining operations can have on human labour. Despite the potential of digital mining technologies to enable sustainable work practices, they also have the potential to increase the gap between the beneficiaries of the digital economy and those that it disadvantages – the victims of massive job losses.

While the automation of traditionally labour-intensive activities, such as driving a haul truck, addresses instrumental and humanistic outcomes of safety and organisational sustainability, these autonomous haulage systems also substitute the traditional human operator.

The term 'digital divide' has been used by scholars to articulate the inherent inequalities in the digital economy. Notwithstanding, the use of operationally remote digital technology and the enhancement of the working environment can increase humanistic and instrumental outcomes.

However, IT professionals should address sustainability by going beyond economic factors and including social and environmental factors in their designs. Furthermore, institutional bodies like the regulator can play an essential role in promoting sustainability and safety concerns in mining by encouraging the appropriate adoption of digital technologies.

Addressing mining sustainability issues with digital tech

To address sustainability issues more holistically, IT practitioners should be more mindful of overcoming the different organisational, sociological and psychological barriers that may impede progress.

For example, to be more effective in addressing social cohesion and environmental sustainability goals, practitioners should minimise major differences in perspectives and practices by simultaneously addressing the upsides of shareholder value and a viable form of sustainable stakeholder value.

Second, given the conflict between short- and long-term goals and priorities in implementing digital technologies in mining, IT and business leaders should engage more closely with their employees to develop a shared understanding of how digital technologies can contribute to sustainability goals.

Furthermore, for organisations to successfully appropriate digital mining technologies to meet their sustainability goals, leaders should establish a more balanced perspective of instrumental and humanistic objectives.

To change attitudes and sustainable business behaviour, practitioners should apply an appropriate mix and synthesis of sustainability performance metrics that go beyond technical and instrumental dimensions.

Solutions must benefit current and future generations

To conclude, in leveraging digital mining to achieve broader sustainability goals, practitioners should strive toward building more consistent mutual understandings and perspectives about the larger role of these technologies in overall long-term sustainability, as opposed to over-focusing on narrow technology imperatives to achieve short-term business sustainability goals.

IT leaders should establish appropriate designs for digital sustainability transformations that harmonise the social and technical subsystems.

They should apply design thinking approaches urgently to develop design principles that seek to harmonise the social, environmental and technological aspects of mining to improve sustainability.

It is hoped this conception of sustainable digital mining will enable practitioners to create significant value for both shareholders and stakeholders.

The importance of the interplay between digital technologies and human activities and aspirations in improving overall sustainability to be a greater part of the agenda for IT leaders working in mining must be recognised.

Finally, IT leaders and digital mining experts must design digital technologies that contribute to sustainable mining for the benefit of current as well as future generations.

* Based on a paper presented with co-author Warren Gabryk at the Pacific Asia Conference on Information Systems (PACIS 2022).