«The mineral exploration industry has been innovative since its origin. The long-term evolution innovation chain in the mining exploration industry has been shaped by internal and external factors»

Michel Jébrak. Université du Québec à Montréal, Sciences de la Terre et de l’atmosphère and CIRST. Chaire en entrepreneuriat minier UQAT-UQAM. Innovations in mineral exploration: Targets, methods and organization since the first globalization period. Cahier de recherche.


»The mineral exploration industry has been innovative since its origin. It has answered the demand for metals by renewing its targets, geological and economic concepts, technical methods, and even its organization in order to discover more mineral resources. The long-term evolution innovation chain in the mining exploration industry has been shaped by internal and external factors. External factors include demand and economic and political context. Internal factors are related to the development of the industry itself, such as the dynamics of its innovations.

»External factors

»External factors have played a dominant role. The demand for new metals creates new branches of the mineral industry and promotes the development of new fields of research, from nickel during the first globalization to rare earths at the present time. Intense exploration activities resulting in discoveries have always correlated with high metal prices.

»The domain is evolving toward ever-more diversified activities, with a pronounced specialization among the different segments of the industry. Coal and petroleum geology used to be part of economic geology at the beginning of the twentieth century, but were distinguished as a specialized discipline after World War II. A new style of professionals appeared with progressive development in the fields of geophysics, geochemistry and geomatics following disruptive technological innovations. Ore deposits are being discovered deeper than ever before, requiring more innovations. Although geological reasoning has remained the core business of explorationists (Sillitoe and Thompson, 2006), high-tech advances in exploration practices have transformed the way discoveries are made by increasing the speed of discovery, the capacity of target selection in vast and underexplored territories, and the depth of detection.

»The relative economic importance of the mining industry has been declining in Western societies since the first globalization period. Mining research and innovations were at the root of many respected universities and colleges all over the world, but mining departments were progressively replaced by other disciplinary domains that offer new expectations; academics have consequently been moving from national capital centers toward regional, even marginal universities since the 1970s. This creates a negative feedback loop, with less involvement from highly qualified people and less challenges.

»Internal factors

»Each domain is also influenced by its own dynamic that was likely influenced by key entrepreneurs (Schlumpeter, 1950) or by a sporadic, even chaotic, sociological evolution (Kuhn, 1962; Hung and Tu, 2011). The long-term history of mining evolution shows different degrees of change, periods of dislocation, and loops between continuity and discontinuity. Innovation rates increased over super-cycle periods, beginning with the development of previous technological disruptive innovations, followed by target innovations that take decades to be developed. From the initial discovery, other deposits of the same class are discovered, and a circle of understanding and discoveries develops — a positive feedback loop — sustaining an incremental innovation process. Most major technical innovations came from outside the geological sciences, except for geostatistics and geodynamics.

»Mineral exploration has long been practiced all over the world. However, its solidification as a discipline only occurred in a limited number of countries. Internationalization, as exemplified by the migration of highly qualified miners from Saxe or Cornwall, has often been counterbalanced by a very national, sometimes secretive approach. European and American scientists diverged in the 1960s, when the style of the discovered deposits appeared very different — more magmatic in America, more sedimentary in Europe. The east-west international mobility of expertise was low during the Cold War, which allowed Russian scientists to develop their own approach, such as lithogeochemistry. Many publicly held French and Russian mining companies still use non-conventional approaches in their definition of mining reserves, developing very early geometallurgical approaches or innovative geophysical techniques. The fact that mines and smelters are mostly located in remote areas probably also acts as a deterrent for new professionals who aspire to further their careers by moving from company to company (Filippou and King, 2011). Linguistic isolation played a significant role, allowing original schools to develop with the risk of parochialism.

»Another internal factor that played a significant role in the evolution of innovation in mining exploration is the generation effect (Attias-Donfut, 1988; Winock, 2011). Each generation is marked by a major event that constructs the mind of the communities and orients their challenges and actions during a large part of their working life. The mobility of Cornish miners at the end of the nineteenth century has been inscribed in the genome of numerous mining countries: a quarter of a million descendants of those miners currently live in Bendigo, Victoria, Australia. Several key discoveries, such as Bingham, El Salvador, Kidd Creek or Olympic Dam, have long remained in the mind of, and shaped the thinking of a whole generation of, key explorationists. More work is needed to understand the long-term influence of these historic events in shaping the mind of innovators and the development of the mining industry.»

Innovation Typologies
Thematic Readings

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