In an episode of the Sepro podcast you shouldn’t miss, Andrew had the privilege of sitting down with John Steen, the director of the Bradshaw Research Initiative in Mining and Minerals, senior editor of the Project Management Journal, as well as the EY Distinguished Scholar in Metals Futures.

Full transcript below.

John takes us through the history that led him to being a leader in innovation in mining from his time in Tasmania and Queensland until he ended up at the University of British Columbia. John’s specialty is in the management of innovation: how are solutions found in complex organizations with thousands of people all over the world? The findings of several of John’s studies are explored, looking at the cultural aspects of problem solving within companies, the relationship between big resource companies and their supply chains, and the allocation of risk. As well, we get detailed insight into the work John is doing at UBC looking at energy infrastructure, water, sustainability of the mining industry, and how he is dedicated to bridging the gap between experts in this area and the mining industry.

Andrew Gillis:

Okay, hi John, thanks for joining me on the Sepro podcast today. I’m really excited to have you as a guest. I think this ought to be interesting to a lot of people because my familiarity with the stuff you’re doing is that it has the potential of a big impact on the mining industry as a whole from a macro industry standpoint. So I’m really excited to have you here today.

John Steen:

Thanks Andrew. And it’s a real pleasure to be here. I think as we spend a lot of time in this post-COVID world, or the current COVID world, we’re realizing that digital media like podcasts and webinars are going to be big now and bigger going forward. So really happy to be talking with you on this medium.

Andrew Gillis:

A good way to get the messages out. So I always like to start right from the start, whether I’m talking to people on a podcast platform or just meeting somebody for the first time and get an idea of their background. So do you mind talking a little bit about where you grew up and where you’re originally from?

John Steen:

Yeah, yeah. I actually was born in Tasmania, which I guess is the Newfoundland of Australia and indeed all the jokes are the same. So when I meet with Newfoundlanders, we can share the persecution that we suffer from our big island cousins. Yeah, so I grew up there. On my parents’ side, they were immigrants from Holland after the war and it was fairly interesting place to grow up – very, very remote, but just a fascinating nature and geology. It’s quite a unique place. As a boy, I was very interested in science, but whenever a relative visited, they couldn’t leave Hobart without taking me to the museum. And my favorite part in the museum was the geology section and it was just fascinating. That was about [age] five or six. And I remember, probably for about my seventh birthday, other kids were getting bicycles and things like that. I got a geology kit and so I collected all these rocks and I just had an obsession with geology and mining. So it’s one of those things where some people, I guess, move into mining. For me it was somewhere in my DNA, maybe a previous life, I don’t know, but it was a point of fascination.

Andrew Gillis:

I recall you telling me that the community – not sure, maybe there’s nothing to discuss in mixed company, but you know, the area you grew up in wasn’t super academically oriented, so it was a bit unusual for someone to pursue really significant higher education.

John Steen:

I mean, that’s one way of putting it. I can remember growing up, Tasmania doesn’t have a lot of industry, but there were a couple of really big companies. There was the Pasminco electrolytic zinc smelter, that was a big employer. And not far from where I lived, I could hear it at nighttime, was the Cadbury chocolate factory. So a lot of the workers would work shift work in the factory. And I’d hear the siren go at 6:00 PM for the end of the shift. So it was a very sort of industrial backdrop and the kids I went to school with, I think maybe one other went to university out of a class, two classes, 60 kids. So yeah, not an academic environment you might say, but I guess people are coming out of these places – they’re very hungry and entrepreneurial. I don’t take things for granted and I think that’s sort of shaped me as an academic and an entrepreneur. You’re always hungry for the next thing because that’s how you got out, I guess.

Andrew Gillis:

Oh, that’s interesting. That’s a really interesting perspective. Because it’s probably an academic stereotype or a stereotype of academics that it can be a bit more laid back and just sort of take things as they come, as opposed to getting out there and being a bit more aggressive with opportunities, academic or otherwise.

John Steen:

Yeah. I suppose it’s like Forrest Gump; I sort of ran to get out of that environment and I’m still running, you know? No one’s told me to stop yet. [laughter]

Andrew Gillis:

I have a feeling you might be able to select a more appropriate analogy.

John Steen:

I think I was just talking to some folks this morning from Anglo-American in South Africa and one of them was a female engineering graduate of Indian descent who grew up under apartheid, and she’s a dynamo and you can see, I know why you’re still running hard. I get it. A lot of people don’t get out of those environments, but when they do, they’re hungry, they run hard. When I meet someone like that, I sort of smile and say, yep, I know what drives you.

Andrew Gillis:

Right. So then you ended up…where did you end up doing your undergrad and in what discipline?

John Steen:

I went to the University of Tasmania, which is an easy choice because there’s only one university. I like to joke with people, if you have a pulse rate, you get an offer to go. And I wasn’t a very good student. I didn’t fit in very well at school. And I remember having been counseled by a teacher in grade 10, who said, “Look, the school thing isn’t really working out is it, John? So perhaps you should think about carpentry.” Which is hilarious because I struggle to install a cat flap, let alone anything else that’s more manual. But fortunately I got into university and as that world sort of opened up, I became more engaged in the problem solving, in the bigger ideas that you’re exposed to over time.

Andrew Gillis:

Well, if you were struggling with it, why was university the best out of a few different paths? Other ones you really didn’t feel like following, you know, the lesser of several evils? Or despite your teacher’s advice, you didn’t exactly agree with it?

John Steen:

Well, I really empathize with the people who are graduating into this current economic environment, because it does set you on a path that is challenging. So when I graduated from my degree in 1991, that was a recession, and Tasmania being what it is, sort of falls – in all the Australian economies, it falls into recession first, and it emerges from recession last. So there were no jobs. There was a PhD scholarship that offered the princely sum of $270 a week, which was more than anything else that was on offer. And I took that, not for any particular strategic reason. I’d like to say I had a vision of being a world leading scientist, but the reality is it just seemed like a good idea at the time.

Andrew Gillis:

So your undergrad was in general sciences? Is that right?

John Steen:

Biochemistry, but during that PhD, I became really interested in the management of research and development because my biochemistry department had a research contract with a major pharmaceutical company and it went really, really badly. And from the sidelines as a PhD student, it was really interesting to watch that. And I was saying, well, actually, I’m probably more interested in the management of technology more so than actually doing the lab work, the bench work; I wasn’t a very good bench scientist. I don’t think I have the attention span for doing bench science. But I got really interested in the management of R&D, so what I would do after that is I’d sneak across to the commerce faculty and sit in on lectures around management and economics. Until one day I was caught by my supervisor who gave me a very stern dressing down and said, “Look, there’s no future in that. You’ve got to make a choice. I’m not going to tolerate you going and wasting your time on these management people.”

Andrew Gillis:

Really?

John Steen:

Oh yeah, this is 1990s, right? So the silos that we talk about now in universities were much, much worse then.

Andrew Gillis:

Oh, interesting.

John Steen:

You either pursued the pure science and aim for a pure research career or you got out: don’t mess around with business. So that was the environment. I did start to do more around that area of managing research and development. And fortunately one of the professors in commerce said, “Look, we’ve got this project looking at the titanium dioxide industry and how innovation happened in that, and we don’t understand the chemistry. So do you think you could write up the case study for us?” And I did, and that was my first paper in mining innovation. And that really set me off on a trajectory, and another PhD, which is another story, looking at the research and development in industrial economics of the resources sector.

John Steen:

Fast forward to 2003, I moved to the University of Queensland Business School and then to 2016, I became the head of the Department of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the UQ Business School. Then I did a sabbatical at the University of British Columbia in 2017, and I thought this is probably the best place in the world to live. And [British Columbia] has got a really active mining sector and it’s got all of the things I like in terms of skiing and fly fishing. It took me two years to work out how to move here, but thanks to support from my long-term collaborative colleagues at Ernst and Young, I now have a five year research chair. And this year I became the director of the Bradshaw Research Initiative in Mining and Minerals. So it’s a long way from Tasmania and it’s a long time, long way from a maths teacher telling me that university probably wasn’t an option – he may still be right, of course! [laughter]

Andrew Gillis:

Time will tell us, folks.

John Steen:

We’ll see, we’ll see. But in many ways I’m still the 16 year old kid trying to figure out what to do.

Andrew Gillis:

Right. Yeah. Aren’t we all? Maybe just pulling a couple of threads along the way there, when you went to the University of Queensland – because I think it’s going to be interesting to a lot of the listeners here – what were some of the areas of focus on the resource and business side there?

John Steen:

Often research ideas come up through casual conversations. Now universities have a habit of trying to formalize things into MOUs, or one person has the official responsibility for managing partnerships and all that. My experience is that the best research projects with industry come through conversations. So I think I was giving a talk to an MBA group and as you know, a lot of people in the resources sectors do MBAs. I was talking about problem solving and the problems of being in large organizations and finding solutions. And someone came up to me and said, “Oh, that’s fascinating. Could you come and talk to my manager at Rio Tinto because he’s working on that problem.” And that really started our first research project in 2005 or 2006 looking at how do solutions get found in complex organizations which have thousands of people over the world? And then from there that sort of spun off into thinking about the management of innovation.

Andrew Gillis:

What were your findings on that study?

John Steen:

Initially it’s one of these things with these exploratory projects and really, I’ve got to give credit to the folks who had the vision to open the organization up to us at the time. I’m still in contact with them; they’re really great people. But the findings: initially we thought, Oh, that’s easy. If you have a network of people and it’s like a phone directory; you contact really well connected people and they give you the answer. And that was like the hypothesis. So we saw this as a network problem, like the six degrees of separation problem, with how well networked into these organization.

John Steen:

But what we found was that – and I remember the trigger for this: we were out in the middle of Queensland on a mine site. We asked someone, okay, so you solved that problem with the dragline. How did you do that? And I was expecting, “We contacted the expert inside Rio Tinto and they put us in contact with someone else,” so I was expecting something nice and clean. What the story was, and I can say this because it was a long time ago, is that they said, “Well, actually I went to someone down in New South Wales,” and I said, “Why did you do that, that doesn’t make any sense. Surely there’s experts across all these mines inside Queensland.” And he said, “Yeah, but if I ask them a question, I’ve told them what I don’t know.” This was really interesting. So asking a question was politically risky inside this organization, because it was a really high performing organization and everyone was being rewarded with bonuses for their KPIs. But it also created this dark side, which is where people really felt afraid to ask questions because it was revealing what they don’t know. And some people were even going to competitors through conversations down at the local pub, because they didn’t want to reveal not knowing. And that really opened us up to the cultural aspect of problem solving. If you don’t have a high trust organization, you can’t solve problems because you’re not going to reveal to someone that you don’t know something,

Andrew Gillis:

Right. The problems get suppressed rather than-

John Steen:

Correct.

Andrew Gillis:

-than being open to be solved.

John Steen:

That’s right. And now to this day, I still talk about that result and it still resonates with executives when we mention it because they said, “Yup. We talk about being innovative, but really we don’t have an innovative culture. We don’t have a culture of trust and mutual support.” This is the bedrock of innovation.

Andrew Gillis:

Right. Absolutely. Interesting. So do you have recommendations that came out of that?

John Steen:

Yeah, I think one of the things that we really got people talking about inside that organization was how do we change the KPIs? How do we reward the people for the right behaviors and make it less directly competitive? So no two groups – and essentially they became rival groups on two mine sites, for example, two dragline operating groups. If one was better than the other, they’d be benchmarked off each other and there’d be-

Andrew Gillis:

Oh, I see. So you have this one and the other guys would fail. Half is wanting to do well yourself, but the other half is if you’re being benchmarked against someone else, well, let’s just push the benchmark down if we can.

John Steen:

So how do you reward people for improving the performance across the whole group? Or how do you reward people for solving someone else’s problem – as KPI? So getting the KPIs right. KPIs are a dark art because sometimes you get really perverse outcomes as everyone knows. So that was my introduction to the resources sector. And the next really big set of projects that we worked on – from 2010 onwards, Australia became the biggest site for LNG projects in the world. It was about 200 billion US dollars worth of LNG investments. And in Queensland it was coal seam gas, unconventional gas to LNG, which hadn’t been done anywhere in the world at that point. And it’s almost like $60 billion of innovation projects lands on your doorstep in Brisbane, so you can’t really say no, you just have to go and investigate these things.

John Steen:

So we started looking at innovation and mega-projects, innovation through supply chains, mega project failures: a whole range of things. A lot of really smart people got graduated out of that too, some of whom are working for the CSRO and other places. So that really catalyzed, and you are looking at research and looking at the relationship between the big resources companies and their supply chains, which continues to be a research interest of mine to this day.

Andrew Gillis:

Any highlights or areas of focus around that relationship that you studied through the LNG projects?

John Steen:

Yeah, there’s a number of things. I mean, and this is one of the big findings, but it’s completely consistent with everything we know about mega projects throughout the world. And indeed in mining too. And when I say mega project, we tend to talk about something over a billion dollars that particularly involves a supply chain like an EPC and delivery partners or all of those things as well. So a lot of mines get classified as mega projects. But one thing we found is that how you allocate risk is a major factor in mega project performance and the successful introduction of innovations in mega projects.

John Steen:

The traditional way that a project owner allocates risk is with a fixed price contract. So you put the work out there, you say this is the scope of work and a company bids on that. And then the contract is put in place. If the contractor fails to deliver, then there can be remediation of failed parts of the contract, liquidated damages, that sort of thing. That’s fine. We’re simple projects, right? So when you have a simple project that’s pretty short term duration, it’s been done before. You can define the whole scope, you know all the risks. The contractor knows what the price will be. You’ve got a lot of confidence around that, but when you get to something that’s really complicated, that runs over several years where you don’t know the future, that sort of fixed price contract where the risk is loaded onto the supply chain is a recipe for disaster.

John Steen:

And one of the reasons is that invariably in large complex projects, problems happen. But if you have a fixed price contract set up, what usually happens is there’s an information game between the owner and the supply chain. And then you get sort of a model of variations, you know, playing the variation game. And invariably it ends up in opportunities being missed, but also the project being delivered largely through lawyers and all the information asymmetries that come out through that. But the real problem is that if you’re a large company – even a pretty large company – so we use the example of Conoco Phillips that had one of these $24 billion gas projects. $24 billion is even pretty big for Conoco Phillips. So if you’ve got a problem with the delivery of the project, what are you going to do? You’re going to hold the project up and go to court and try and get liquidated damages for several billion, which is probably even more than the company that you’re suing is worth. They’re too big to fail.

John Steen:

You can’t get remediation of the project problems through the court. So what happened in many of these projects is they started with a traditional contracting model. And over time it became more alliancing, more collaborative, where the risks and benefits will be shared. And the projects that were successful morphed into a risk sharing, risk bearing relationship. And the ones that didn’t performed very, very poorly, and this is consistent all around the world. So one of the conclusions particularly for the mining industry is a lot of the time when we put in your PhD, right, Andrew, we put in place big bets on projects. We’ve got to set those up contractually in the right way. We’ve got to be risk sharing, risk bearing because the traditional model of fixed price contracts and loading the supply chain with risk drives the wrong behaviors, which results in a failed project a lot of the time.

Andrew Gillis:

Well, that’s a hugely important topic.

John Steen:

Yeah. And I need to go to the dimension that another hat I wear is I’m senior editor of the Project Management Journal, which is the the academic journal of the Project Management Institute. A lot of our research and the research of my esteemed colleagues who – they’re very well known people, much better known than I am – they look at the same problems, and my colleague, Andy Davies, who’s in the UK, he’s seen the same problems in civil infrastructure. The whole point is you’ve got to be an intelligent owner of a project. You’ve got to have enough knowledge to understand what’s being done. And you’ve got to be able to see through the supply chain in a way that enables you to understand what’s going on. It’s not sufficient to say here’s the capital, here’s what we want. EPC: you go do your work-

Andrew Gillis:

-call us when it’s done.

John Steen:

Our job here is done. That’s a recipe that is not satisfactory. And I do remember at the peak of the mining boom in about 2012 – I can’t say who this was, because this was a confidential discussion – but being called into an executive office of a large mining company and they said, “Look, we know you’ve got some interesting views on projects.” And I said, well, I think they’re interesting. And I said, well, here’s our – if you like – the ‘blood list’ of our current projects. And the losses that were mounting up were in the billions.

Andrew Gillis:

Wow.

John Steen:

So we started talking about mega project failures and the need to be an intelligent owner. And I got Andy Davies on the line to talk about best practice in civil infrastructure with risk share, risk bear relationships, supply chain visibility, really having a lot of project management competency in the owner organization. And Andy just said, “Look, you know, you really have to be an intelligent diner.” And I remember one of these mining execs turning to the other and saying, “Are we intelligent owners?” And the other fellow turned around and said, “No, we’re dumb.” So the industry at that time – one of the reasons why there was so much poorly allocated capital is that they just didn’t have the capabilities to manage mega projects in a way that’s world’s best practice.

Andrew Gillis:

I imagine you can think of that, even at the small scale, a personal consumer: if you have absolutely no knowledge of the work you’re asking to take place, and you’re extremely demanding, there’s a pretty good chance you can get taken for a ride. And I feel like what you’re identifying is the exact same problems track all the way up into these billion dollar projects.

John Steen:

That’s exactly right. And when we see an organization struggle to deliver a major project, and the consequence of write downs, sometimes it’s a new level of scale. Now there’s something about the novelty there, which takes them outside their expertise, and often they’ve covered that up with an EPC. But that doesn’t solve the problem either. Because you still don’t understand what’s going on through your supply chain. You’re sort of flying blind.

Andrew Gillis:

I think one of the things I’ve observed anecdotally, with mining organizations anyway, is trying to shed as much non-routine competency as they can during the lean times, whether that’s research centers, internal project management offices, anything that’s not about routine site operation. And then it sounds like what you’re describing is that comes home to roost when it’s time to build and develop, and those competencies aren’t in house and the activities that need to happen aren’t well enough understood. And you’re relying on somebody else to take all that on who now has all of the information and if you’re left without even the internal competency to be able to ask the right questions to properly manage the risk, you’re going to be in a really bad spot.

John Steen:

Yeah, totally. I think that we make the same mistakes over and over again. So I think in 2014/15/16, in some lean times everyone was saying: we don’t know what the trigger is, but we’re going to see another rise in the cycle which we’re seeing now. And mining companies were being warned that you need to invest now, you need to have innovation management capabilities, you need to have a sophisticated technology supply chain. You need to have that internal project management capability. You need to be an intelligent owner, but these things tend to fall on deaf ears. I’ve actually been reading Jared Diamond’s book on country resilience, and he talks about Finland is a resilient country. They went to war with the Russians in the 1930s and they certainly defeated them because Stalin had sort of liquidated his officer class. You can’t just build up management capability at the drop of a hat; once you lose it, rebuilding it takes a long time.

Andrew Gillis:

Maybe shifting gears a little bit, you mentioned a relationship with EY [Ernst and Young]. Do you want to describe that a little bit?

John Steen:

Yeah, very happy to do that. So again, it’s conversations; when I moved to the University of Queensland in 2003/2004 I met another kindred spirit, a guy who’d grown up in Mauritius, and had become a management consultant and had moved to Brisbane after working for IBM. Gerald Marion is his name. He’s now an executive for a health insurance company in Australia. Very nice guy. Very, very smart. We’re still very good friends. Anyway, so Gerald was interested in the research we were doing and over time he would introduce us to people within Ernst and Young. And I met with – I remember it was just before Christmas, I think it was – Paul Mitchell, the global mining and metals leader was in Brisbane. He came out to the campus, we had a chat over a cup of coffee, we had a great conversation and we started out with one project looking at productivity in the mining sector.

John Steen:

And then it just grew from there. All of these relationships, these partnerships that are enduring and productive are based on collaboration over time and building trust and understanding. That was 2012, 2013? And we’ve done a number of things together over the years: industry reports, webinars, a whole range of collaborative activities. So when I came to the University of British Columbia, that partnership came here too. And I remember discussing the idea with EY and we had this idea of creating an EY Distinguished Scholar in Global Mining Futures, and they’ve very generously contributed to that position. I guess I’m putting a stake in the ground and really seriously thinking through the future of the industry. So that’s a very nice partnership. The people at EY are not only great industry collaborators, but we always enjoy catching up for a drink or going out to a restaurant when we can get the time.

Andrew Gillis:

Right. So is that shaping some of your research – I’d imagine shaping some of your research direction at UBC. Do you want to talk a little bit about your current areas of focus or your position at UBC?

John Steen:

Yeah, so I came to UBC with that position sort of a little bit like a blank check. It’s sort of a dream position, so the global mining futures is very broad; you can sort of construe that any way that you want. But it’s one of these positions where I think at the end of the five years, it’s really about what have we been able to change in the industry. So really what we’re looking for is change in how the industry thinks about innovation, change in how the industry thinks about sustainability, but also I think very importantly how people within the university think about the industry and particularly graduates. Can we actually attract smart, talented people into the industry at a time when it’s incredibly challenged on all fronts, but also growing. We’ve really got to convey to graduates that this is a very interesting industry to work with.

John Steen:

And as you know yourself, Andrew, you can pretty much follow any career that you want. You can create any career that you like. It’s an incredibly diverse industry. So the Bradshaw Institute – it’s called the Bradshaw Research Initiative in Mining and Minerals (BRIMM). And the Bradshaw name is Dr. Peter Bradshaw, who will be well known to many people in Canada and in Vancouver in particular. Peter’s had a long career in the industry. If you’re interested in Peter’s career, you can Google “Peter Bradshaw Canadian Mining Hall of Fame”, and it really maps it out quite nicely. But I think what Peter is probably best known for is the discovery of the Porgera mine in New Guinea. He led that exploration work that really discovered the world’s biggest gold mine.

John Steen:

But Peter’s also an entrepreneur; he’s obviously retired now, but still very passionate about the future of the industry and the role of the industry in supplying the materials that we need for a sustainable world in the 21st century. So what I saw when I came to UBC was a very large university with world class expertise in a number of different areas relating to mining, but like a lot of universities around the world, quite siloed in that the traditional culture of a university – and this isn’t UBC, this is everywhere around the world, the universities reward individual brilliance, right? That’s how you get promoted. But that’s not terribly useful for industry because they don’t want to be dealing with a thousand individually brilliant people, which sounds like some definition of hell, or at least herding cats anyway.

John Steen:

So while we do have this wonderful research and knowledge and sort of underlying capacity to collaborate and co-create solutions with the industry, culturally, we’re not set up for it. So what the Bradshaw Institute is doing is creating teams of, if you like, the best researchers across UBC in particular areas. And those particular areas that we’re choosing are ones that are “must win” battlegrounds for the sustainability of the industry. As an example, the first one we launched just the other week is called the mining microbiome, but it’s really about biotechnology in mining. And the way we’ve set that up is: how does biotechnology change mining across the whole mining lifecycle to be more productive, cleaner, better relationships with environment, the society?

John Steen:

So an exploration in mineral processing, and also right through to mine remediation: biotechnology can play a role in all of those areas. And we’ve got some of the world’s leaders in genomics, hydrometallurgy. For those who know the the story about Jetti, the copper leaching technology – which looks like it could be a complete game changer for copper processing – that technology came out of UBC. So it’s not that we haven’t been doing mining research. We’ve just been doing it in a very scattered way. I remember talking to someone: it’s a bit like the problem of dark matter. Yeah, we know the universe is quite heavy, but we can’t see it. And the reason why we can’t see the heavy stuff in the universe is that it’s very scattered.

John Steen:

So one of the things that BRIMM is doing is bringing together the scattered parts and bringing them into a very visible, critical mass of researchers on certain topics. So that’s biotechnology, but we’re also looking at renewable mine energy systems, sustainable mine energy systems, because Ballard is one of the oldest and best known hydrogen power companies in the world, but it’s based in Vancouver. Because of that relationship over many years, UBC is a world leader in hydrogen power and fuel cell technology. And guess what? What are the miners interested in? They’re very interested in hydrogen power. So we’re building a bridge between decades of world class expertise and the industry.

John Steen:

Another one we’re looking at is water. And I think we’re starting to get the idea that mining has a pretty big carbon footprint that we need to address, but mining also has a very big water footprint.

Andrew Gillis:

Right.

John Steen:

And in the water-constrained world in the future where miners are competing with agriculture and towns for water, we really need to think about how we manage water. We need to look at innovation in water, water efficiency. One very interesting piece of work that a PhD student of mine, Benjamin Cox, is working on at the moment is not what’s the cost of water, but what’s the value of water? That’s a very different thing. So, for example, if you look at Chile, the Atacama Desert, the value of water to an avocado farmer is about 50 cents a megalitre. So that’s what the avocado farmer can do with that water to translate it into a value added product. The value of water to a big copper mine is about $7.

Andrew Gillis:

Oh, wow.

John Steen:

So who is going to win in a fight in a water contest? Who’s going to pay more for the water and who’s going to win? These are the contests, right? And we’ve really got to think as an industry how do we respond, how do we deal with that? Governments have to think about that because we take water for granted, but in the future, and particularly in developing economies, water is life. And if the industry it doesn’t think about how it uses water, we’ll end up in a hell of a lot of conflict with local communities.

Andrew Gillis:

Oh, interesting. Those are critical topics to the industry going forward. Absolutely.

John Steen:

Yeah. We don’t want to pretend that we’re experts at everything, but there are some things the University of British Columbia really is good at. That’s biotech, energy, water. And also, and this is across Canada more generally, Canada is actually a hotspot for artificial intelligence and data analytics. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are very good at that. But again, UBC has a lot of expertise in this area, and the ability to pull that together into a theme and connect it with industry is something I’d also really like to do. So I’m working pretty hard on that at the moment, having a lot of very interesting conversations with research leaders across campus in different departments,

Andrew Gillis:

We didn’t mention during the conversation part of this podcast, but you’re the director of BRIMM. Can you talk a little bit about your responsibilities in that position?

John Steen:

It’s one of those things where you arrive in a job and you don’t expect to be in a position within a year. But I guess as someone who’s really racked up the miles over the years going across the world, talking to the industry, I’ve got a very global view of the industry. And I think that I understand the needs and challenges of the industry quite well. So the position of director of BRIMM came up and I thought, this is a tremendously exciting opportunity. What better thing could we do than marshal the resources of UBC, the expertise to really address challenges in the mining sector? And what I keep telling people is that if we’re going to reach a point at the end of the 21st century where we have a sustainable society, a sustainable economy, we’ve reached that zero net carbon target – if that happens, it will be because we have transformed the mining sector. Because the amount of materials that we need to adjust all of that energy infrastructure, and the infrastructure full stop, to a zero net carbon sustainable economy, we need massive amounts of materials.

John Steen:

The little factoid I like to give to people is: we’ll need as much copper in the next 20 years as we have produced in the whole of human history. So I think one of the real privileges of this position is the idea of getting up in the morning with a purpose: what am I here to do? And it’s really about doing the heavy lifting in an industry that is, again, a must-win battleground for sustainability. If we can’t transform the mining sector and reduce its ecological footprint, then all the wind turbines, all the solar panels, all the Teslas – it’s for nothing, because we haven’t changed the way that we produce the materials that go into these things.

Andrew Gillis:

Right. Yeah. That’s a critical way to look at it. The net impact when we’re creating all these cleaner technologies and less impactful technologies – if we’re doing it with a huge amount of impact, as you say, it’s all for naught.

John Steen:

And you can see the users of these materials really starting to get anxious as they wake up to the idea that to produce all these electric vehicles, we’re going to need all this nickel. And where does the nickel come from? So you have Elon Musk putting out a call for, could someone please please produce nickel with a zero net carbon footprint so he can get it into our Teslas. And they’re starting to wake up to the idea that these materials don’t come out of thin air.

Andrew Gillis:

They ultimately all come from somewhere.

John Steen:

They come from somewhere. Same with cobalt: I was having a discussion with somebody about the importance of the mining industry and they were a Tesla driver and I said, look, you drive a Tesla and they said, “…yeah.” And I’m not picking on Tesla, by the way, it could be any EV, I’m not on a holy war.

Andrew Gillis:

Just a popular example.

John Steen:

Popular example that everyone knows. But I’ll say, look, do you know what’s in your battery? And they said, “Oh, oh, lithium, I think.” Yeah, lithium, but also cobalt. Do you know where that cobalt comes from? “No idea.” Well, it probably comes out of the Democratic Republic of Congo and it’s probably produced by people who aren’t working in the best of conditions – they may even be children and that had never occurred to them. So this is one of the big challenges: how do we get visibility through the supply chain? How do we change the industry so that if we do come up with a technological solution, which is environmentally friendly, how do we make sure that the whole supply chain is environmentally friendly? This is going to be really important.

Andrew Gillis:

Well, John, certainly sounds like you have your work cut out for you. That’s a lot of stuff. You said there’s a five year timeline. Is that your term as director or is that more open-ended?

John Steen:

My position, the EY Distinguished Scholar in Global Mining Futures: so I’m one year in, couple years to go. Five years just go so quickly, you know? But that’s five years. I do hope that UBC sees enough value in me to keep me around. But in the position as Director of BRIMM, I report to a board and they’ll be watching me very closely to see if I can deliver on these things.

Andrew Gillis:

That’s a lot of stuff to deliver on. I’m not sure you could have picked more challenging areas in a more challenging industry to go after.

John Steen:

It’s probably not much more challenging than getting out of Tasmania and being told by a teacher that you’re probably better off picking up hammers and nails. It’s interesting sometimes what drives us; it may be even a bit of a chip on my shoulder. I’ve got something to prove, but if it drives me harder, that’s not a bad thing.

Andrew Gillis:

Absolutely. Well, I appreciate you sharing all this. I suspect that we’ll be checking back in again, periodically, since these are topics that are absolutely relevant to the industry and I think a lot of people in the industry do have a really active interest in. I think often, you talk to people and they can project their feelings of the industry on to people in the industry and not understand that the industry is made up of people that care just about the environment, just as much about these social issues as other people, if not more so. Like yourself, there are lots of people that go into the industry because they feel like they can make an impact in these really important areas. So I think it’s absolutely something we’ll be checking back on regularly. I want to say John, thanks very much for your time today. I really appreciated the conversation and I found it absolutely fascinating.

John Steen:

Well, thanks, Andrew. And really appreciate the opportunity. And you know, I think it’s a great idea that Sepro is doing this. We don’t have enough of the sort of open conversations where we open up our souls a bit, sometimes, and really think about our purpose and what motivates us. So thanks. Thanks for the opportunity.

Andrew Gillis:

Absolutely. Welcome. Look forward to the next conversation. Thank you.

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