Nic Bilham – Meeting our future mineral resource needs sustainably – a sociotechnical transitions perspective

We rely on minerals for almost everything we do in our lives – from metals of all kinds, used in bulk or in tiny quantities in a huge range of technologies, to construction materials and fertilisers.  Recovery and recycling of materials, secondary resource recovery from waste streams, improved resource efficiency and other ‘circular economy’ approaches can and must play an increased role.  But society will continue to require significant quantities of primary mined resources, especially those which have not previously been mined and used extensively, for the foreseeable future.  A transition to a more sustainable and socially just ‘new minerals economy’ must therefore encompass both the emergent circular economy and the mining sector, and include actors from across the long, complex and opaque value chains through which minerals pass on their way from the mine to consumers.  

The ‘sociotechnical transitions’ framework provides a useful theoretical lens to help understand how technologically and socially complex, multi-level, multi-actor systems change over time, and how small-scale innovation can ultimately contribute to system-level reconfiguration.  This framework has been applied to other necessary sustainability transitions, principally in the energy and transport sectors, but not to the emergent transition to a more sustainable mineral resource production and consumption system.  Indeed, there has been very little research from any perspective that has considered responsible mining and the circular economy together, despite key shared drivers and barriers, or taken a system-level view including both responsible sourcing (by manufacturers) and responsible supply (by mining companies or through circular economy routes).  

This presentation outlines my ongoing PhD project to develop a preliminary conceptual framework for a sociotechnical transition to a sustainable ‘new minerals economy’, and to undertake three case studies of actors across the mineral resources system seeking to take a more responsible and sustainable approach encompassing both mined and secondary resources – a technology company, a mining company and a material stewardship scheme operator.  This is intended to improve understanding of what actor-level approaches are mostly likely to stimulate system-level progress towards sustainability, and how these can be better coordinated.


Nic is a researcher at the University of Exeter, where he is working on responsible sourcing of minerals, the relationship between mining and the circular economy, and the challenge of assuring environmental and social impact standards across complex value chains and production-consumption networks.  Until 2018, he worked at the Geological Society of London for over 20 years, most recently as Director of Policy and Communications.  He has a longstanding interest in interdisciplinary approaches to global societal challenges relating to meeting our resource needs sustainably.  

Nic is chair of trustees of Geology for Global Development (GfGD), and an Executive Council member of the International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG).  He holds degrees in History and Philosophy of Science (BA, University of Cambridge) and Science and Technology Policy (MSc, University of Sussex).  

University of Exeter Business School, SERSF Building, Penryn Campus, Penryn, Cornwall, TR10 9FE, UK / Camborne School of Mines,

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