a mining site in Indonesia
PHOTO: Dominik Vanyi

Have you ever wondered about the story behind your cell phone or computer? Do you have an electric car, a mobile tablet or a smart speaker? Any idea where these products came from? 

If you’re like a lot of people, you probably know that most electronic products — even those with American brands — are made by contracted manufacturers all over the world. But the story gets a bit murky if you try to trace all the component parts back through the supply chain to the source of the materials.

Most electronic products have a significant amount of metals such as gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum. How and where these materials are mined has major ethical and financial implications for millions of people all over the world — as well as for the companies that use the materials in their products. 

Why Should We Care About the Supply Chain?

The increasing consumer and business demand for electronic devices results in an increasing demand for the minerals that make up the electronic chips, processors and batteries in these devices. About a quarter of the metals used in the electronics industry today comes from the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) sector. These mines provide important income to about 100 million people in rural areas of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and Oceana. However, along with economic opportunity, these small operations can also face such issues as child and forced labor, unsafe working conditions, and degradation of the local environment. And in some areas, they can play a role in illegally financing armed conflict, terrorism and human rights abuses.

It’s no wonder regulators in the US and Europe have required publicly traded companies to disclose whether they source “conflict minerals” from these regions. However, incomplete, contradictory or changing regulations that vary by country can create a challenge for many companies trying to conduct ethical supply chain operations. Additionally, these regulations have caused two unintended consequences: the removal of important economic development in these struggling regions, and increased smuggling to neighboring countries where they can enter the supply chain without traceability.

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How Co-Innovation Can Solve Global Problems

How can companies ensure their products are ethically sourced without contributing to even greater corruption and economic hardship? This is the kind of big, bold industry challenge that demands multi-party innovation.

No single company can address complex global issues alone. The systemic nature of the supply chain requires the cooperation, combined resources and ingenuity of multiple organizations: local and global companies, non-government organizations (NGOs), and government agencies, as well as grassroots involvement. By bringing in diverse perspectives, we can find overlapping value while exploring new technologies and business models that can be implemented at scale. 

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Learning by Doing, Together

As a first step, the industry leaders that use these minerals must design an ecosystem of collaborators that can address the opportunity area from multiple angles. For the electronics supply chain, that ecosystem would include personal device brands, automotive companies, component, contract manufacturers, shipping companies, and mining/mineral processing companies.

The next step is to get out of the building and learn by doing. For the challenge of mineral traceability, this involves interviewing experts at government agencies and NGOs, as well as visiting ASMs to observe their due diligence practices. By meeting with mine operators and monitors and those closest to the problem, you can more quickly validate your assumption and design solutions that move the needle.

Prototyping with those experts and end users provides immense value because people are able to respond to a tangible, working solution rather than an amorphous idea. By allowing users to actually try out a solution – in this case, testing interfaces for logging mineral data at the mine site – it enables the ability to test assumptions about the technical feasibility, business viability, and customer desirability. This helps organizations quickly identify the solutions with the greatest value potential that can ultimately impact the global supply chain.

After gathering initial insights in the field, prototypes are refined to determine their relevancy to other types of operations—including large-scale mines, smelters and refiners. Each step of the way, new partners are identified, new stakeholders are engaged, and new prototypes are built in an iterative cycle of rapid learning.

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Transforming the Global Supply Chain, Together

Often, organizations approach complex problems with feasibility studies and endless debate. But frequently, the quickest, surest route to a solution may be to just try it. Field observation and rapid prototyping, combined with multiple rounds of end-user feedback, can quickly prove a promising idea, or kill a concept that’s going nowhere.

By taking on this process together, industry partners can leverage each other’s particular perspective on a complex challenge and work together to test assumptions with end users in the field. As a result, multi-party innovation can have a significant impact in connecting the dots between human resourcefulness and cutting-edge technology to transform the global supply chain.