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Mining the City: A Proposal to Move the World

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Cities are already a major source of raw materials, recycling more than 400 million tonnes a year of paper and metal from their urban ore. In some particularly good countries more than 90 percent of their discarded aluminum cans are ‘mined’ and recycled into new aluminum. In a few cities, old landfills have even been mined to recover past discarded metals. Another link between cities and the mining industry might be replicating contests held by two important mining companies.

In March 2000 Goldcorp announced a very unusual challenge. The company offered $575,000 in prize money, plus put all of its usually highly proprietary geologic data for its Red Lake, Canada property on line. The company needed help on where best to next look for gold. More than one thousand virtual prospectors from more than 50 countries responded. Their suggestions were prescient and highly profitable. The contest took a small niche gold mining company and made it a global player: share prices increased more than 50-fold since 1993.

In September 2007 Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold mining company announced a similar prize for its silver mining operations in Argentina. Barrick was sure there must be a better way to recover silver and offered a $10 million prize to anyone who could help with the effort. All the site information and criteria were placed online. More than 200 preliminary submissions were received from some 2000 researchers, leading to 16 detailed proposals, with nine teams now entering site trials. Barrick is ecstatic with the response so far.

Both of these examples highlight how the highly secretive ‘old dog’ of the mining industry is learning ‘new tricks’. Once the information was public and clear ‘rules of the game’ set, incredibly useful and lucrative help came forward. So why not do this for the world’s most important stakeholder – our cities?

Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and I shall move the world.” Surely that lever is cities. What if the world’s aid donors, philanthropists and a few well-intentioned businesses got together and issued a similar challenge in partnership with innovative cities. Cities could select the task; make their information public; highlight shortcomings like budget, staffing or public support; and ask for new ways to approach old challenges. Any city could participate and accompanying funds could be adjusted by the supporting agencies and businesses. Mining this creativity and enthusiasm on behalf of cities would indeed move the world.

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