Technological Revolution and Raw Materials: A Coming Together of the Past and Future?

With the steady progress of the technological revolution and of digital platforms, we are witnessing deep transformations in business, social interactions, and in the foundations for the cities of the future. A key transformation has been the ever-growing demand for raw materials (particularly, rare earths), as vital elements for advanced sustainable technologies.


The technological revolution broke down the barriers of conventional means of communication and paved the way for the cyberspace. We evolved from the written word to the spoken word and are now moving towards a digital space where distances are significantly reduced and communication is easier and more dynamic.

Within this context, information and communication technologies (ICTs) are understood as a set of technological resources establishing a new paradigm of communication and which have proven to be essential tools in the “information age”.

Digital platforms, ranging from social networks to cloud computing systems, have emerged as catalysts for recent technological innovation. They transformed the global scenario by changing the way we socially interact, reformulating the economy, and generating new business opportunities and scientific progress. Access to information has become more democratic, more available, and more immediate. Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter/X and Instagram radically changed the way we share information and connect with each other, overcoming geographic and cultural barriers. E-commerce and cloud-based business solutions have profoundly altered the business landscape, by making global operations possible, reducing costs and increasing efficiency. Artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies, applied to familiar systems (“Hello, Siri!”), are gradually reformulating various sectors, from health to the automotive industry, and play a significant role in how we conceive the cities of the future. They are the foundations upon which the cities of the future will be built, creating more connected, efficient and sustainable urban environments.

This technological evolution has led to the ever-growing demand for raw materials that play a fundamental role in the energy transition, the most notable example of which are rare earths – a set of chemical elements of high economic value, currently essential for a huge variety of high-tech products, including mobile phones, electric cars and defence systems. The World Bank estimates that this demand may increase by more than 400% up to 2050.

Nonetheless, the extraction and processing of raw materials (particularly of rare earths) represent complex and expensive processes for the mining industry. If, on the one hand, their growing strategic significance in the tech and geopolitical fields makes raw material exploration and mining more appealing, on the other hand, a fundamental concern is faced: the apparent paradox presented by the demand for clean and sustainable technologies from an industry traditionally labelled as polluting, harmful and unsafe.

Will stakeholders be able to guarantee technological progress without the mining industry’s contribution? This does not seem to be the case, since the importance of the raw materials obtained through this industry is now undeniable. So what changes will the mining industry have to make to be able to play its role in technological progress? How can developed countries contribute to ensuring the supply of critical raw materials without aggravating the existing socio-economic issues?


Raw materials exploitation is at the centre of a global effort to harmonise progress and sustainability, as seen above. Thus, mining companies have been adopting innovative technologies and methods with a view to make mining more precise, clean and efficient – as well as less invasive and harmful to the environment and to the local communities living in mining areas. It appears, however, that further changes are yet to come.

Research itself is increasingly oriented towards the development of cleaner exploitation, extraction and processing methods, which are also less energy consuming (for instance, by using safer solvents and methods that reduce the generation of toxic waste). These advances not only improve the environmental sustainability of raw material exploitation, but also increase the health and safety of all those involved in the process.

Actions such as mine rehabilitation (which ensures that mining sites are restored and reintegrated in their natural environment), the already mentioned development of greener processing technologies, the increased energy efficiency of operations, and carbon capture and storage are now on the mining industry’s agenda.

In addition, in recent years there has been growing interest in exploring and mining rare earths in developed countries or in little exploited areas (the Arctic region, for instance). And why is that? The truth is that the growing importance of these raw materials increases the risk of dependency in relation to the world’s largest producers. And, just as happened with the oil industry, the mining industry has also flourished in countries that, despite their natural wealth, are qualified as “developing”, “non-transparent jurisdictions” and/or as having “unstable” political systems (the so-called “resource-rich curse). Thus, it seems only natural that the biggest consumers of these raw materials are not willing to face dependency on producers characterised as such – and, consequently, are interested in exploring solutions within their own territories that will offer them greater technological autonomy. This recent trend goes against another, older, trend: namely, the desire to keep mining activities out of view (“Not In My Backyard”).

If the development of the mining industry achieves the desired balance between progress and sustainability, the benefits will be significant. Not only in the technological domain – with technology becoming increasingly accessible to the population, gadgets becoming increasingly smaller and more efficient, and the development of more advanced digital platforms (such as data centres sustaining the cloud computing infrastructure) and of smart cities –, but also in the social domain (with the generation of jobs, structural development of rural areas, and improvement of working conditions in the mining industry). This might well be an unprecedented chance for the past and future to come together.

The mining industry is thus not simply a fundamental component in the transition to a greener / low carbon economy. It is also a vital driver of the technological infrastructure of modern cities, paving the way for more connected and efficient smart urban environments.The responsible mining of natural resources (particularly those considered critical for technological development) is fundamental to ensure their availability for future generations.


The technological revolution is advancing at a rapid pace, principally driven by digital platforms. However, it remains grounded in  a traditional industry. The exploration and mining of critical raw materials (particularly rare earths), which are essential in this era of innovation, symbolise the intersection between technological development, (the demand for natural resources, and ecological responsibility.

The strategies adopted in the extraction and use of these chemical elements will determine the sustainability of the cities of the future, as raw materials are no longer merely resources to be exploited, but true catalysts of more conscious and sustainable urban development. Hence the need for an alignment between the standards and expectations of States, mining companies and consumers. Factors such as (i) more accessible and robust funding for mining activities related to critical raw materials, (ii) greater swiftness in the granting of mining rights by States, and (iii) consumers’ willingness to pay a tiered price for products derived from more sustainable and responsible mining practices may prove decisive in achieving the desired balance between technological development, demand for natural resources, and ecological responsibility.

The Insights published herein reproduce the work carried out for this purpose by the author and therefore maintain the original language in which they were written. The opinions expressed within the article are solely the author’s and do not reflect in any way the opinions and beliefs of WhatNext.Law or of its affiliates. See our Terms of Use for more information.

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