Rio Tinto has called for a “major re-focus” on Australia’s education systems to encourage science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills and the development of an innovation mindset among students.

Speaking at the Brisbane Mining Club, the group executive of Rio Tinto’s technology and innovation unit, Greg Lilleyman, backed the “sharp, new, national focus on innovation” created by the current federal government.

He believed that an innovation focus could help arrest Australia’s “declining competitiveness”.

“A truly smart economy will draw on and share inspiration, ideas and know-how from a broad range of sectors,” Lilleyman said.

“We need intelligent, economy-wide, data-driven innovation to become the new norm, and this necessity should be a fundamental bedrock in our secondary and tertiary education systems.

“They should teach the need for it, the ways in which it will underpin our prosperity and the mindset and methodology required to produce high-yield innovations.”

Lilleyman said this would require a “major re-focus in education and an emphatic shift toward STEM subjects.”

“By this I mean not just teaching them, but inculcating them as cultural values,” he said.

“We want the next generations of Australian kids to aspire single-mindedly towards excelling in those fields.

“We want the kid who tops the maths or geology test to be as much a playground hero as the footy captain.”

Lilleyman also used his address to blast what he saw as the constant dismissal of the mining sector in the new innovation conversation.

“I can’t be the only one who’s tired of clichés about the ‘end of the mining boom’,” he said.

“Lately it’s become mandatory for commentators, pundits and taxi drivers, to expound at length about how the mining good times are all over and Australia needs to find its next boom sector.

“And it better have something to do with smart phones or online shopping.”

Lilleyman said that while a recent construction phase had “tailed off”, mine output “is at historic highs”, and he believed there was no reason to “underestimate the role mining will still play in this country’s economic future”.

“In the 19th century popular cliché had it that ‘Australia rode on the sheep’s back’, such was the importance of the wool industry,” he said.

“That prominence declined and the cliché fell from favour, but the industry didn’t disappear.

To this day we are one of the world’s biggest wool producers, contributing roughly a quarter of the clip sold internationally and arguably most of the best quality stuff. Exports this year will be worth around $3 billion.

“My point is that cliches come and go, but competitive industries with high quality product endure, especially if they continue to grow and innovate to keep their productivity ahead of the game.”

Lilleyman made the case that everyone from aspiring students to Australian businesses could learn something about innovation from the Australian mining industry.

Rio Tinto is home to the Mine of the Future program, a multi-year technology strategy that used autonomous transport and data analytics to find extra capacity and lower operational costs.

“Large parts of Australia’s economy could benefit from the lessons our mining industry has learnt,” Lilleyman said.

“Many businesses could gain by acquiring our long view - decades long - of investing and market cycles, rather than a reactive focus on daily market fluctuations.

“To replicate mining’s success, adopt our focus on driving down costs to globally competitive levels, with adaptive use of technology and an unremitting focus on productivity gains.”