Concrete for long-term carbon storage, the view from complexity science

Construction is one of the major emitters, with cement manufacturing alone being accountable for 7–8% of greenhouse gas emissions. Some scientists think it might even be possible to reverse the emissions by turning cement and concrete into carbon storage. But is there a business case to be made?
Associate Professor Päivö Kinnunen at the lab. Photo: Hoang Nguyen.

How to design truly environmentally-friendly concrete that is affordable? This multibillion-dollar question is as relevant in business as it is in science and has large implications for the environment.

While we cannot turn a blind eye to the hard facts about breaching the precarious natural balance, how are we to square that fact with the basic rule of competition, which dictates that overly cumbersome approaches are not viable? That it does not pay to clean the atmosphere? How is it possible to balance the need for short-term economic viability with long-term overall vitality? And not only that, but how to do that under fundamental uncertainty that clouds the evolution of relevant facts and rules of the operating environment?

Turns out that these are fundamental problems that any player in a complex space has to navigate. Lately, complexity science has emerged to deal with these kinds of questions, of how to navigate such complex situations characterised by fundamental uncertainty, where problems are ill-defined and formal risk assessments are literally intractable.

How to navigate complexity?

Complexity is baked into many of the systems we face. It is also how markets actually function; despite the common illusion, markets do not obey linear prediction curves and well-defined paths, but innovation S-curves (for example exponential tech) and unpredictable market disruptions. Change is slow to get started, but if a tipping point is reached it leads to a system-wide ‘phase change’, and the system reaches a new equilibrium. Even though innovation is inherently unpredictable (who knows what will be invented next?), and complex systems defy simplistic causal models, there are ways to successfully navigate complexity.

Last updated: 17.4.2024