Department Environmental Social Sciences

Water and Sanitation innovations for non-grid solutions

Research at the Environmental Social Sciences (ESS) Department aims at understanding the mechanisms and conditions under which urban water management (UWM) systems can be directed into more sustainable directions. ESS research contributes to the inter- and transdisciplinary strategic research program Wings (Water and sanitation innovations for non-grid solutions), which strives to develop novel non-grid systems that can function as comparable alternatives to conventional network-based urban water management systems.

Dr. Sabine HoffmannGroup Leader, Cluster: ITDTel. +41 58 765 6818Send Mail


The management of urban water systems has been a core responsibility of civil society throughout history. This reflects the central importance of these systems for human welfare and environmental protection. The current conventional approach to urban water management builds on well-established socio-technical systems that have evolved over the last century and have solved most of the water- and hygiene-related problems afflicting OECD countries in the past. These predominantly centralized and networked systems reliably treat and provide drinking water and safely transport, treat, and dispose wastewater. Challenges are posed, however, by population growth (both increases and decreases), climate change, emerging contaminants, as well as by the need to rehabilitate and replace aging infrastructure.

Though there is still an ongoing debate whether there is a need for new approaches in OECD countries, leading research institutes, international organizations and national governments are increasingly acknowledging that the conventional approach to urban water management cannot be the only solution for rapidly expanding cities in low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. With centralized and networked urban water systems out of reach for a large part of the global urban population, there is an urgent need for developing fundamentally new approaches, i.e. more flexible, cost-effective, resource-efficient non-grid systems that are able to cope with current and future urban water challenges.

Typical research questions

Governance System Design

  • What are the components of the prevailing socio-technical system? What rules, norms, and practices (de-)stabilize the system? Who plays a crucial role in maintaining or changing the prevailing system or in creating new ones?
  • How does an ideal future institutional system look like?

System Integration, Implementation and Assessment

  • How can alternative systems be integrated at the technical and institutional level to function properly?
  • How can these integrated systems be implemented in a given context?
  • How do different integrated systems perform at the technical and institutional level against the normative concept of sustainability? How do they perform compared to other systems?

Innovation and Transition Management

  • What are typical transitions from the current prevailing system to the ideal future system? Which challenges can arise?
  • How and why do innovations processes happen in a given context? What factors hinder and/or support transitions/ innovations?


Prof. Dr. Bernhard TrufferDepartment head, Cluster CirusTel. +41 58 765 5670Send Mail
Dr. Sabine HoffmannGroup Leader, Cluster: ITDTel. +41 58 765 6818Send Mail
Dr. Judit LienertGroup Leader, Cluster: DA (Decision Analysis)Tel. +41 58 765 5574Send Mail
Dr. Christian BinzGroup Leader, Cluster: CirusTel. +41 58 765 5030Send Mail
Dr. Alice AubertScientist, Cluster: Decision AnalysisTel. +41 58 765 5688Send Mail
Philipp BeutlerProject collaborator, Cluster: DATel. +41 58 765 5285Send Mail


Larsen, T. A.; Hoffmann, S.; Lüthi, C.; Truffer, B.; Maurer, M. (2016) Emerging solutions to the water challenges of an urbanizing world, Science, 352(6288), 928-933, doi:10.1126/science.aad8641, Institutional Repository
Eggimann, S.; Truffer, B.; Maurer, M. (2015) To connect or not to connect? Modelling the optimal degree of centralisation for wastewater infrastructures, Water Research, 84, 218-231, doi:10.1016/j.watres.2015.07.004, Institutional Repository
Eggimann, S.; Truffer, B.; Maurer, M. (2016) The cost of hybrid waste water systems: a systematic framework for specifying minimum cost-connection rates, Water Research, 103, 472-484, doi:10.1016/j.watres.2016.07.062, Institutional Repository
Eggimann, S.; Truffer, B.; Maurer, M. (2016) Economies of density for on-site waste water treatment, Water Research, 101, 476-489, doi:10.1016/j.watres.2016.06.011, Institutional Repository

Ongoing Projects

The proposal analyzes possible transition pathways in basic services, focusing specifically on the case of Nairobi, Kenya.
Project aim is participative decision support for the long-term transition to innovative wastewater infrastructures.
The aim of this project is to gain more insight about sustainable infrastructure management and to develop tools and methods for complex decision making for infrastructure planning.
We study how game implementation can support stakeholder involvement and preference modelling in MCDA.
In this project, we collaborate with various organizations to study the role of business innovation in the scaling process of sanitation services.