Department Environmental Social Sciences

COMIX: Challenges and Opportunities of Modular water Infrastructures for Greening the Swiss Economy

The Comix project examined the challenges and opportunities of modular infrastructure systems for the Swiss economy and society. The analysis focused on the example of urban water management.

The Comix project was part of the SNF NRP73 funding program on Sustainable Swiss Economy and ran from January 2018 to December 2021.

Problem setting

The Comix project set out with the aim to analyze opportunities and challenges of a more sustainable Swiss economy, which is associated with a foreseeable fundamental shift towards more modular system designs in many infrastructure sectors. The analysis primarily focused on the Swiss urban water management sector, scrutinizing impacts on Swiss industry, utilities, professional associations and regulators. The case of urban water management is particularly well suited to analyze these challenges due to strong path dependencies and considerable impacts on sustainable futures globally. In Switzerland in particular, urban water infrastructures are generally well equipped to deal with the current situation. However, in the near future, challenges, such as climate change with intensive flooding as well as increased urbanization, can put pressure on the current systems in the form of sewer overflows. Therefore, the core research questions that was analyzed in the project relate to in how far the challenges and opportunities of modular infrastructures could represent a first mover advantage for Swiss industry and a strategic chance to anticipate future system configurations for Swiss operators and regulators and in how far synergies between these two aspects could be identified. Ultimately, the aim was to form a hypothesis about the so-called lead market potential of Switzerland in this sector.

Project Structure

The project was subdivided into two research streams and a synthesis module. The first stream aimed at understanding opportunities for Swiss water companies in the context of global industry dynamics associated with modular water technologies, assessing success conditions at both innovation systems and at industry level. The second stream set out to identify challenges and opportunities that modular infrastructures represent for utilities, professional associations, consultancies and government departments, which are responsible for planning and operating UWM structures. More specifically, the project planned to conduct an encompassing cost benefit analyses of alternative transition scenarios from today’s mostly centralized system configuration towards future more hybrid forms. Furthermore, alternative governance structures, including the role of policy instruments and different actors that could enable implementing and operating hybrid system configurations at a similar level of performance like the incumbent system needed to be elaborated and assessed. Through a synthesis module, the results from the two analytical streams could be integrated, assessing the lead market potential.

Practical relevance

For this purpose, Comix was conceived as an inter- and transdisciplinary project run by research teams from various disciplines such as management, economic geography, political science, economics and engineering. Additionally, representatives from industry, utilities, professional associations and government were to be involved in several sequences of participative workshops. Through these workshops, Comix co-develop future scenarios for enabling more hybrid water systems with implications and potential solutions for practice and politics.

Major outputs for practice experts

A major output of this collaborative work, was the “position paper” on the future relevance of modular water systems for the Swiss urban water management sector, which you can find here:

Truffer, B., Elbel, R.; Heiberg, J.; Lieberherr, E.; Maurer, M.; Müller, Pakizer, K. 2022. Perspektiven modularer Abwassersysteme in der Schweiz. Skizzierung einer Umsetzungsstrategie.

Several articles were published in the professional magazine Aqua & Gas:

Lieberherr, E.; Pakizer, K. 2022. Implementierung modularer Abwasserinfrastrukturen. Müssen Politik, Verwaltung und Management auf den Kopf gestellt werden? Aqua & Gas, No. 10.

Müller, A.; Elbel, R. 2022. Modulare Kleinkläranlagen. Lohnt es sich.
Aqua & Gas, No. 9, s. 66 – 69.

Mathys, N.; Pärli, R.; Fischer, M.; Lieberherr, E. (2019) Eine globale Schweizer Wasserpolitik. Internationale Verhandlungen zum Nachhaltigkeitsziel 6 und dessen Umsetzung im Ausland, Aqua & Gas, 99(5), 24-28, Institutional Repository
Truffer, B.; Maurer, M.; Heiberg, J. (2022) Modulare Wasserinfrastrukturen. Optionen für eine Zukunftsfähige Siedlungswasserwirtschaft, Aqua & Gas, 102(9), 60-65, Institutional Repository

Major academic outputs

Heiberg, J.; Truffer, B.; Binz, C. (2022) Assessing transitions through socio-technical configuration analysis – a methodological framework and a case study in the water sector, Research Policy, 51(1), 104363 (19 pp.), doi:10.1016/j.respol.2021.104363, Institutional Repository
Heiberg, J.; Binz, C.; Truffer, B. (2020) The Geography of technology legitimation: how multiscalar institutional dynamics matter for path creation in emerging industries, Economic Geography, 96(5), 470-498, doi:10.1080/00130095.2020.1842189, Institutional Repository
Heiberg, J.; Truffer, B. (2022) Overcoming the harmony fallacy: how values shape the course of innovation systems, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 42, 411-428, doi:10.1016/j.eist.2022.01.012, Institutional Repository
Heiberg, J.; Truffer, B. (2022) The emergence of a global innovation system – A case study from the urban water sector, Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 43, 270-288, doi:10.1016/j.eist.2022.04.007, Institutional Repository
Hoffmann, S.; Feldmann, U.; Bach, P. M.; Binz, C.; Farrelly, M.; Frantzeskaki, N.; Hiessl, H.; Inauen, J.; Larsen, T. A.; Lienert, J.; Londong, J.; Lüthi, C.; Maurer, M.; Mitchell, C.; Morgenroth, E.; Nelson, K. L.; Scholten, L.; Truffer, B.; Udert, K. M. (2020) A research agenda for the future of urban water management: exploring the potential of non-grid, small-grid, and hybrid solutions, Environmental Science and Technology, 54(9), 5312-5322, doi:10.1021/acs.est.9b05222, Institutional Repository
Pakizer, K.; Fischer, M.; Lieberherr, E. (2020) Policy instrument mixes for operating modular technology within hybrid water systems, Environmental Science and Policy, 105, 120-133, doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2019.12.009, Institutional Repository

Miörner J., Truffer T., Binz C., Heiberg J. & Yap X.-S. (2022) Guidebook for applying the Socio-Technical Configuration Analysis method. GEIST – Geography of Innovation and Sustainability Transitions 2022(01), GEIST Working Paper series.

Pakizer, Katrin; Lieberherr, Eva (05.12.2018), Alternative governance arrangements for modular water infrastructure: An exploratory review, in Competition and Regulation in Network Industries, 19(1-2), 53 - 68, DOI: 10.1177/1783591718814426