for sustainable development


Social aspects of technical innovations: Example SEMIZENTRAL

Innovative technologies can provide answers to pressing environmental problems. However, they can often only unfold their benefits if they are accompanied by new behaviours and changed planning and operating procedures. One example of this is the Resource Recovery Center, a major wastewater reuse plant that was built as part of the SEMIZENTRAL research project in the Chinese city of Qingdao. This plant treats wastewater of the approximately 12,000 residents who live in the district, uses it to produce process water, and generates energy from the biowaste and faeces supplied. This new type of water infrastructure facility was specifically designed semicentrally in order to be able to react in a flexible manner to the growing population. ISOE – Institute for Social-Ecological Research investigated which changes in the processes of planning, construction and operation are necessary for the system to function smoothly.

Resource Recovery Center (RRC) in Qingdao

“SEMIZENTRAL is more than just a technical innovation. The technology requires a different approach to resources”, says ISOE researcher Martina Winker. “At the same time, everyone involved must develop new practices and routines. In this respect, the project is ideal for researching social-ecological supply systems.” So it is not just a matter of technical and scientific aspects, such as the possible saving of 20 to 30 percent of drinking water through the generated process water or the energy self-sufficiency of the plant. It is also then a question of how the behaviour of users in the connected apartments and hotels affects the operation of the facility. The second pipeline network that is required for the service water also raises new questions in terms of planning, construction and operation. This is one of the reasons why the project team is made up of scientists as well as numerous practical partners who support the research project in testing the new technology. “It has turned out for example that the main focus with regard to water treatment must be on membrane units if a reliable supply of process water is to be ensured,” stresses Martina Winker. “We need to know these sensitive points and we need to understand how to deal with them if we want to successfully apply and disseminate a new type of technology on a global scale.” The SEMIZENTRAL project has clearly made that point.

Understanding the vulnerability of critical infrastructures

The vulnerability analysis of ISOE also showed that human behaviour plays a decisive role. Here, it was investigated how robust the system is in withstanding disturbances. In addition to environmental factors such as earthquakes, heavy rain or fire, technical aspects have a strong impact on whether the system works. However, human error or misuse by residents, misconnections or financial decisions are also key factors. Sabotage or vandalism also play a role.

ISOE researcher Martin Zimmermann investigated all these aspects in the project with the first vulnerability analysis of a semi-central plant. “Our goal was to identify particularly critical factors and derive measures to minimize the risk of such systems failing. It turned out that internal hazards such as human and technical failure increase the susceptibility of system components more than natural hazards,” says Martin Zimmermann. This is important when it comes to transferring the concept to locations in other cities.

Results for download

Now that the project has been completed, various products are available for download. The results flyer shows at a glance why SEMIZENTRAL is interesting for regions with strong population growth. More detailed results on the implementation of the plant and the vulnerability analysis can be found in the following presentations:


Zimmermann, Martin/Martina Winker/Engelbert Schramm (2018): Vulnerability Analysis of Critical Infrastructures in the Case of a Semi-Centralised Water Reuse System in Qingdao, China. International Journal of Critical Infrastructure Protection 

More information about the project



Nicola Schuldt-Baumgart

Nicola Schuldt-Baumgart
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