Socio-technical system analysis

Last changed: 12 April 2021

The global movement for sustainability has led to increased interest in resource recovery from waste systems. However, recovering resources increases the complexity of these systems through additional requirements on technical processes and the increasing the number of stakeholders involved. The increased complexity requires a broader understanding of interactions between technology and society. How can resource recovery systems contribute to sustainable development and to achieve environmental goals? What transformations are needed in the way users are involved, technology is developed and organizations are managed? This research attempts to answer these questions using a transdisciplinary approach for analyzing socio-technical systems.

An underlying principle throughout this research is the concept of sustainability. We recognize that technical solutions need to satisfy societal needs without harming the environment. This interconnection between human and environmental wellbeing is particularly strong in the field of sanitation.

The World Health Organization estimates that 2.4 billion people worldwide lack access to basic sanitation facilities posing severe risks to public health and the environment. At the same time, biogeochemical flows of nitrogen and phosphorous have been pointed out as a critical planetary boundary that needs to be properly managed, and probably decreased by 50 %, to assure a sustainable future.

A sustainable future means satisfying basic social needs while staying within the planetary boundaries – a doughnut approach to sustainability (Figure 1). Achieving this will require a mixture of technical innovations which improve resource management and social innovation which can provide services for all.

A sanitation and waste management system need to be understood as socio-technical system. It includes not only than the technical infrastructure for treatment, but also the actors, networks and institutions, including legal frameworks, that provide services related to the technology; e.g. operators, legislators, financers, and supporting infrastructure systems (Figure 2). In addition, it is affected by macro-environmental conditions, such as local climate, economics, culture, and the norms and preferences of the users.

Using such an inclusive system concept gives a holistic picture for understanding dynamics causing change and development in these systems. Our research uses a number of different methodologies to structure analysis of the socio-technical system; e.g. a Multi-Level Perspective (Geels 2002), Technology Innovation Systems (TIS) (Bergek et al. 2008) and institutional analysis. Analysis of the technical performance of the system is done using methods such as Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA), Quantitative Microbial Risk Assessment (QMRA), and Multi-Criteria Assessments.

In addition, it is important to understand how sociotechnical dynamics affect planning and decision-making processes. Thus, this research also works with planning theory regarding decision-making processes, stakeholder dialogue and participation. We study how these processes work and how they can be influenced. To what degree do planning and decision-making processes include sustainability aspects and how open are processes and stakeholders for shifting to more sustainable approaches? How can a systems-thinking approach be integrated into existing planning processes? We work directly with municipalities and decision-making organizations, using case study methodology and action research, to answer these questions and test innovate planning techniques. One such technique is the use of serious gaming which we are applying in the context of sanitation planning in Uganda and Sweden into order to understand its potential for broadening the thinking space and creating an open dialogue between key stakeholders.


Methods used

  • Sustainability assessment: Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), Multi-Criteria Analysis (MCA)
  • Transition theory: Multi-Level Perspective and Technological Innovation Systems (TIS)
  • Planning theory: participation, dialogue, and decision-making processes

Current projects

  • Gamification of sanitation planning: Exploring technical and societal readiness of nutrient-recovery systems
  • SPANS - Sanitation Planning for Alternative Nutrient-recovery Systems

Selected Publications

McConville JR, Kvarnström E, Jönsson H, Kärrman, E. & Johansson, M. 2017. Source Separation: Challenges & Opportunities for Transition in the Swedish Wastewater Sector. Resources Conservation and. Recycling, 120:144–156.

McConville JR, Kvarnström E, Jönsson H, Kärrman, E. & Johansson, M. Is the Swedish Wastewater Sector Ready for a Transition to Source Separation? Accepted in Desalination and Water Treatment.


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