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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Opportunities and risks of the digitisation of critical municipal infrastructures using water and waste management as examples

Thematic area: Technology, society, innovation
Analytical approach: TA project
Topic initiative: Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment; Committee on the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety
Status: ongoing
Current project phase: Project phase 2
Duration: 2019 till 2021

Background and central aspects of the topic

Municipalities (local authorities) are responsible for many areas regarding services of general interest as well as for the technical and social infrastructures these services require. According to traditional understanding, this includes the supply of water, gas, electricity, lighting, the disposal of sewage water and waste as well as the provision of local public transport.

Digitisation is a future key task for municipalities and their associated companies. Digitisation offers municipalities and municipal utility companies numerous opportunities to increase efficiency and quality in technical and operational processes: e. g. in administration and work organisation or in communication with citizens or customers. The opportunities of digitisation for municipalities are correspondingly diverse, ranging from improving or expanding municipal services by means of digital administration services and unburdening public budgets thanks to increases in operational efficiency to providing innovative solutions for resource-conserving supply with drinking water and disposal of waste water as well as for waste disposal and treatment. At the same time, such a profound digital change poses enormous challenges for municipalities. In addition to the high investment costs for the necessary IT infrastructure, municipalities often lack qualified personnel for implementation. Moreover, as a result of digitisation, municipal utility companies face strong structural changes as well as new business models and players. Furthermore, municipalities must also increasingly deal with the possible risks of digitisation, for example in the field of IT security or data privacy.

Municipalities and municipal utility companies are currently trying to set up models with digitised concepts and infrastructures in order to respond – as specifically as possible – to current challenges, such as the increasing consumption of resources, new and ambitious environmental protection goals or demographic change. Current surveys indicate that municipalities have generally been inadequately prepared for the changes resulting from digitisation. At the same time, however, the numerous funding programmes, initiatives and strategies underline the fact that politics and many decision-makers in local administration have recognised the great potential of digitisation and want to exploit it.

Many of the municipal social and technical infrastructures can also be classified as so-called »critical infrastructures«. The protection of critical infrastructures represents a key task of security preparedness for both the state and companies, since impairments or failure of such infrastructures could have dramatic consequences for society. With regard to critical infrastructures as well, the effects of the digitisation of municipal infrastructures are ambivalent: On the one hand, monitoring and more flexible control functions might offer new options to respond better and faster to exceptional events (such as extreme weather events, accidents, local power failures or criminal hazards) by means of smart operating modes, thereby increasing the availability and reliability of infrastructures as a whole. On the other hand, digitisation and networking increase the complexity of infrastructures – and thus also the risk of technical and human errors, which can affect critical municipal infrastructures. Generally, this increases their dependence on functioning power and IT infrastructures, which could lead to far more serious power failures or IT disruptions than before. Last but not least, digitised infrastructures offer new targets for crimes aiming at computer systems and networks (e. g. cyber spying or terrorism).

Objectives and approach

Within the framework of the study, the development as well as opportunities and risks of the digitisation of critical municipal infrastructures will be examined based on two examples: municipal water management (water supply and sewage water disposal) and municipal waste management. Digitisation offers great potential for these economic and infrastructure sectors – though its realisation is often still at an early stage. Today, for example, automation technology is already being used in water management and can assume simple monitoring, control and regulating functions based on sensor data. Currently, however, there is hardly any consistent acquisition, networking and algorithm-based evaluation of the existing large databases in analogy to solutions of Industry 4.0. In waste management, the first municipalities are experimenting with »smart« waste containers that transmit the respective filling level to the scheduling department. This is intended to enable emptying intervals that are tailored to the needs, efficient routes for refuse collection vehicles, improved internal working structures or new forms of inter-municipal cooperation.

For the study, it is expedient to distinguish between two levels and their corresponding research questions: the opportunities and risks of the digitisation of municipal infrastructures on the one hand and the implications of digitisation for security of supply on the other hand. The issue therefore will be dealt with in two successive project phases.

Project phase 1

Following up the current state of digitisation in municipal water and waste management, the initial aim is to examine the potentials with regard to the use and development of digital solutions. This shall constitute the basis for discussing the obstacles with regard to implementation as well as the challenges and risks of digitisation for municipalities. The following central questions will provide the content-related framework for this project phase:

  • What role can the digitisation of municipal infrastructures play in coping with current challenges for municipalities?
  • Which opportunities and risks are associated with digitised municipal infrastructures, taking into account economic, ecological and social criteria?
  • What are the best practice examples of digitisation of municipal infrastructures in Germany (but also abroad)? Would it be possible to transfer the concepts implemented and the experience gained here to other (e. g. German) municipalities?
  • Which parliamentary needs or options for action can be derived in order to support the realisation of potentials or to minimise the risks involved?

Project phase 2

The second project phase builds on the results of the first project phase and focuses on water management. Based on the scenario of further advanced digitisation in the fields of municipal water management, the security of supply under these new framework conditions will be assessed. Central issues of this project phase include the following:

  • To what extent does the digitisation of technical processes involve a higher susceptibility to disturbances in electricity supply or in the IT infrastructure (including cybercrime)?
  • Which challenges have to be dealt with in this context with regard to services of general interest and security preparedness for both the state and companies due to the changes in business models and stakeholder structures of municipal utility companies entailed by digitisation?
  • How can the resilience of municipal infrastructures to extraordinary events be further enhanced by digitisation?
  • What parliamentary needs and options for action can be derived for the protection of critical municipal infrastructures in the light of digitisation?

Project progress

Two external expertises for the two examples of municipal water management (water supply and sewage water disposal) and municipal waste management, were prepared and evaluated as part of the first project phase. The following aspects were central:

  • Industrial overview and technical background
  • Status quo of digitisation, potentials and problems
  • International, national, and regional best-practice transfer

As part of the second project phase, external expertise is prepared on effects of digitisation on security of supply in water management.