In the developed world, our lives are becoming increasingly data-driven. We rely on data every day for business and financial transactions, which ensure that our economies continue to grow and flourish. Even in our personal lives, data is everywhere. From the music on our phones to the movies that we stream on the Internet, everything we do creates data. In fact, between 2013 and 2015, we created more data than in the entire history of the human race.

All of that data needs to be stored somewhere, and that uses a lot of energy. Today, the data center industry uses around six percent of the world’s global electricity supply.

The data center industry isn’t slowing down either. The growth rate is dramatic, and whilst it remains uncertain as to what the future looks like, it’s an exciting period of change.

Success in this industry is often a consequence of a company’s agility and desire to embrace and pioneer change. To adapt to rapidly or even game-changing evolutions and innovations in technology, along with the increasing social, commercial and legislative pressure to manage growth sustainably.

With all of these changes comes opportunity and now is the time to ask; could our data centers do more beyond safely storing our data and facilitating the exchange of information globally? Data center operators are ambitious and want to be the best at what they do. But what if being the best went beyond their data operations, and involved meeting the challenges facing our planet?

As engineers, it is our responsibility to apply design thinking to respond to questions such as this. And, if we consider the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in data center design, it soon becomes apparent that we can in fact make even more of a difference. We can do good, and we should do better.

If we looked at sustainability in the broadest sense, as a thought provoker for how the data center industry can evolve, there could be many ways that data centers could do more.

Reducing waste

Telecity Paris greenhouse

At present, the data center industry uses around six percent of the world’s global electricity supply, and accounts for two percent of total greenhouse gas emissions – about the same as the global aviation industry.

We are all very aware that data centers consume power and ultimately produce heat, which is invariably dissipated directly into the atmosphere and wasted. What if we could put this excess energy to better use?

By considering the opportunity for third party heat reuse from the outset of a data center’s location and design, waste heat could integrate directly with end users or a district heating network. This would offer an innovative solution to targeting fuel poverty, or a low carbon heat source for heating our public buildings, such as schools, sports facilities and hospitals.

A more abstract use of the heat could be to build greenhouses on top of data centers, or distribute heat to local arable farmland to grow crops which could be used to alleviate food poverty.

Should the data center industry and its partners look at what else they can do to help the local environment and communities? Given the size and growth of the industry, giving something back is important.

Gimme shelter

Data centers are built to withstand even the most extreme weather events to ensure business continuity. Facebook’s European data center is based in Sweden, and can withstand temperatures that reach -40C in the winter.

During the devastating Hurricane Harvey, which hit the US in late 2017, many data centers in Houston reported 100 percent uptime during the catastrophic extreme weather event.

Given a data center’s inherent resilience to extreme and often devastating events, could they be designed with emergency uses in mind? For example, offering shelter to residents in the case of a hurricane, or other extreme weather event; or contribute some of their redundant power to permanent or emergency hospitals in the local area. Perhaps they could use their car parks or fallow space for refuge centers - the possibilities are endless.

Of course, data security must remain of the utmost importance. But, if we designed our data centers with these dual purposes in mind, it is entirely possible to provide both business continuity and potentially life changing support to people when they need it the most.

The Nesico Pedestrian Bridge, designed by Arup
The Nesico Pedestrian Bridge, designed by Arup – Arup

Local hero

The demand for data centers is rapidly stretching to countries where their economy and infrastructure are less developed, with reduced access to amenities such as clean water, healthcare or education. Through the construction of a data center in these environments, we should look to combat these issues and bolster these economies and infrastructure at the same time.

Supplying contracts to local firms, using local supply chains and resources brings significant benefits to local businesses and trade, as well as limiting environmental impact of transporting materials. The production of a data center in a developing country will also upskill the local communities. They will be trained in how to build, maintain and operate a data center, whilst also giving them access to all the benefits of having a data center.

Additionally, the construction of a data center would contribute to upgrades to local infrastructure networks such as power and water. This promotes wider economic growth in the area, along with the consequential demand for data centers themselves.

Meeting the challenges

There’s a general feeling in the industry that change is coming – and we have the opportunity to decide what we do with this change.

What’s required is a subtle change in mentality for designers and everyone across the data center industry. With the right approach, we can make a positive impact with a holistic appreciation of risk management, cost benefits and operational requirements.

At first we must consider what opportunities there are to do more. Next, we should explore these opportunities to see which are feasible. Finally, over time, being the best will no longer be simply about a revenue stream or data security, but also about how much a data center gives back.

Small considerations could have huge and wide-reaching benefits, and have the potential to genuinely improve conditions for people and the planet.

It will deliver solutions that are good for business, and good for the world.

Andrew Higgins is a senior engineer at Arup