In a few short years, the understanding of data centers and their role in society has evolved considerably with audiences outside of the industry. Until recently, to most people, data centers were simply anonymous warehouses and buildings in out-of-town industrial parks. People had heard of them but could not properly explain their purpose.
As we enter 2023, data centers are increasingly recognized as playing a central role in our day-to-day lives and as critical infrastructure linking cities and towns across the world. I mean central in all senses of the word; data centers are central to the digital world we increasingly rely upon. And, as we need more and faster digital capacity, new data centers are being built closer to the heart of communities. Planning and approvals for their development are now an important aspect of the day-to-day work of governments and municipalities looking to enhance digital infrastructure within their region.
It is important for data center operators and developers to work closely with key stakeholders in local communities, as well as local and central governments, to ensure transparency and awareness of the benefits data centers and digital infrastructure can bring to a region. It is also important that the public recognize that it is all of us, citizens of the modern world, driving growth in workloads, and therefore consumption of energy, in data centers through our increasingly digitally interconnected lives.
We are conscious of our responsibility to ensure that data centers, as essential building blocks of the digital world, are both developed and operated in a sustainable way. That’s why we typically start the dialogue with town planners, local communities, and political decision-makers many years ahead of building a new data center. Three principles define our interactions: First: protect. Second: deliver benefit. Third: build for the future.
Like the Hippocratic oath sworn by doctors, our first principle is to protect the communities in which we operate. This may seem like a low bar, but we are stringent and serious in ensuring that we preserve the local environment of every community where we work. This includes protection of the local surroundings through careful husbandry of local resources. Some of the environmental investments we have made in helping local communities protect and preserve natural ecosystems include developing tree gardens, ponds, bike trails, and beehives, which promote local biodiversity.
Wherever possible, we complement existing local regeneration and growth plans. Several of our existing and planned data centers are built on ‘brownfield’ sites, from a chocolate factory in Stockholm to a telephone exchange in Copenhagen to a warehouse in Milan. Our recently announced data center campus near Frankfurt will be built on the site of a former Coca-Cola bottling plant.
Detailed negotiations with former owners and local authorities allow us to give new life to existing industrial sites. This leads to reduced environmental impact and creates new opportunity as we transform outdated premises into 21st century hubs for digital activity. Health and safety considerations in the construction phases of our projects requires a close relationship with our partners, open and transparent communication, and daily oversight to adjust as conditions change, always remaining compliant with local regulations and committed to best management practices.
Our second principle is to ensure that the design, build, and operation of a data center benefits the people in the communities around it. Whether we upgrade industrial sites or build from scratch, we leverage the latest technologies to ensure that our builds become as climate-positive as possible. Reusing waste heat to contribute to a circular economy is a clear example, multiplying the impact of every kilowatt used. Feeding the heat created by computers in data centers into local heat distribution systems provides an immediate advantage for local communities. Electricity drawn by the data center is effectively used twice – to run IT and to heat homes. In Oslo we’ve been doing this for more than a year, heating up to 5,000 Norwegian homes using waste heat from just one data center. Our Stockholm data center is next to be connected to that city’s municipal heating system, and our Frankfurt facility has been designed to heat homes in the surrounding community from the outset.
Water consumption is another issue on the minds of many city planners as the consumption demands of both citizens and businesses increase. With the latest technology, data centers can rely on snowmelt and rainwater collection and reuse. Harvesting water in this way means that we can develop and operate facilities with minimal impact on local drinking water supply.
We source local suppliers, contractors, and skilled tradespeople where possible to help us construct our data centers. Although there are specialist tasks that require specific skills, we find that pairing international experts with local experience can deliver exceptional quality whilst creating local capacity for future assignments. Additionally, because we seek to source construction and other building materials from local suppliers, we’re able to reduce associated scope 3 carbon emissions that would otherwise result from transporting heavy-duty vehicle loads from longer distances.
When it comes to operating and managing a data center, there are a wealth of roles required, many of which can leverage skills and experience from local communities. From electricians, carpenters, and plumbers to security guards, project managers, and administrators, data centers create new opportunities for residents to engage in this exciting and quickly growing industry.
Build for the future
Building the skills-base needed to support the digital economy is essential for us and for the wider community. Each data center site presents opportunities to educate, directly and indirectly, the next generation of potential colleagues and data center experts. Whilst operating highly secure facilities for our clients, we work with local schools, businesses, and policymakers to generously share data center knowledge and industry insights. Job fairs, tours, education programs, skills training, and apprenticeships are some fundamental parts of planning and operations. By highlighting what takes place in a data center and illustrating the range of skills and roles needed to deliver a high quality, 24/7/365 service, we can confidently encourage anyone seeking an exciting data center career.
The industry is at an inflection point. The data center sector in general must more clearly demonstrate the value it can bring to a community. Keeping to our three principles creates a level of transparency and commitment that will be essential to underpin the understanding and acceptance of the importance of data centers in and around communities across Europe.