Human Digital Footprints
How can we design for our digital world in a more sustainable way to reduce the impact on the environment?
Although terms like ‘carbon footprint’ and ‘carbon emissions’ are frequently used in relation to transportation, industrial production and consumption of material goods, the way in which digital data consumption has a direct impact on the natural environment is often overlooked. Thanks to the colossal number of data centres that are now needed to feed our internet obsession, the virtual world of online communication is beginning to damage the environment.
The term ‘Cloud’ has been coined by well-known global companies to make everyday technology seem like a weightless method of data storage and access to a continuous digital flow of information. As we are experiencing hyper-connectivity and its remarkable ability to overcome the notion of ‘space’, ‘time’ and ‘distance’, many might not be aware of the impact that our human digital existence is having on the physical environment and climate change.
With the number of Internet users increasing, the minute measure of CO2 emitted by every tweet, comment, email and google search, starts to stack up to significance. There are more than 60,000 searches made on Google per second, for example, each producing an average 0.2g of CO2. Studies suggest that the internet accounts for 8% of the total energy consumption in the UK. This is our ‘digital carbon footprint’, and on a global scale, the numbers are worrying.
The Rise of the Data Centre
Currently the physical space around our digital information network contributes to around 3% of the global greenhouse gas emissions, rivalling the air travel industry. This is because it is a process that requires millions of physical servers in data centres around the world, all taking a lot of energy to run. Along with CO2 emissions and enormous power consumption, data centres produce large amounts of residual waste heat that quite often is pumped back into the atmosphere. There are now more than 500 hyperscale data centres in the world and it estimated that these could consume 1/5 of the earth’s power by 2025. Just a single one can use as much power as 15,000 homes or several hospitals.
A new building typology for our cities
Data centres aren’t the main culprits. This current data revolution is driven by, social media and mobile phone consumption and the mass exchange of digital information and image content. According to Facebook’s sustainability report, in 2004, one million people were using the platform. As of 2019, the number of active monthly users was 2.45 billion. The company reports that their annual per user carbon emissions is 299g of CO2, which is less energy than that required to boil a pot of tea. But with increasing usage, it adds up quickly.
As architects and designers we need to look at and reinterpret the physical space and design of the data centre building typology, as one of the solutions to offsetting this increased data carbon footprint. We could reduce the impact on our greenfield sites by relocating and redistributing data centres in a more managed and coherent way on brownfield sites.
We shouldn’t look to these vast data centres as being huge industrial sheds in the wilderness or on floating ships in the ocean. If we can keep them secure they can be dissolved into the fabric of our cities and become much more beneficial to local environments, whilst the world also looks to more efficient ways to reduce our digital footprints and reduce the rapid growth of the data centre typology.
More coherent government interventions, connected to local planning could also improve the impacts further by setting guidelines and parameters for individual permitted developments with data centre components scaled into urban settings, powering and heating our buildings. An approach could be to set up City agencies that manage and allocate space in each development for decentralised data centres within our denser city developments and away from open greenfield sites. This could in turn provide localised energy recovery fed back into the grid, through steam generated heat recovery. Or these could contribute to social wellbeing with data centres placed adjacent to parks and as a means for generating heat exhaust for the homeless.
Internet companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple are leading efforts to be more environmentally responsible by streamlining computing processes, switching to renewables and investigating better ways to cool data centres, whilst recycling their waste heat. The measures being taken also include housing data centres in cold climates – which dramatically reduces the energy needed to cool the facilities – with a ready supply of renewable energy.
It will be an effort by all parties - clients, engineers, architects and designers and the global network providers - to reduce the carbon and residual heat emissions by developing and building data storage spaces and centres that are highly efficient and sustainable.