Data Centres for Communities 3 Jul 2024

Data Centres for Communities

By Lucile Bertolaso-Scarlett

In a world where data is as a powerful wealth, how do we ensure that the buildings hosting it are benefitting communities? The influence data centres have on communities at global, regional and local scales is significant and evolving.

The location of data centres around the world has a direct impact on global disparities in access to high-quality data and technology. The data centre industry “drives economic and social benefits in communities throughout the world.” (Banks, 2024) Yet about 77% of the world’s data centres are located in developed countries (datacentremap.com), and less than half of the global population has access to internet (Sudan, Hammer, Eferin, 2023). Data centres are invaluable services to communities, and still people outside of the industry know very little about them, their purpose, and benefits to communities.

Some of the first data centres were designed to contribute to society during war (ENIAC, Pennsylvania, 1945) or with the aim of servicing the progress of citizens (German Computer Centre, Darmstadt, Germany, 1960s). These first-generation server farms in Europe and North America were programmed to benefit and be used primarily by the army or universities. Today, in developed countries, data centres are directly linked to routine activities from checking traffic on the roads, to booking doctor’s appointments, or doing schoolwork. Most of our personal and professional lives are connected to “the cloud”, housed in buildings designed to keep our data safe.

As the industry is slowly moving away from anonymous warehouses and into urban areas, there is an opportunity for the building typology of DCs to evolve beyond its primary function of hosting servers. The buildings could play integral parts in urban districts (Lynch, 1960), where they would either actively participate in defining the character of the area as recognised landmarks, or simply live on the edges of neighbourhoods. Whether hyperscale or decentralised, data centres could be key services in the “15-minutes city” model (Moreno), contributing to giving essential access to daily needs of work, education, and socialising of neighbours within the distance of a 15-minute walk or bike ride. Whilst the range of benefits that the Data Centre building can contribute to the community is prescriptive by nature of the specialism, opportunities such as local employment at construction phases, district heating and adjoining pocket parks offered to the public realm, could be combined with digital awareness centres or education hubs to demystify and teach about the digital world to younger generations.

Planning models and architectural strategies for data centres and their investment in ESG considerations are evolving. Closing the gap between the data centre buildings and the local communities will contribute to changing the public perception on the sector, increasing awareness and support communities socially and economically.

 

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