We recently published the results of a major two-part survey revealing changing workplace sentiment over the course of the most disruptive time period in our modern history. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the survey captured what many now believe is an irreversible shift in how and where we spend our working and leisure time. However, and a mild spoiler alert here – the office is certainly not dead, nor do believe retail will disappear entirely from our high streets – just that urban spaces will flex and evolve with changing business and consumer habits.
We know that our city centres are continually shaped by societal trends, and this creates opportunities for transformation. For example, the space race in Edinburgh has seen a scramble to convert existing buildings to create extra hotel capacity to meet the insatiable global demand for tourist accommodation. The demise of household retail names is seen as the inevitable consequence of changing shopping habits and the advantageous cost base of pure-play rivals, but this also creates change of use opportunities, in the same way that blended home and office working may also release capacity.
These changes bring exciting possibilities, and just as my healthcare colleagues are eyeing up the implications for greater decentralisation of healthcare facilities, in hitherto unavailable city and town centre locations, the datacentre and telecoms sector could also be the beneficiaries of this prime spatial capacity.
Our absolute societal dependence on data is now unquestionable and it is our digital connectivity that has enabled life to continue during the pandemic. The demand for data - already constantly outstripping supply pre-pandemic, has been exacerbated over the last nine months. We need more data capacity, yet major datacentre infrastructure can take years to come on stream. Perhaps a solution can be found in adapting and reconfiguring our existing buildings, that may now be ripe for transformation.
Before we get carried away, thinking that at a stroke we may have solved the conundrum of vacant space in our city centres and badly needed data capacity in one swoop, we need to address the elephant in the room – and it’s power! Datacentres require a lot of the stuff and cities don’t have a vast surplus supply of energy to power hyperscale development, without the lights going out. We could invest in upgrading power supplies to our cities at great expense, or take a more decentralised approach – like my healthcare colleagues.
We’re looking at the efficacy of distributed datacentre networks in our major conurbations, but crucially basing our key calculations on power consumption and not capacity. If a typical office consumes circa 25 to 40w/m2 of energy, then a datacentre at 2kw/m2 is up to fifty times more energy dependent and that’s without adding cooling at circa 600 to 1000w/m2. It’s clear that you simply cannot re-task an office building into a datacentre without creating major energy supply issues for our cities. However, on the other side of that calculation is the impact of potentially lower occupation densities in offices, thus reducing typical power consumption and potentially freeing up a significant energy surplus to redeploy.
One pragmatic approach could be the creation of smaller standardised datacentres – potentially up to 200kw in size linked via a distributed network. These could occupy a single floor of a retail unit or office block, with waste heat recirculated to drive down the entire building’s running costs. Bringing capacity online could be achieved far quicker through the use of modularisation and crucially this infrastructure directly supports the role out of 5G networks that require small localised nodes.
Establishing datacentres in the heart of our cities provides an additional complementary level to Hyperscale and larger Edge facilities, opening up the possibilities for an increasing blend of services in our urban centres, whilst addressing capacity and vacancy challenges. As we reimagine our future cities, I can see a compelling case for the greater adoption of distributed networks supporting a more diverse and robust city centre offering.
A version of this article is available on DCD's website as an opinion piece, here