The secret ingredient in datacentre delivery | ISG

Reputation - the secret ingredient in datacentre delivery

As the datacentre industry becomes more engrained in society and our digital lives, there is an increasing need and expectation to look at the importance of reputation as we shift towards environmental, social and governance (ESG) objectives as key business drivers.
As the datacentre industry becomes ever more influential in society and fundamental in our digital lives, there is an increasing need and expectation to recognise the importance of reputation as we shift towards environmental, social and governance (ESG) objectives as key business drivers.

At ISG, we are beginning to see more universal adoption of ESG principles across our international customer base, and this is a situation mirrored within the work winning arena too. As datacentres enable our social activities, commerce, education, healthcare and so much more – customers are increasingly asking for assurances. This is especially true on the subject of sustainability, whether that’s relating to energy, carbon, water or the people and communities that support our industry.

With increasing sectoral maturity, the datacentre industry must now focus on effectively communicating with key stakeholder groups so that it can own the narrative, not have an outsiders perspective imposed upon it. We need to engage on the topics that matter – around sustainability, including water and energy conservation, and supporting local communities and regional economies, as part of the conversation surrounding the critical national infrastructure debate.

Understanding how the behaviours of your construction services partner augment your reputation is critical for ESG. Underpinning this relationship is ethical behaviour and a commitment to optimising environmental and social value goals that enhance the reputation of the customer. My firm belief is that contractors play a pivotal role in the public perception of the end user’s brand and underpin the credibility of ethical claims. When the output product is often as intangible as ‘the cloud’ – the next thing that society will look at is the infrastructure to support the product. Can we build a narrative around our ESG credentials if we are not pushing for net zero in our construction activities? Are we sourcing ethically, actively selecting localised supply chain partners and optimising social value outcomes for every pound invested?

The datacentre industry comes from a heritage of secrecy and we must transition to an era of greater transparency and openness to tell our own stories and own our future. Against this backdrop - a strategic construction partner can play a bigger, more meaningful role in reputation and managing perception. A role where reputation can be defined by the datacentre, but also its ecosystem – the clients and customers, the people and teams who build the datacentre, those who maintain and operate it, and the service providers who install the latest technology and equipment.

There is an obvious correlation between awareness and visibility of the industry and the emphasis on growing reputation, which led us to ask the datacentre community a question: which of the following key factors of reputation will impact the datacentre industry most in the future? Carbon neutral agenda, safety and wellbeing, the reliability of the facility or local community / social value.

The results were expected and yet also surprising. It’s clear we are seeing increased scrutiny on sustainability credentials, with 44% of respondents placing the carbon neutral agenda as the core priority. Given the nature of the industry, I expected the reliability of the facility to chart strongly (32%) and it’s pleasing to see the safety and wellbeing of people (19%) charted well, as this must underpin everything we do.

Local community and social value came last at 5%, which surprised me as several high-profile datacentres have been delayed or shelved recently due to objections from local community activist groups. It’s a trend that will likely increase as, ironically, social media platforms and behavioural shifts in demand for openness and transparency, supported by the cloud, facilitate greater mobilisation and engagement for groups opposed to development.

It’s a useful reminder why we all need to play our role better articulating the benefits and opportunities that come with datacentre capital investment.  Furthermore, governments have a supporting role to play in educating and informing society on the criticality of datacentres as part of our digital and connected world – enabling innovation, supporting the economy and underpinning our daily lives.

Transactional relationships between client and contractor rarely optimise true value and beneficial outcomes. True construction partnerships seamlessly integrate organisations, with shared vision and values and a commitment to reputational enhancement.

Whether it’s the supply chain aligning with your ethical and sustainable credentials, or engaging the local community in the delivery process, it’s important to understand the collective role key stakeholders, such as governments, environmental agencies, media, talent and even competitors have in reputation. Each stakeholder has its own needs and objectives and must be carefully considered to enhance your reputation, and this starts with the initial concept for a new facility.

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.” (Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway)

I agree with the Sage of Omaha that reputation is a complex amalgam of individual perception, consistency of messaging, doing the right thing and excelling at what you do. We also know how easily reputations can be damaged through carelessness, but also by failing to respond dynamically to change and shifting societal sentiment.  

According to our recently released Sustainable Buildings Monitor research and insight report – a quarter of the planet’s CO2 emissions come from the built environment. We need to reduce building energy consumption by 80% to reach net zero goals by 2050 – with less than 10,500 days to go - the time to act is now.

That’s not to say the datacentre industry isn’t already driving revolutionary change. It is, but we need to demonstrate the impact of our work on the environment and the innovations that will help us close that net zero gap. We also need to educate ourselves as contractors, clients and end users on the opportunities to measure and reduce embodied carbon further, much like our focus on reducing cooling loads over the past few years.

Measure, manage and mitigate

Construction partners need to design and build differently – with a digitisation and data-driven mindset, prioritising modern methods of construction (MMC) and procuring with whole life costs in mind. Designing facilities for deconstruction and recovery through nature-based construction solutions and maximising social value outcomes, will all drive the correct behaviours that will normalise our pathway to a carbon neutral industry.

At ISG, we are already invested in circular economy methods, reusing and re-tasking the fabric of our structures to reduce the impact of embodied carbon on the environment. Recycled steel and timber materials improve carbon efficiency by 19% and 81% respectively in comparison to virgin steel products. But it’s not that simple, the life carbon use of materials must also be considered with material selection and any maintenance and disassembly works factored into the equation. Could we see timber as the catalyst for sustainable innovation in the datacentre industry in the near future?

We know that signature buildings can be the tangible manifestation of an organisation’s brand. Could we be on the cusp of datacentres embracing this same logic, but firmly rooted in the environmental and social credentials of their operators?

As an energy intensive sector, we know that the performance of our buildings will increasingly have a major role to play in reputation, and we need to get better at collecting, analysing and acting upon data insights; in fact democratising data and placing it in the hands of those teams that can optimise performance. The continued maintenance and efficient optimisation of our buildings must become as important as initial build considerations. Monitoring and early interventions to maintain optimum efficiency will help reduce energy consumption and emissions – something ISG is actively addressing through our soon to be launched ‘Performing Places’ operational performance system. We’re also exploring alternative power sources for both backup and permanent power solutions – with battery and fuel cell technologies potentially providing an opportunity for further direct reduction of carbon emissions.

The datacentre sector may also have a solution to the transformation affecting many city centres, started by the migration of many retailers online and compounded by a global pandemic. With societal trends and the benefits edge datacentres bring to underused accommodation in conurbations, this is an opportunity to bring commerce and other sectors such as healthcare and research to city offices or local communities not possible before. Read more here: ‘The datacentre edge revolution coming to a high street near you’.

Being an exemplary corporate citizen should be our goal and we must always think about the communities where we work and operate. At our project to build the UK’s first ever Gigafactory for Britishvolt, community legacy and levelling up are critical factors in our delivery strategy. Doing the right thing, not just the easy thing, is the mantra for both ISG and Britishvolt and this is fostering strong community relations and genuine excitement and enthusiasm for this transformational project.

Creating the conscious link between the datacentre and the online services, platforms and solutions that facilitate our daily existence is vitally important as exponential demand requires ambitious capital development pipelines. The creation of job opportunities is no longer sufficient to assuage audiences motivated by ethical and environmental agendas. Reputational construction partnerships provide a pathway towards deep and meaningful collaboration on some of the most challenging global issues, optimising ethical outcomes and delivering transformational legacies for clients and communities.    

Author: Bart Korink

Chief Operating Officer, Engineering Services
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