Building sustainable digital ecosystems
Big Interview

Building sustainable digital ecosystems

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Carving a new role for sustainable ICT, Chindata Group is expanding its focus from hyperscale campuses to the creation of sustainable digital ecosystems. Founder and CEO Alex Ju shares the details with Melanie Mingas

This year has seen a distinct shift in the discussion around sustainable ICT, as next-gen networks – and first-gen connected machines – are deployed around the world. They don’t just bring new possibilities for networks; IIoT, for example, could be used to monitor energy use and reduce waste, among other things. The digitalisation this is bringing to industry is now regarded as an enabler of the world’s connected, sustainable future.

As both a part of that ecosystem and a force in their own right, data centres have a unique role to play in that future. It goes without saying that the question of how to accommodate ever-greater computing and networking needs while reducing their environmental impact is worth far more than a million dollars.

Enter UN Global Compact (UNGC). A special initiative of the UN secretary-general, it’s a call for the global private sector to align operations and strategies with 10 principles covering human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption.

Since its launch, more than 13,000 companies from almost all industries – along with 3,000 non-business signatories based in more than 160 countries – have joined. In September of this year, UNGC welcomed its first digital infraco from the Asia-Pacific region, Chindata Group.

CEO Alex Ju says the membership is “part of our efforts to proactively explore the development of zero-carbon data centres.”

He adds: “Our aim is to create next-generation ‘green digital’ scenarios that span the whole supply chain, which include new product scenarios supported by our next-generation hyper-density data centre integrated energy solution, as well as new industry scenarios supported by this but with an integrated development approach.”

The Nasdaq-listed data centre giant operates 24 hyperscale campuses around the world and added new projects totalling 87MW in Q2 alone. It’s a lot of power, but the group says its sustainability drive extends beyond simply putting solar panels on data centres.

“Chindata Group also aims to lead the digital infrastructure industry in its effort to combat global warming, leveraging its unique role as a link between the energy industry and the information industry,” Ju says.

UNGC does attempt to prevent sustainability lip service. To secure its success, signatories are required to submit annual reports detailing their practical actions, along with measurements of their outcomes. While the concept of a digital ecosystems can be difficult to measure, Chindata Group does have some quantifiable achievements under its belt.

For example, in 2020 the group reduced its carbon emissions by approximately 845,000 tonnes, which, by its own calculations, is equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide offset by planting about 450,000 trees every day.

“Chindata Group is committed to building full life-cycle green data centres. That means adopting a ‘three-in-one’ model for site selection, building green data centre buildings and using green equipment, as well as offering the next-generation hyper-density data centre solution,” Ju says.

Call to action

Its new UNGC membership is not Chindata’s only sustainability first. The recent developments – which include its membership of the RE100 initiative, also confirmed in September – build on the group’s earlier commitments.

These date back to 2019, and last year saw Chindata Group become the first internet technology company in China to release a roadmap to carbon neutrality. The roadmap includes a 2030 target to build a new generation of 100% renewable powered, hyperscale data centres in China and directly invest in at least 2GW of installed capacity powered by clean energy. A second target is in place to extend this to the global portfolio by 2040.

“Having identified four major initiatives for the strategic development of the green power consumption ecosystem, we will continue to implement strategic upgrades,” Ju says.

“These initiatives include direct green power trading, innovative regional green power consumption mechanisms, development of renewable energy power stations, and development of integrated power generation-grid-load-storage projects.”

It’s a broad and holistic approach. However, the wider goals of limiting warming to anything below 3°C won’t be achieved unless others join the call to action.

“Chindata Group looks forward to seeing more players join our efforts in pursuing carbon neutrality. We are well positioned in this space and strive to offer integrated solutions that cover the entire industry chain, characterised by core elements including the standardisation of infrastructure development and a modular design philosophy,” Ju says.

That said, the buck can’t stop with the data centre industry – and this is where Chindata’s sustainable ecosystem comes into play.

Ju explains: “To achieve the net zero-carbon goal, we need concerted efforts from various players to build an ecosystem, ranging from energy sources to the supply chain.”

“This helps to raise the industry’s awareness of the importance of achieving that goal and provides opportunities for more co-operation among different players to explore solutions. From a business perspective, a multiplayer approach also strengthens the capabilities of the whole industry chain and ultimately enhances the efficiency in implementing net zero-carbon solutions,” he adds.

In short, the greening of one industry will green another. While some will say that paves the way for one polluting industry to pass its responsibilities to another, Ju maintains that meaningful emissions reductions cannot be achieved by an industry in isolation.

Chindata’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative is a strong example of that. Essentially a modern-day trade route from east to west, the Belt and Road Initiative is a logistics corridor – different from the Digital Silk Way – that requires smart capabilities in order to reach its full potential.

Ju explains: “The Belt and Road Initiative has improved logistics and enhanced integration in the Asia-Pacific region, but the pandemic has disrupted the supply and demand chain in Asia-Pacific emerging markets, posing challenges to the implementation of new solutions. Our new R&D method and product solutions help to address this situation by supporting our trans-border supply chain.

“We have therefore been able to continue delivering high-value infrastructure in the region by leveraging our key capabilities – integrated energy solutions, greenfield development and the white-labelling of key digital infrastructure equipment. At the same time, we are supporting our industry-leading clients in their goals for zero-carbon transformation and the rapid scalability of their business in the pan-Asia-Pacific region.”

Giving its achievements the seal of approval, in October Chindata Group won the first ESG award at Capacity’s Global Carrier Awards (GCAs).

Digital economy

Industry 4.0 is one part of the equation, but on the society and consumer side it’s all about smart cities. Promising to create fully fledged digital – and sustainable – societies, smart cities will revolutionise the data centre industry over the coming years.

“Smart cities are fully fledged digital societies where 5G, AI, IoT and the cloud computing industry develop in tandem. Chindata Group is seeking to build a foundation for the rapid growth of the digital economy, while also being committed to sustainable development to reach net zero-carbon emissions,” Ju says.

Referencing Peach Blossom Land in Datong, Shanxi Province, Ju says this zero-carbon digital infrastructure project has given plenty of insight on how digital infrastructure can support public services.

“By relying on the rich [renewable] energy resources in Datong and the network advantages offered by the ‘Eastern Data and Western Computing’ strategy initiated by China’s regulators, we are working to build a zero-carbon digital infrastructure industry cluster with next-generation hyperscale green data centres as its core business, alongside comprehensive development, equipment manufacturing and energy services as key supporting elements,” he says.

The project will connect “high-performance computing power digital infrastructure to various zero-carbon service scenarios”, Ju says, including public renewable energy storage and cold chain logistics, forming a new zero-carbon industry that boosts the transformation of the service industry in a city abundant with green energy.

“This will substantially increase the total contribution to GDP per unit of green electricity,” Ju says.

“Since we ventured into Datong in 2018, we have been committed to innovation and are exploring other areas of the digital infrastructure industry. As a result, we have gained more insight into – and practical experience with – digital infrastructure to support public services. As China strives to develop more smart cities, we believe that zero-carbon digital infrastructure will be integral to creating a new era of urban society,” he continues.

In addition to creating a blueprint for industry sustainability, Chindata Group’s short- and mid-term future will also see it grow its presence in Malaysia, India and Singapore and enter new markets in Asia, including Thailand and Indonesia.

Ju says: “We keep an open mind and strive to stay ahead of trends in the global digital infrastructure industry. Our overall supply chain management and delivery capabilities have also given us a competitive edge when expanding our business overseas. We look forward to collaborating with more partners to continue our growth and serve the rising demand for digital infrastructure, driven by the global push for digital and economic inclusion through a more open model.”