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ENERGIX-Stort program energi

Limits to digitalization: Exploring the transition challenges of Norwegian data centers

Alternative title: Grenser for digitalisering: Norske datasentre og utfordringer for samfunnsomstillingen

Awarded: NOK 10.8 mill.

Digitalization is central to Norwegian sustainability and energy transition policy. Globally digitalization is seen as a force for efficiency and dematerialization. Yet, the benefits of digitalization are rarely weighed against the energy, material, and local impacts of digital infrastructures, which constitute the virtual “cloud” on which we all increasingly depend. Limits to digitalization (L2D) studies data centers’ relationship to global sustainability, their place in Norwegian policy and regulation, and their implications for local communities. By documenting the dilemmas, controversies, and uncertainties around data centers at and across these levels, the project will contribute to viewing digital infrastructure not just as a force for increased efficiency, but also for sufficiency, by exploring ideas about moderation and austerity in relation to digital development. The project’s research question is: How might concepts of limits be applied to digital infrastructure to understand and improve digitalization outcomes? The question is addressed by a research team from NTNU Social Research, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and Boston University, through a transdisciplinary approach that incorporates key stakeholders in local and national case studies, analyses ethical and societal implications, and conducts cross-national comparative research and operations optimization modeling. The Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development, the Norwegian Communications Authority, Invest in Norway, and the Norwegian Data Center Industry association share expertise on Norwegian national framework development. Municipalities Løten, Hadsel, Hamar, Skien, Vennesla, and Vågå, share on-going and diverse experiences around data centers’ local community implications. Knowledge goals include novel and policy-relevant research on the sector and its relationship with sustainability, along with tools and models for data center governance.

The energy transition tends to foreground the efficiency of energy-intensive industries over energy sufficiency. Limits to digitalization (L2D) will address this paradox by studying digital infrastructures (e.g., data centers) to explore the socio-environmental implications of digitalization. L2D will develop a conceptual framework for digital infrastructure sufficiency, thus contributing to the challenges outlined in the portfolio plan through addressing knowledge gaps around energy and material consumption and local impacts of data center establishments, seen against the beneficial prospects of digitalization through improved efficiency, de-materialization, and value-creation. Fundamentally, L2D asks whether these tensions imply a need for “limits” to digitalization, and what such limits might look like. L2D explores Twin Transition challenges through the lens of Norwegian data centers. We consider energy transitions’ impacts on society, climate, and nature, through the on-going attempt by Norway to become a global hub for digital infrastructure, justified by reference to digitalization’s environmental, climate, and societal benefits. Norwegian decision makers at all levels struggle to make sense of and govern the trade-offs around data center establishments. Through a novel partnership with Norwegian municipalities, national policy makers, and industry, L2D conducts local case studies, studies national governance in a cross-national comparative perspective, and helps shape the emerging frameworks around this nascent industry. The project’s unprecedented access to and collaboration with the notoriously secretive data center industry aims to hold Norwegian industry partners accountable to the highest international standards, and enable leading scientific partners to develop knowledge and tools for improved decision-making and transparency around energy and data center governance.

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Funding scheme:

ENERGIX-Stort program energi

Thematic Areas and Topics