In order to gain deeper understanding of the response to the project, and to find out whether the methods employed were successful or needed to be adjusted or revised, a more extensive survey was also undertaken. As stated above, DCI representatives were affected by the pandemic and although 12 candidates responded to interview requests and were invited to participate in the research activity, two then said they were unable to do so due to a high volume of work and one candidate had to withdraw at the last minute for personal reasons, so there were 9 participants. This response rate, and the results, are regarded as acceptable for the nature of the study.
Nine professionals associated with the data centre and digital technology sectors participated in semi-structured interviews, with 10 open questions, which lasted between 30 and 60 min. All interviews were conducted online using video/audio software and recorded; every recording was transcribed, then analysed, using specialist software, which enabled identification of particular themes and sub-themes; the results were also cross-referenced to identify trends in expertise, attitudes, and behaviours and to assess the success and impact of the CEDaCI project model and methods to date.
4.2.1. General Contextual Questions, Responses and Evaluation
An overview of the responses to the general and individual questions posed is presented in Table 6
below; a more detailed review and analysis is also presented as follows: the first three questions were designed to confirm the participants’ knowledge and experience in order to validate their responses to the specific questions about CEDaCI.
Participants were first asked for their definition of data centre sustainability: the most common subject was circularity, which was mentioned by (B), (C), (G), (H), and (I) who all had a good understanding of the principles of the circular economy, that the embodied impact of products is as important as that of operational energy and the need for a holistic approach to the challenge. (A)—the Circular Economy lead—did not mention circularity as such but alluded to it in points about the complexity of data centre sustainability, whole product life cycles, removal of redundant equipment, space used, and operational efficiency; both (A) and (C) commented on efficiency, and it is worth noting that both work for very large (global and national) organisations.
Economic, environmental, and social factors were each mentioned by 2 participants. (B) and (I) mentioned economics, and (E) and (I) mentioned the environment; all of their comments were linked to operational energy consumption, associated impacts, and use of renewables rather than physical resources, which was a little surprising considering the participants’ comments regarding the circular economy. (C) and (I) mentioned social factors, although their emphasis was different, and while (C) referred to concerns about data security, (I) referred to conflict minerals, which is keeping with their respective roles—(C) within a national operator that relies on DCI services and (I) a technology advisory organisation; in fact (I)’s entire response to data centre sustainability was the broadest, and all subjects, other than efficiency were specifically mentioned, which is also in keeping with role.
The second and third questions were about the participants’ organisations (employers), what they are, and what they could be doing better in relation to sustainability. Economic, energy efficiency, social, and environmental factors were identified in response to question 2, and all participants other than (A) mentioned these in relation to current activities within their organisations, although (A) did talk about potential and future improvements. The subjects and responses were significantly interlinked, and participants referred to in-house and external practices (with clients and customers). All participants cited examples of good practice, but they varied according to the focus and size of the organisation and local political factors. For example, (H) works for a small consultancy, and all employees work remotely at home, or on site, with clients; although the employees are encouraged to cycle to sites, energy efficiency is dependent on personal habits at home. Conversely, (C) works for a huge national organisation and has driven good practice to make significant energy and resource savings across their IT activities. Employees of customer and client facing organisations ((B), (D), (E), (G), (H), (I)) are also driving good practice as part of their business and activities (e.g., increasing energy efficiency, extending product life, and reducing packaging and general waste to reduce environmental impact) and developing strategies, tools, products, and services to help their clients to do the same. There are also examples of philanthropy, and one refurbishment company donates unsalable, but fully functioning, products to organisations that develop IT skills in developing countries and support local charities that help people with special needs. There were several common observations, including the lack of robust recognised metrics and standards, for the secondary market and products; although several organisations are developing their own, they will not be comparable with each other, which may be confusing for customers who want to compare metrics.
Another common point relates to the increasing awareness of embodied impact and frustration at the lack of infrastructure, or policy, to guide and bring about significant change. (F) noted that, until recently, his organisation would not buy second life (refurbished) equipment because of issues around warranties; however, this is changing in response to policy change (specifically Wales’ Well Being of Future Generation act), which is encouraging more circular practice, which could drive common metrics and standards. Finally, the general consensus of (C), (G), and (H) who are influencing change in house, and with external clients, is that sustainability has to be linked to the bottom line.
Unsurprisingly, subjects raised in response to question 3 included future, growth, and targets in addition to economic, environmental, and social factors. Both (E) and (G) were confident that their business practices are as sustainable as they can be at the moment, although (G) would like open-source hardware to be included in policy to increase market growth for this type of product as an alternative to being locked into single brands. This is contrary to (A), who works for a company that is seeking to increase brand loyalty by selling a service rather than equipment, one benefit of which is that the company will have control over the entire product life cycle from cradle to cradle. (B) and (H) mentioned that they could reduce the impact of travel and transport of goods, while (C) mentioned that the sustainability programme now includes resilience, so it can cope with emerging and future challenges, such as COVID-19, pandemics, and climate shocks. Finally, (I) commented that the organisation is based in rented premises, and they don’t control waste and recycling at present, but they are measuring their current activities, so they can make their business activities more sustainable, and this includes signing up to the Race to Zero (carbon reduction) initiative. In general, all participants simultaneously recognised current good practice in their organisation and the need to improve.
This investigation and analysis of participants’ current knowledge and workplace activities, practice, and attitudes provided extremely important insights into their business practice, role, and trends across the sector. It also confirms that their opinions about, and responses to, the CEDaCI project are based on high level of knowledge and experience. The subsequent questions related their reaction to, and perception of, the CEDaCI project as a whole and highlighted the value of stakeholder engagement.
4.2.2. Response to and Evaluation of the CEDaCI Project
Question 4, the first in the section, relates to the project vision and asked whether CEDaCI is accelerating development of a sectoral Circular Economy: the response was almost unanimously positive and even the participant who responded negatively (H) qualified their response and commented that it was impossible “because it is such a huge task but the project is raising awareness of the Circular Economy and is making decision makers think.” All other responses were very positive: and 4 further participants ((B), (D), (F), and (G)) commented that the project is raising awareness and “has opened conversation that wasn’t there before and people didn’t bother thinking about before’ ‘despite limited resources.”
Awareness raising is the first step in the development of the Circular Economy; second steps involve supporting and empowering businesses and organisations to make change. The participants were again very encouraging and commented that “It is the first (project) to investigate the challenge analytically” and “the potential is huge” (B); “the project is also bridging the gap between theory and practical guidance” (C) and the output (specifically the digital Circular Data Centre Compass (CDCC)) “is immensely valuable” (F) and will “support public and private organisations to make informed decisions about procurement and practice” (E). Similarly, if we “make those (tools) available to organisations and they are able to use them easily and adopt them, you’ve solved a huge issue that most places don’t have the time to look at. If you simplify the process for them, it removes huge barriers” (F).
Question 5 was designed to find out whether CEDaCI is supporting the DCI in general; all participants responded very positively, highlighted subjects were (again) awareness, circularity, green procurement, the public sector, market visibility, and the CDCC digital tool. The responses acknowledged the wider benefits and impact of CEDaCI; for example, “The tools that you have provided will be hugely helpful for operators who currently still are very energy and carbon focused and they are not thinking about the embedded carbon in the assets that they use” (I). The link between economics and sustainability was repeated and “Anybody who adopts your tools and uses them properly should make more money. This means that they can save the planet and create social value and sustainable options for the future” (F). The project output has the potential to influence change “provided that important buyers like the government and others start requesting this information and demanding action it will drive the market accordingly” (C). This could be realised because one participant is already referencing CEDaCI to government bodies, such as DEFRA, who are developing a Cloud Sustainability Standard and another wants to “showcase the CDCC to the Cross-Government Technology Group to get feedback and as a game changer for their thinking” (C).
Questions 6 and 7 were designed to gather more specific feedback about the impact of CEDaCI on the participants and their organisations now and in the future; some of the subjects identified were the same as those raised by other questions (business, future, and growth) but they also included planning and support. Again, all participants responded positively and commented that support for current business practice was highly beneficial; for example, “Those involved in sustainability impact roles can use this information to make their case in their organisations for sustainable choices to be made” (D). Examples of specific project-partnership tasks include checking other LCAs and carbon assessments in the public domain and creating new LCAs of open source hardware; participants (B) and (C) agreed that the CEDaCI team bring different specialist knowledge to their organisations and that external analysis and reports increase objectivity and credibility (“The findings …. published by someone like you will be invaluable” (G)). They also expect that project output will continue to support them in the future, as more output like the CDCC and Pilot projects are completed. Several participants also made suggestions for future work and collaboration after the project: for example, “You have the data with the Compass and when we talk to the big systems integrator about the data centre contract, I think CEDaCI could help support us” (E). Similarly, “It’s likely that sustainability principle will be added to our code of practice so you could look at how to mesh your thinking and tool into how the public sector operates” (C).
Like question 4, question 8 was designed to learn whether the project process and output was fulfilling a key aim: as explained above, the DCI is fragmented and silo working is endemic across subsectors. Development of a Circular Economy requires a holistic approach and input from representatives from all life cycle stages across an entire industry. CEDaCI is seeking to do this, and although the (internal) team recognises that there is some progress and shortfalls, external feedback from participants is essential to confirm or negate this perception. Consequently, participants were asked whether the mix and composition of partners, Working Group, and Co-creation Workshop members is right. The question encouraged comments around the environment, suppliers, manufacturers, and users from 7/9 participants. The feedback was mixed, but this was expected because, despite major efforts to recruit DC operators, most said they were too busy to join the activities although consultants with prior experience of running data centres were a good substitute. A typical comment was “There was a great mix of people. There could be more users involved in the development process” (I). Similarly, the team were unable to engage manufacturers in the project regularly; they visited a global IT producer’s site in Scotland, but their production plant, like those of other manufacturers, is outside the UK so the visit was to a “technology renewal” reuse and recycling centre. Again, low engagement was due to high volume of work and other typical comments were “End users and manufacturers lacked representation, but that is understandable as many are distributed globally” (H). The participants believe that there is potential to engage with more users and manufacturers when the outputs—and especially the CDCC tool—are complete.
Question 9 related to perception of the Working Groups and Co-creation Workshops and the value of stakeholder engagement: 8/9 participants responded when asked whether they had taken part in similar events prior to the CEDaCI events and 50% (A), (C), (D), (F) said no, or not in the way that the CEDaCI activities were run, and the other 50% (B), (G), (H), (I) said yes but made comments like “I’ve learnt more from CEDaCI than from anywhere else apart from our own research” (B). When asked about the benefits of the cross-sectoral WGs and CCWs to the CEDaCI project, and to them as individuals, all 8 participants responded very positively and the general consensus was that the events were very successful in initiating different ways of thinking about problems. For example, “The key thing is a change of consciousness. You are getting people to think about new ideas” (D). The format also encouraged open and objective conversations, which participants really appreciated: “To get all those people involved was a major challenge, discussing openly problems and solutions. They are able to freely talk about ideas and mutual benefit” (F); “it helps to ensure that you can take account of scoping issues by bringing together the supply chain and actors that might not normally come together. It’s good to hear different perspectives and have a balanced view, without it being influenced by vested interests” (B). Participants also valued the interdisciplinary composition of the meetings and (I) “found it interesting to hear other people’s perceptions and views that I would not have had access to otherwise” while (G) said “each one of the meetings felt useful” and “the biggest benefit is meeting other people with other perspectives. The community aspect is one of the benefits of working groups”.
In the last question (10), participants were asked for suggestions about future activities or events: the response was encouraging and indicated that there is scope for future work to extend the impact of CEDaCI by organising a “meeting or event where you discuss your approach to developing those tools and how you can help others to build similar things or transfer to different industries” (F). Ethical procurement issues (C) and understanding “more about the chemical processes that are used to extract elements” (H) and (in response to HM Treasury Business Case) (C) said that factoring “sustainability into business decisions and working that through to monetised values … would be really useful”; broadening research and modelling to include all types of current and emerging DC equipment (D), were also highlighted as subjects for further investigation. The most significant suggestion that was made by several participants, concerning wider dissemination of project output to inform and educate the DCI, other industries, and the public: for example, (I) suggested a briefing event or blog for members of the technology trade association, (H) felt that publicising information about the overall manufacturing process would generate interest in the industry, (G) will be happy to do a joint webinar for their business community so they can see the end results once the tool is released, and (B) said “you can reach a lot wider audience and you can educate them about what’s in the technology and from a sustainability point of view, it has the benefit of educating people about data and ICT as well.”
Aggregated Data and Trends
The key themes identified in the transcripts are shown in Figure 5
below, which also shows frequency. Aggregation and analysis of qualitative data, generated by responses to all 10 questions, showed that of the 17 themes identified in the transcripts the most common was the environment (identified 15 times), followed by circular/circularity and economic (8); efficiency/energy efficiency (7), social and support (6), awareness, future, manufacture, and public sector (4), growth and market visibility (3), business, green procurement, target, and users (2) and tool (1). Considering the interests (i.e., all bar one have engaged with the CEDaCI project and take part in WGs and CCWs), expertise and roles within the organisations (5 are directly linked to sustainability, 3 are linked to overall efficiency and 1, sustainability-linked research) these results are not surprising; similarly, alignment of the themes with the individual participants reflected the type of organisation with which they work: for example the (A) (who works for a corporate global IT producer) focussed on efficiency, growth, manufacture, and targets; (B) and (E), who work for SMEs specialising in refurbishment/second life products and recycling, focused on the three tenets of sustainability, education, and circularity, as did (C), who also commented on the public sector and works for a national non-profit organisation; (D) and (G) work for a non-profit global open-source IT provider, and both referred to sustainability-linked criteria and the future growth; (F) (who works in a university) focused on the environment and economics as did (H), the technical consultant who also spoke of manufacture and business. Finally, (I) who works for an advisory body, mentioned the broadest range of themes, including sustainability and circularity, business, manufacture, planning, public sector, the future, and targets.