The new Space Race: the bricks and mortar reality of Digital Sovereignty

By Michael Cantor, CIO, Park Place Technologies.

In a recent Panorama documentary, Lancaster University Professor, Gordon Blair, asked whether we should think about re-naming ‘the cloud.’ He proposed that the name made the technology sound ethereal, untethered to the physical reality of the datacenters that power the cloud.

This digital revolution has brought about a transformation in the way we live, work, and interact with each other. The internet has made the world a global village, enabling us to connect and communicate with anyone, anywhere, and at any time. However, it has also brought with it a new set of challenges that need to be addressed, some of which are playing out in the regulatory landscape. One of these challenges is digital sovereignty.

Digital sovereignty refers to a country's ability to control and protect its digital assets, including its data, infrastructure, and networks. It involves the ability to govern the internet within the country's borders, protect its citizens' privacy, and secure its critical infrastructure.

Today we are more connected than ever, with 64.4 per cent of the world’s total population now online, making digital sovereignty a critical issue for governments. However, the reality of digital sovereignty is not as straightforward as it may seem. There are several geographical and climate limitations, energy security issues, and skills gap that countries must address if they want to embrace digital sovereignty in a meaningful way.

Geographical and climate limitations

The reality of the cloud is that it does have to be physically housed somewhere. For countries that have thousands of acres of open space and a temperate climate, this is no problem. However, geographical and climate limitations play a significant role in a country's ability to maintain digital sovereignty. Countries in areas prone to natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods, face a higher risk of losing their digital infrastructure. An issue that is exacerbated by the climate crisis.

High summer temperatures, as well as rapid fluctuations in temperature and humidity, pose challenges to data centres, which need to be kept cool to operate. Data centres are also vulnerable to floods, high winds, wildfire and droughts as well as loss of supporting power supply. For example, in 2016, severe floods hitting large parts of the UK affected Vodafone’s data centre in Leeds, leaving customers faced with intermitted services of voice and data. The flooding and resulting disruptions highlighted the importance of ensuring that digital infrastructure is resilient to natural disasters such as floods and that backup systems are in place to ensure continued connectivity in the event of disruptions.

Energy security is a critical factor

The digital economy is heavily reliant on energy, particularly electricity. Countries that lack a reliable and affordable energy supply face challenges in maintaining their digital infrastructure. Additionally, the high energy consumption of data centres and other digital infrastructure components can have a significant impact on a country's energy supply and climate change goals. Countries must develop energy policies that ensure a sustainable and reliable energy supply for their digital infrastructure.

Energy security is a critical factor in ensuring a reliable and sustainable energy supply for digital infrastructure. The digital economy is energy-intensive, and as digital technologies continue to

advance and become more pervasive, the demand for energy to power these technologies will only increase. According to a report by the International Energy Agency, data centres alone accounted for approximately 1 per cent of global electricity demand in 2019, and this is expected to increase to 3 per cent by 2030.

Given the growing energy demands of the digital economy, countries need to develop energy policies that ensure a reliable and sustainable energy supply for digital infrastructure. This includes promoting energy efficiency measures, investing in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power, and optimising the use of existing energy infrastructure.

It’s impossible to halt or reduce the use of data, but that doesn’t mean organisations can’t get creative with how the energy emitted is used. For example, in the UK, the energy released from tiny data centres will be used to heat public swimming pools. Other countries must also focus on creating energy policies that promote sustainable and reliable energy sources for digital infrastructure and reduce carbon footprint.

Enhanced need for digital skills

The skills gap is another significant challenge that countries must address to maintain their digital sovereignty. The digital economy is highly dependent on skilled labour, particularly in areas such as cybersecurity, data analytics, and artificial intelligence. Countries that lack the necessary skills and expertise in these areas will struggle to maintain their digital infrastructure and protect their citizens' data.

In order to plug the skills gap, governments must act now to introduce funding and initiatives aimed at evolving education curriculums, as well as encouraging businesses to support lifelong learning opportunities. Other options for governments and businesses looking to accelerate their digital sovereignty journey now is to work with partners who provide professional services that combine skills and labour they need to facilitate data migration and, in some cases, repatriation.

Digital sovereignty is a complex and multifaceted issue that requires a comprehensive approach. By acknowledging the physical challenges digital sovereignty, governments and businesses can create a pathway towards sovereign digital infrastructure that is not only secure and reliable, but provides new opportunities for growth and innovation for its businesses and citizens for years to come.

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