Why the Digital World Needs Sustainable Architecture: An Interview with Marina Otero

Marina Otero Portrait

Marina Otero, 2022 Wheelwright Prize winner. Photo by Boudewijn Bollmann.

Data centers located around the globe function 24 hours a day to support digital networks. These facilities consume vast energy resources, occupy fragile ecosystems, and emit prodigious amounts of CO2. Marina Otero, winner of the 2022 Wheelwright Prize, is researching new architectural methods and systems for storing data, and reimagining how digital infrastructure could meet the unprecedented demands facing the world today. Through field research, data collection, and prototype development, Otero aims to publish the first open-source manual for global data center architecture design, featuring examples of ecological, sustainable, and egalitarian data storage models. By looking at cases in Australia, Chile, China, Iceland, Netherlands, Nigeria, Singapore, Sweden, and the United States, she investigates spatial and material innovations. This work is especially urgent at a time when digital-data production is outpacing the scalability of today’s storage solutions, and AI usage is on the rise. We caught up with Otero to discuss the progress of her globe-spanning research project, Future Storage: Architectures to Host the Metaverse.

Sweden is an international leader in renewable energy with the digital infrastructure sector making up a large percentage of the economy. In the past year, you have toured several data centers in the country. What did you discover?

Yes, in December 2022 I visited several data centers in the North of the country. One of them is the Infrastructure and Cloud research & test Environment (ICE) Data Center in Luleå. ICE is one of the main data center research institutions in Europe and a testbed focusing on digitalization and information technology infrastructure. During my visit, I learned of several prototypes being tested at ICE to recover data center heat in subarctic climates. One of them involves growing mealworms in a heat box, whose heat comes from the server cooling system. In the long run, these mealworms ultimately become chicken feed. They can replace the soy concentrate that has been until now used to feed chickens in the region, and which is largely produced in the Amazon. According to ICE, this can become an economical and environmentally friendly solution. And, apparently, the chickens are quite happy. ICE also repurposes heat from data centers to dry firewood and heat water for their own office consumption and for local fish farms. Together with the company Containing Greens, ICE has designed a facility that uses excess heat inside vertical hydroponic systems, harvesting produce that is delivered to local restaurants. Our emails can feed chickens and grow lettuce!

Vertical greens growing at the ICE Data Center in Luleå. Photo credit: Marina Otero, 2022.
Vertical greens growing at the ICE Data Center in Luleå, Sweden. Photo credit: Marina Otero, 2022.

How are data centers in Sweden using solar, wind, and hydro power?

Data center providers are attracted to the possibility of using renewable energy for their functioning, which grants them green labels. I visited Ecodatacenter Piteå, powered by hydropower, and Ecodatacenter Falun, a facility that is powered entirely by wind and hydropower and built in wood with the frame, interior walls, and ceiling in cross-laminated timber and glulam. The data center uses a heat recovery system that pumps surplus energy into a district heating system for the municipality of Falun, as well into a wood pellets factory.

In the country’s capital I visited Stockholm Data Parks in Kista. This is a joint initiative by the City of Stockholm, district heating and cooling provider Stockholm Exergi, power grid operator Ellevio, and fiber network provider Stokab. The operation contributes to the City of Stockholm’s objective to be entirely fossil fuel free by 2040. This public-private partnership model that involves energy loops between data centers and the urban energy grid is becoming a reference for cities around the world.

However, the Swedish data center ‘boom’ has also sparked national protest. During my visit I participated in debates on how the development of this digital infrastructure in the Nordic countries is occurring at the expense of indigenous peoples. The expansion of wind farms to provide renewable energy for industries such as data centers is having an adverse impact on the Sami people’s culture and environment, raising concerns of ‘green colonialism.’

Iceland is one of the only place in the world where a data center can operate with 100% sustainable green power. You visited the Verne Global campus, which relies on local geothermal and hydroelectric sources. What did you learn about the use of geothermal energy during the site visit?

Geothermal Exhibition, Iceland
Geothermal Exhibition, Iceland. Photo credit: Marina Otero, 2022.

I was interested in experiencing first-hand how geothermal energy is used in the country, and how it powers data centers. I travelled to one of the largest single-site geothermal power plants on the planet, Hellisheiði power plant. The area also includes carbon capture infrastructure. I then followed the power lines that cross and power the country. The journey took me to the Verne Global campus, which relies on local geothermal and hydroelectric sources. With Halldór Eiríksson, a partner at T.ark Architects, the architects responsible for the Verne Global data center design, I learned about the interconnections between geothermal energy sites and data centers. Eiríksson is also the designer of the Sky Lagoon, a human-made geothermal bath complex in Kópavogur.

I also met with Marcos Zotes, partner at Basalt Architects, who are responsible for the design of the Blue Lagoon. The lagoon is located in a lava field near Grindavík and is supplied by water used in the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power station. In fact, the Blue Lagoon was formed from water spilling from the geothermal power plant.

In these architectures where people undress and bath together in the hot waters coming from the entrails of the earth, one could comprehend how our bodies connect to others and to the planet. These embodied experiences help us question the intricate energy processes that keep bodies and data centers up and running.

Blue Lagoon Marina Otero
Blue Lagoon, Iceland. Photo credit: Marina Otero, 2022.

The Humboldt Cable in Chile will be the first submarine cable linking Latin America and Oceania. The project will make the country a preferred data center location in the Southern Hemisphere. When you return to Chile, what do you intend to research?

I was invited by the Chilean Senate to participate in Congreso Futuro, the main scientific-humanist dissemination event in Latin America and the Southern Hemisphere. I had the opportunity to present the research and meet representatives from the government, universities, companies, and other Chilean institutions. Together with members of the government, I travelled to Chilean Antarctica. I will be back in Chile in May and June to visit data centers and related infrastructures in a field trip and program jointly organized with the Master of Architecture at the Universidad Católica de Chile. I will visit the site selected for the construction of the Humboldt Cable. I will also meet with members of a network of academics and activists who oppose data colonialism, and work closely with communities protesting data centers around the world.

For example, I will meet with representatives from the Cerrillos community, who opposed a Google data center megaproject due to the project’s shortcomings in its environmental processing. The community successfully demonstrated that the project contributed to the overexploitation of the Santiago Central aquifer in a context of drought. I will also meet with representatives from ALMA observatory, a state-of-the-art telescope that studies light from some of the coldest objects in the Universe. ALMA comprises 66 high-precision antennas, spread over distances of up to 16 kilometers. I am interested in learning about data processing and data storage connected to their activities.

Verne Global Campus, Iceland
Verne Global Campus, Iceland. Photo credit: Marina Otero, 2022.

What other site visits are planned for 2023?

This August I travel to Australia. My aim is to meet Stewart Stacey, managing director of Binary Security, who developed the world’s first Indigenous-operated data center at Charles Darwin University in Darwin. I am also planning to meet with representatives of Kalinda IT, an indigenously owned Australian IT services business formed in 2018, which recently partnered with TRIFALGA DC to develop a network of hyperscale and edge data centers across Australia, of which Toowoomba, Queensland-based Pulse Data Centre, is their first location. I am also interested in the work of the Maiam nayri Wingara Indigenous Data Sovereignty Collective, which advocates for Indigenous data sovereignty.

In October I travel to California to meet experts working on DNA data storage (Illumina, Microsoft, Twist), hologram data storage (Microsoft), and floating data centers (Nautilus). On my return, I will be in Cambridge and hope to meet with George Church, who leads Synthetic Biology at Harvard’s Wyss Institute. I am looking forward to learning more about their DNA data storage experiments and about the Whitesides Research Group’s research on fluorescent dye storage. Later in the year I travel to Singapore, China, and Nigeria.

Has the Wheelwright Prize grant generated other research opportunities or collaborations?

Absolutely! I am conducting research on the future of data centers alongside NASA Senior Research Scientist Eduardo Bendek. I will study the possibilities and implications of building data center in orbit around the Earth. We will look into how these facilities could harness energy through solar panels, and benefit from the lack of gravity and absence of air to avoid cooling problems and reduce the impact on energy consumption. We will also explore the ecological implications and possible geopolitical and urban transformations that such infrastructures could unleash. There is a trend of locating data centers in increasingly remote and extreme locations, such as underwater or in space, and it is important to inspect its repercussions.

With the Donostia International Physics Center (DIPC), in the context of an invitation by Tabakalera, Spain, an international center for contemporary culture located in Donostia / San Sebastián, I will look at how quantum computing will transform the design of data centers. The Center has received European investment for the study of superconductors (essential in quantum computing) and will soon celebrate the opening of the IBM quantum computing center that will host one of the most advanced quantum computers in the world. I am interested in study two main aspects. On the one hand, data centers can take advantage of the power of quantum computing to accelerate and improve their operations and optimize resource allocation and the simulation of complex systems. On the other hand, quantum computing requires new hardware and software solutions and a highly controlled and isolated environment from the outside world to reduce interference and errors. Cooling and energy management are also important in this context, as qubits, the building blocks of quantum computing, require extremely low temperatures to function properly. This is way beyond my area of expertise but that’s precisely why I am so eager to learn about it.

In Fall 2023, I will lead a ‘clinic’ at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, focusing on the case of Tuvalu. The island nation has an interest in creating a digital twin to preserve its heritage in the face of rising sea levels. The team will comprise a group of students from architecture, theory, historic preservation, urbanism, as well as leading experts from the fields of data storage, archiving, and computing. We will consider how to approach the storage of different types of data, their access, ownership and governance, their ecological cycles, as well as processes of preservation, celebration, decay, and mourning.