Irish Digital Transformation: Exporting Success Amid Decarbonisation Challenges

Over the past 50 years, Ireland has experienced a remarkable transformation from an agricultural-based economy with high unemployment and emigration to a thriving tech-led economy with low unemployment and a net importer of talent. The rise of ICT and data-led industries, alongside pharmaceuticals, finance, and life sciences, has been instrumental in driving Ireland’s economic growth and elevating its global standing. Moreover, this progress has significantly strengthened the digital infrastructure industry, positioning it as a key player on the world stage.

Digitalisation and decarbonisation
The convergence of decarbonisation and digitalisation has become vital for achieving a sustainable future. Smart ICT solutions in various sectors, such as transportation, buildings, agriculture, and energy grids, synergistically optimise energy consumption and facilitate the transition to a sustainable society. Remarkably, reports indicate that these smart ICT solutions can save up to ten times more greenhouse gases than the entire ICT chain produces. Data centres play a critical role in powering these intelligent solutions, acting as the backbone behind “smart” devices and systems.

The future of sustainability involves industries, including digital infrastructure, becoming “prosumers” of electricity. This means that companies not only consume power from the grid but also contribute back to it. For instance, some data centres employ lithium-ion battery banks to stabilise the grid during peak demand for renewable energy while simultaneously serving as backup power sources. Additionally, the waste heat generated by data centres can be harnessed for district heating systems, further contributing to the grid. The rise of energy parks combining wind, solar, green hydrogen, battery, and data centres is a promising development that eases pressure on the national grid while sustaining economic benefits for Ireland.

Irish digital infrastructure ecosystem
As society transitions into the post-Covid era, the digital behaviours and expectations formed during the pandemic will have a lasting impact. The work-from-home culture is here to stay, necessitating increased digital infrastructure support as tools and technologies evolve to meet the rising demand. Consequently, the demand for talent and expertise in digital infrastructure has surged, but there is a concurrent shortage in supply.

The 2022 Host in Ireland Ecosystem report delved into the factors contributing to Ireland’s success in the digital infrastructure and data centre industry. Regardless of their size, Irish companies shared common traits known as I.R.I.S.H.: Ingenuity, Relentlessness, Integrity, Strength, and History. This year, the 2023 report “Digital Infrastructure: An Irish Export Success” looks at the ecosystem in action. Why the Irish ecosystem is in such demand on global projects and what are the characteristics of it that make it so transportable. We are also trying to understand why the talent that comes through or from Ireland is so highly sought after and why that makes it one of the most exportable – and successful – elements of the industry.

Exporting Irish talent
The Irish diaspora has played a vital role in bolstering Ireland’s position as a hub for digital infrastructure. Talented individuals who had previously emigrated returned with invaluable experience from working in multinational companies worldwide, making Ireland an attractive destination for data centre companies seeking skilled individuals for their global projects. The experience gained from working abroad has equipped Irish professionals to excel in diverse international settings, making them valuable assets in the data centre industry.

This willingness to go abroad compliments the Irish nature to build relationships. The ability to break down barriers and foster discussions opens up new markets and opportunities. It contributes to Ireland’s success in the global data centre industry, but it’s not the only reason.

Multinational companies have decided over the years to make Dublin their European headquarters and have brought significant business and decision-making capabilities to Ireland. When you look at some of the biggest multinational data centre brands in the world – the Amazons, Googles, Microsofts, Metas – it’s no coincidence that their European headquarters are all based in Ireland. Decisions that were once made at the global headquarters are now being made out of Dublin. These decisions drive global expansion, not just expansion into EMEA.

A pragmatic approach
The Irish also offer a pragmatic approach to problem-solving and effective management in construction and contracting which resonates around the world. This involves cutting through unnecessary complexities and directly addressing issues. Irish teams prioritise effective communication, risk identification, and proactive resolution of potential problems in ways that other cultures do not. The trust built on construction and data centre projects based on these principles further strengthens in other projects around the world.

There is also a strong sense of community and support among Irish professionals that has created a robust ecosystem that fosters collaboration and success. Each of our partners feels personally compelled to see our fellow compatriots succeed. The ability to connect and reach out and be willing to be generous with your time is the glue that holds the ecosystem together.

Perception vs reality
Despite the exportability of the Irish digital infrastructure ecosystem and the economic value it brings to the country there are serious challenges ahead for the industry. The current perception that data centres are a driving cause of Ireland’s electricity issues and responsible for missing carbon targets is a real problem.

Data centres are responsible for approximately 3% of Ireland’s total energy consumption and about 3% of our Greenhouse Gas Emissions. The industry is regularly scapegoated for very real issues that require serious conversation and collaboration to resolve. As mentioned above, digitalisation will play a significant role in decarbonising our society. We need to work together for both the economic benefit of Ireland, but most importantly for the good of the planet.

Meanwhile as the other 97% are happy to duck and cover, there is an increasing risk that our FDI landscape becomes destabilised because of misconceived perceptions. Much in the same way that Jaws altered an entire generation’s perception of sharks, we don’t want perceptions of data centres to become realities based on minimal foundation. Especially when you consider that the Irish way of doing business, infused with a distinct culture, has been a success worldwide by all reasonable metrics.

© Civil & Construction 2023