On 1 December 2020, we held the Manufacturing alumni awards and lecture, in which our 2020 Distinguished Manufacturing Alumni Award winner, Dr Ayotunde Coker (MSc Engineering and Management of Manufacturing Systems 1989), Managing Director and CEO, Rack Centre Limited presented on The Fourth Industrial Revolution and 21st Century Industries.

Dr Coker's lecture generated a substantial amount of conversation and as a result, he kindly agreed to answer the questions we didn't have time for. 

Below are his answers and if you missed the awards and lecture you can catch up online.

We are very conscious of the energy demands of data centres. Do you have particular comments on how energy demand is best managed?

The demand side of energy would be best managed by reducing demand. If the growth of data can be curtailed, and the intense computational requirements for AI and other solutions can be reduced. This is proving not to be the case, if anything, exponential demands are being experienced and projected.

Evidence is showing that 4th Industrial revolution (4IR) technologies are improving the total emissions with generally improved efficiencies, reduced road and air travel, optimisation of traffic flows in smart cities, etc. Some remarkable improvements in air quality were experienced during the Covid-19 lockdowns and general pivot to digital meetings, etc. The challenge will be to get these benefits in tandem with data centre power utilisation efficiencies over time.

Use of technology and social media is now an embedded way of life and more can be done to educate people on the energy implications of technology use. The Infrastructure Masons (iMasons) a group of people who are global leaders in infrastructure with the aim to ‘give back’, have coined the phrase ‘every click improves the future’ with workstreams for action to ensure sustainability in digital infrastructure.

We will see the industry doing significantly more to ensure efficiency and sustainability on the supply side. The industry has a metric called the Power Usage Effectiveness (PUE) and it indicates how efficient a data centre is; the efficiency of how well input power is converted to effective cooling in the data centre. PUE of 1.0 is ideal. The Uptime Institute study over the years, a global authority on data centre certifications undertakes annual surveys which reveal a drop in average PUE from 2.5 in 2007 to 1.59 in 2020. We continue to see steady improvements.

With a carrier neutral data centre does this mean that you need to avoid any single carrier gaining priority over another, and how do you achieve that?

Carrier neutrality means just that; a facility not owned or specifically affiliated to one carrier. Carriers are not located in a data centre owned by a competitor and can therefore have seamless interconnection with customers, internet exchanges and other collaborating carriers. Carriers are therefore differentiated by the strength of their value proposition to the marketplace - it is worth noting this is also relevant to Cloud solution and platform providers. In being cloud and vendor neutral, no one cloud provider or vendor is particularly favoured and we create an open and progressive marketplace of choice to all.

How ready is Emerging Markets to embrace 4IR? How does Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) to take advantage of this opportunity?

Sub Saharan Africa and other emerging markets are getting more and more ready to embrace and indeed transform with 4IR and leapfrogging other economies. For the first time about five years ago, the Economist published that smartphone shipments to Africa exceeded feature phones. We are seeing increasing broadband penetration across the continent and the broadband map of Africa which can be viewed online is continuing to improve. The increase of numbers of Internet users is another key factor and catalyst for leveraging and exploiting 4IR in emerging markets. Every 10% of broadband penetration has been proven in research to increase GDP by up to an average of 2.5% with a higher range for emerging markets. We have seen innovations in banking and Fintech leapfrog the advanced economies, and this is expected to continue.

Is the real opportunity is to look beyond technology, and find ways to give the greatest number of people the ability to positively impact their families, organisations and communities?

Totally agreed. Technology is only the enabler. The real benefit is in the impact on lives through accessibility to technological developments and quality of life.

Governments often require data to be hosted locally in their countries. Is this now a thing of the past considering cloud hosting (Azure, AWS, etc.)? How does this impact your business?

On the contrary, it is becoming more prevalent to enforce sovereign data laws. We live in a global ecosystem, however, and there are seamless inter-relationships globally for data consumption. The key is the core data that has to be located at the point of use. There are other very practical reasons why data is localised; latency. The is the lag the people experience if data and processing is located too far from the point of use. This practical reason is a key driver for hosing data locally.

I've heard that a Google search generates as much energy as boiling a kettle! Is this correct? How do we carry out Life Cycle Analyses of the use of digital services and compare them traditional methods? Are we actually reducing the CO2 footprint of manufactured products by going digital?

This is an interesting metric and I expect the more complex the search, the more energy is used to return the result. So it may be correct. This is a great opportunity to undertake the life cycle analysis of the impact of digital services. I would assert that anecdotal evidence indicates improvements in efficiency are achieved through better energy management, optimised processes, logistics routing, smart robotics and remote facility monitoring. Use of AI and virtual reality enabling product reviews and approvals by executives without the need to travel across the world. This would be a great piece of continuous research.

With Big Data wave, we are likely to see data ultimately become a product, how do we intend to approach its use and regulation globally, and what roles could data centres and the government play in this case?

A believe data is already a product in many forms from transformation to information, knowledge and insights that are marketing and sold in various guises. Cross border regulation and protection of data, in particular in the social media context, has become a significant issue and the EU and USA have been agitating on this issue. Data centres only play the role of underpinning infrastructure for data, the carriers, Internet Service Providers, and Internet exchanges that transmit and optimise the data.

How do recent developments in personal data privacy laws (e.g. GDPR) and the use of data as the new weapon of war, impact on AI and big data?

Data has been a weapon of war and a source of good. AI needs big data to be effective and heuristic. Significant advances in the use of AI, big data, biometrics, etc., has made law enforcement more effective, and I optimistically see the force for god outweighing the weapon of war.

How can businesses prepare their people for the new types of jobs that lie ahead?

In my view, businesses have to hire people with strong core transferrable skills. I have the view that people have to be able to take on new opportunities and become an expert in a subject area in six months as a basis to grow. I have always experienced that in my carrier. I always ensure businesses I lead are based on a learning culture of continuous individual learning and company learning; constantly innovating, learning and adopting new ways of doing things. A key leadership tenet is always knowing when to re-invent yourself; this goes for individuals, teams and companies. Even more relevant in today’s rapidly changing world.