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Beyond cloud nine: rebooting Southeast Asia's digital future with data sovereignty and sustainable IT

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By Alex Hong

· 14 min read

A stealthy revolution is bubbling beneath the buzzing of data centres around Southeast Asia. As the region's digital development increases, a conundrum arises: can ASEAN's desire for a greener future coexist with its ravenous appetite for data? Data sovereignty, the concept of local control over data storage, processing, and administration, represents a step forward, promising a future in which progress and the environment may coexist.

However, this route necessitates courageous action and collaborative will. It encourages governments to develop progressive policies, businesses to invest in green infrastructure, and citizens to adopt ethical data habits. It encourages cross-border collaboration and ethical considerations at all stages.

This is ASEAN's symphony of data sovereignty and sustainable IT, with the potential to change the region's digital landscape. Let us lift the curtain and explore the melodies of challenge and opportunity that await us as we work to create a future in which data empowers rather than exploits, and the digital symphony echoes in sync with the rhythm of sustainability.

I. The Data Dilemma: Can ASEAN's Digital Boom Go Green?

Across Southeast Asia, a digital revolution is underway. Data centres spring up like mushrooms, containing the lifeblood of our increasingly digital lives. From e-commerce behemoths to social media behemoths, the need for computer power shows no signs of abating. However, in this digital race, a contradiction exists: as ASEAN strives for a greener future, its data-hungry infrastructure threatens to consume energy and exacerbate climate change.

Consider this: Singapore, Southeast Asia's digital capital, has over 200 data centres that consume 7% of the country's total electricity. The Philippines, which aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, has seen its data centre energy demand treble in three years. This results in astonishing emissions: a single huge data centre can release as much CO2 as 50,000 cars each year.

The irony is evident. ASEAN countries have set ambitious climate targets, promising to reduce emissions and embrace renewable energy. However, the very engines that drive digitization, the foundation of a contemporary economy, threaten to undercut these very objectives. This is the data dilemma: a delicate balance between progress and the environment.

Despite this conundrum, a solution emerges: data sovereignty. This notion, which advocates for local control over data storage, processing, and governance, has the potential to transform ASEAN into a more sustainable entity. Here's how.

1. Green Infrastructure: 

ASEAN may lessen its reliance on energy-intensive, foreign-owned facilities by prioritising localised data centres constructed with energy-efficient technology and powered by renewable energy. Singapore's Green Data Centre project and Thailand's emphasis on solar-powered facilities are both encouraging examples.

2. Data Optimization: 

Embracing data sovereignty promotes prudent data management, eliminating needless storage and processing and thereby lowering the overall energy footprint. Initiatives such as Vietnam's data residency regulations and Indonesia's emphasis on cloud computing optimisation demonstrate this trend towards efficiency.

3. Circular Economy: 

Data sovereignty gives prospects for a circular economy within the IT sector. Reusing and reusing equipment, using novel cooling technologies, and reducing e-waste all help to create a more environmentally friendly data ecology. Thailand's emphasis on e-waste management and Malaysia's circular economy programmes paved the way for this transformation.

Data sovereignty is not a panacea, but it does provide a means to reconcile ASEAN's digital ambitions with its environmental imperatives. By developing local skills, green technology, and ethical data management, ASEAN can create a resilient, sustainable digital future, demonstrating that progress and the environment can coexist. Let us ensure that the data that powers our digital lives does not jeopardise ASEAN's green future. Remember, the struggle for a more sustainable ASEAN is ours to win. It's time for our data to become green.

II. Unpacking the Essence of Data Sovereignty: From Power Plays to Personal Protection


Around the world, a silent revolution is brewing. Data, the lifeblood of the digital era, is moving, seeking authority and respect. At the center of this movement is a powerful concept: data sovereignty.

While the word may conjure up ideas of geopolitical conflicts and technological superiority, its core is deeper, intertwined into the fabric of national security, personal empowerment, and the very future of a more just and equitable digital world.

1. Historical Roots:

The seeds of data sovereignty were laid in fertile ground in Europe, with the landmark General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) going into effect in 2018. This pioneering legislation recognised individuals' basic right to own their own data, igniting a global debate over privacy and protection. Even as personal liberty gained prominence, another aspect of data sovereignty emerged: national security.

2. Securing the Fortress:

In the digital era, information is power. Critical infrastructure, ranging from power grids to banking institutions, rely on digital networks to function, rendering them exposed to cyberattacks and data breaches. The 2017 WannaCry ransomware assault, which disrupted hospitals and companies around the world, is a harsh reminder of this vulnerability. Data sovereignty provides a shield, allowing states to manage their digital infrastructure and protect sensitive information from foreign intervention.

Imagine a world in which ASEAN, a region bursting with technological potential, is protected not only by physical borders but also by digital walls. By embracing data sovereignty, member states may ensure that data generated within their borders remains under their control, safeguarding key infrastructure and promoting confidence in the digital environment. Initiatives such as Thailand's Personal Data Protection Act and Indonesia's Data Centre Law exemplify this patriotic approach to securing sensitive data and protecting sovereignty.

3. Empowering the People:

But data sovereignty isn't only about creating fortresses; it's about unlocking doors. In an age where our lives are increasingly being lived online, having control over our digital imprint is critical. Data sovereignty can be the key to unlocking this potential by allowing individuals to control how their data is collected, utilised, and preserved. Singapore's MyInfo (Singpass) portal, which empowers citizens to manage their personal data, and Vietnam's emphasis on data localization, which allows individuals to select where their data is stored, are also sources of hope in this respect.

Finally, data sovereignty is not a zero-sum game. It is about achieving a delicate balance between national interests, individual rights, and economic prosperity. By focusing on green infrastructure, ethical data practices, and citizen empowerment, ASEAN can use data sovereignty to create a wealthy, safe, and sustainable digital future. Let us not forget that the fight for data sovereignty is a fight for a future in which power is distributed evenly among all citizens and nations, rather than to a select few.

III. ASEAN's Collaborative Path to Digital Sovereignty and Sustainable IT

A silent revolution is taking place across Southeast Asia's rich tapestry. Data, the lifeblood of the digital era, demands ownership and respect. At the centre of this movement is data sovereignty, a potent concept that promises not only national autonomy but also a greener, more equitable digital future for everyone. However, in order to achieve this vision, ASEAN states must realise that partnership is more than an option; it is a requirement.

1. Convergence: Where Shared Standards Pave the Way

Consider a place where data flows freely, not between faceless businesses and impenetrable borders, but through an ecosystem based on trust and shared ideals. This is the vision for regional data governance: a collaborative framework in which ASEAN states adopt best practices and standards to protect data privacy, security, and ethical use. Such convergence will not only empower individuals but also attract ethical firms, establishing a robust digital economy while upholding principles.

Singapore's "MyInfo" project, which empowers citizens to manage their personal data, and Thailand's Personal Data Protection Act provide promising examples of regional coordination. By sharing these experiences and working together on shared standards, ASEAN can establish a unified approach to data governance, transforming the region into a magnet for innovation and trust.

2. Green Grids: Powering Data with Renewables

The data centres' voracious appetite for electricity cannot be ignored. Energy consumption in ASEAN continues to climb, casting a long shadow over the region's ambitious climate ambitions. But what if these very centres might become beacons of progress, fuelled not by fossil fuels but by the region's own sun, wind, and geothermal waters?

An ASEAN data centre network fuelled by renewable energy sources offers an intriguing possibility. Member nations can pool their resources and skills to invest in large-scale renewable energy projects that will power data centres throughout the region. This not only minimises the carbon footprint, but also builds a network of connectedness and shared prosperity, guaranteeing that all nations benefit from the digital economy.

3. Knowledge Sharing: Fuelling Growth from Within

In the drive for data sovereignty and sustainable IT, no country should be left behind. Regional engagement is critical for capacity building, ensuring that all ASEAN member nations have the necessary skills and resources to succeed in the digital age. Initiatives such as cooperative training programmes, technology transfer systems, and knowledge-sharing platforms have the potential to overcome the gap, empowering poor countries and levelling the playing field for innovation.

Consider a future in which Vietnam's competence in e-waste management encourages neighbouring countries, or where Indonesia's cloud computing developments help the whole region. By embracing knowledge sharing and capacity building, ASEAN can rewrite the story of the digital divide, transforming itself into a global hub for responsible, sustainable information technology innovation.

4. A Collaborative Future Beckons

ASEAN's route to data sovereignty and sustainable IT is one of partnership rather than rivalry. ASEAN can create a successful, safe, and sustainable digital future for all by collaborating and establishing a network of shared governance, green infrastructure, and knowledge exchange. Let this be a call to action: leave the shadows of country borders behind and work together to create a data-driven ASEAN where progress is inextricably linked to the well-being of our people and the earth.

The fight for data sovereignty and sustainable IT is not only a regional issue, but a global one. By sharing its experiences and innovations, ASEAN may serve as a beacon of hope, pushing other areas to embrace collaboration and create a more equitable, environmentally friendly digital future for all. ASEAN clearly needs the use of IT and analytics to accelerate our climate action and to pivot our economies towards sustainability. How we work together towards data sovereignty and sustainable IT will be paramount to our shared future.  

IV. Future Horizons: Navigating the Evolving Landscape of Data Sovereignty and Sustainable IT

As the tide of data sovereignty and sustainable IT rises across ASEAN, a glance into the future reveals a landscape brimming with opportunity but clouded by uncertainty. Emerging technologies and shifting paradigms promise to transform the environment, necessitating both vision and caution as we move towards a data-driven future.

1. Blockchain Blossoms: Trust and Transparency Reimagined

Imagine a world in which data travel is recorded on an immutable blockchain, a decentralised ledger that ensures transparency and control. This concept, previously only seen in science fiction, is becoming a reality. Blockchain-based data management, with its intrinsic security and traceability, is well aligned with data sovereignty ideals. Individuals might recover ownership of their digital footprints, while governments could protect critical data, creating confidence and responsibility in the digital ecosystem.

Thailand's pilot project for blockchain-powered land registries and Singapore's research of blockchain for secure electronic health records provide peeks into this transformational future. However, issues remain. Scalability, energy usage, and legal frameworks must all be carefully considered to ensure blockchain's true potential as a sustainable solution.

2. Decentralized Dawn: Re-architecting the Web

Beyond data management, the internet's architecture could be altered. Decentralised internet models, based on peer-to-peer networks and distributed computers, provide an alternative to the centralised behemoths that currently dominate the online landscape. Such a future promises increased resilience, less reliance on energy-intensive data centres, and a more fair distribution of power and authority.

Consider an ASEAN driven by MeshNets, community-built networks that circumvent centralised infrastructure, or novel protocols such as InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), which ensures data resiliency and accessibility across the region. Yet, questions remain. Will decentralised models offer the same level of content monitoring and protection from malicious actors as their centralised counterparts? How can we achieve equal access and close the digital divide in a decentralised world?

3. Quantum Conundrum: Security in the Shadow of Change

Another possible game changer is approaching: quantum computing. Its tremendous computing capability could transform everything from drug discovery to materials science. The ramifications for data sovereignty and sustainable IT, however, are complex. Quantum computers have the ability to break current encryption protocols, putting sensitive information at risk.

While concerns remain, opportunities exist. Quantum-resistant encryption and post-quantum security initiatives provide hope for data protection in the quantum age. Furthermore, quantum computing has the potential to transform renewable energy research and data centre operations, contributing to a more sustainable future. The challenge is to utilise the power of quantum technology responsibly, ensuring that it serves the common good while limiting security vulnerabilities.

4. Ethical Crossroads: Choices on the Path to Progress

As we pave the way for a data-sovereign and sustainable future, ethical questions must stay at the forefront. Trade-offs and problems are unavoidable. Balancing personal privacy with the need for public safety in a data-driven age is still a difficult dance. Ensuring fair access to technology and closing the digital divide necessitates careful planning and focused initiatives.

The decisions we make now will define the digital world for years to come. By encouraging open discourse, prioritising ethical principles, and embracing sustainable practices, we can ensure that the future of data sovereignty and sustainable IT is more than just a technological marvel, but also a beacon of progress and equity for all.

The path to data sovereignty and sustainability is long and convoluted, but by navigating the changing terrain with vision and prudence, ASEAN can pave the way for a prosperous, safe, and just digital society for all. Let us embrace the difficulties and opportunities that lie ahead, ensuring that the data revolution empowers rather than enslaves, and that our digital future remains bright for future generations.

V. From Vision to Action: Forging a Collective Path to Data Sovereignty and Sustainable IT in ASEAN

Across the diverse fabric of Southeast Asia, a transformational vision is emerging. Data, the lifeblood of the digital era, is emerging from the shadows, demanding respect and authority. This is the essence of data sovereignty and sustainable IT: a daring vision in which ASEAN countries not only reclaim their digital footprints but also create a greener, more egalitarian future for everyone.

However, bringing this idea to life is not a solo effort. It necessitates a communal will, a symphony of voices and deeds that coordinate across governments, businesses, and individuals. Let us be the driving force behind this digital revolution, using policy, technology, and awareness to design a future that will shine for centuries to come.

1. The Score of Policy:

The first movement of this symphony begins with developing progressive policies. Data governance frameworks, modelled after ASEAN's Digital Economy Framework Agreement, must promote regional convergence by setting common standards for data protection, security, and ethical use. Robust data localization policies that allow governments to retain control over sensitive information become cornerstones of trust and autonomy, rather than barriers to growth.

2. Technology's Tempo:

The next movement takes technology to the forefront. We must invest in green data centres that run on our region's abundant solar, wind, and geothermal resources. Collaborative projects, such as developing an ASEAN data centre network powered by renewables, not only lower carbon footprints but also produce shared prosperity, ensuring that all nations benefit from the digital economy.

3. Public Awareness as the Chorus:

However, without public knowledge, technology and policy are merely tools. Educational initiatives must help people understand their digital rights and obligations, while also developing a culture of data ownership and sustainable IT practices. Initiatives like the ASEAN Smart Cities Network may serve as venues for knowledge sharing and capacity building, ensuring that no nation and individual falls behind in the digital transition.

4. Collaborative Crescendo:

This symphony of action is not limited to national lines. Collaboration is the crescendo, the tremendous symphony that propels ASEAN to worldwide leadership in data sovereignty and sustainable IT. Existing venues, such as the ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement, serve as starting pads for regional dialogue and information exchange. We must welcome collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders, including civil society, academia, and the commercial sector, with each contributing to the creation of a future that we can all be proud of.

The route ahead is not without difficulties. Navigating the changing terrain of developing technologies, resolving ethical quandaries, and closing the digital divide necessitate persistent attention and collaboration. However, by embracing collaboration, innovation, and a shared vision, ASEAN can turn the data revolution into a positive force, ensuring that our digital future is not only prosperous, but also sustainable, equitable, and environmentally friendly.

So let's lift our voices and join the chorus. Let us be the architects of a future in which data empowers rather than exploits, and growth coexists with the well-being of our people and the environment. Together, we can realise the full promise of data sovereignty and sustainable IT, creating a symphony of progress that will resound throughout ASEAN and beyond.

Remember that the future of data is not written in the stars, but in the collective acts we do today. Let us rise to the challenge, collaborate, and create a brighter digital future than ever before.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Alex Hong is the Executive Director of Digipulse Data and strategic advisor. He is the Chief Sustainability Coordinator of the Youth Networking Business Committee (YNBC). Alex is LinkedIn’s Top Voices (Green) in Singapore 2022 and represents the Global Blockchain Business Council (GBBC) as the Ambassador of Southeast Asia.

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