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How tech can help Southeast Asia stay cool without overheating the earth

How tech can help Southeast Asia stay cool without overheating the earth

Southeast Asia is caught in a vicious cycle, in which maintaining the temperatures we need to live and work contributes to global warming. Here’s how Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) and our partners are leveraging tech to change this.
Image of air-conditioner outside of building

By Edwin Low

Thirty percent of people worldwide are vulnerable to deadly heat exposure due to climate change. That is, unless you're reading this from somewhere in Southeast Asia: then the number is likely much higher.

Already, heat waves in Ho Chi Minh City, Bangkok, and Manila have seen temperatures soar past 40 degrees Celsius in the worst-affected areas, exceeding the International Labour Organisation’s heat-stress threshold of 35-degree Celsius in high humidity. In Singapore, most of us have the luxury of air-conditioning, but it’s a sad irony that cooler indoor temperatures are driving hotter temperatures outdoors because of the energy air conditioners consume. 

This is particularly important in Southeast Asia, which is one of the world’s fastest-growing internet markets. Technology is widely considered essential to the region’s development goals. Booming data consumption will drive demand for more data centres (DCs) and a greater need to keep energy-hungry server rooms cool, no mean feat in a climate where there is limited natural cooling and extra energy is needed to dehumidify air and protect IT equipment from moisture.

For industrial facilities like DCs and semiconductor plants, cooling can take up to 40% of total energy usage on average. Meanwhile, for commercial buildings such as malls, offices, or hotels, that figure goes up to 60%. That’s because centralised air-conditioning is usually left to run at a fixed speed. However, when a building’s load drops, for example on a chilly day outside or during after-office hours, a mere one to two-degree tweak in air-conditioning settings can save massive amounts of energy. 

Because they lack data and are uncertain about what to adjust, how, and by how much, facility managers prefer to play it safe and default to overcooling instead of conserving electricity. Better to waste it, they think, than to accidentally overheat a server room and cause an outage of essential digital services, or risk receiving complaints about it being too hot indoors from disgruntled tenants and customers.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. By finding ways to cool buildings more efficiently, we can have a significant impact on companies’ emissions and save them money. That is why IMDA has partnered with energy efficiency startups Red Dot Analytics and Barghest Building Performance (bbp) through our Accreditation programme. These companies are using technology to optimise cooling energy usage, pre-empt equipment performance and maintenance issues, and even facilitate sustainability reporting. By accrediting promising startups and supporting them to scale, we hope to drive Singapore’s innovation ecosystem to deliver global solutions.

Deep tech to decarbonise deep tech

Red Dot Analytics (RDA) was co-founded by Chief Scientist Prof. Wen Yonggang, Creative Lead Angelina Terlaki, and Head of Business Strategy & Development Calvin Sun. RDA provides a digital twin platform for DC management that helps clients including BDx and Alibaba Cloud optimise energy usage through automation and smart recommendations.

Group photo of Red Dot Analytics (RDA)
[Image: Courtesy of Red Dot Analytics]

“Few people think about their carbon footprint in terms of daily online activity, but every Google search, every video call generates data that needs to be stored on a server somewhere,” says Terlaki. RDA’s creation can be traced back to Prof. Wen’s earlier research in multimedia communications systems, which he says demanded large server farms and threw computing’s enormous energy footprint into stark relief.

In 2019, rising concerns about DCs’ environmental impact led Singapore’s government to impose a moratorium on new projects, which was later lifted with capacity limits and a precondition that operators work with local technology providers on energy efficiency. RDA’s moment had arrived, but not without obstacles.

We were a young startup and large clients saw us as high-risk, They insisted we work with third-party system integrators who took a large cut of our revenues

Prof. Wen Yonggang

Chief Scientist, Red Dot Analytics (RDA)

To establish its credentials and build more direct relationships, RDA joined IMDA’s Accreditation programme. IMDA prompted RDA to evaluate its product and business model and “get more organised”, which quickly increased customers’ trust. The programme also gave exposure to potential clients and partners through industry networking events.

These days, clients can use RDA’s technology to build a digital twin, simulate operations, and generate a carbon footprint report to facilitate a data centre’s Green Mark certification long before breaking ground. The company is also collaborating with ESG platform STACS (another IMDA-accredited company) to connect DC operators to sustainable finance opportunities for both brownfield and greenfield projects. “We want to keep diversifying and delivering value to our customers,” says Prof. Wen.

From guesswork to precision: the path to net zero

bbp, meanwhile, was founded in Singapore in 2012 and serves clients including three of the world’s top ten semiconductor manufacturers, Fortune 500 companies, and some of Southeast Asia’s top commercial building operators. “If you're a business owner or asset operator and you want to decarbonise, cooling has to be one of your key levers,” says CEO Hoe Boon Chye.

bbp’s solution – comprising hardware, software, and a patented control strategy – is paired with a unique business model that absorbs upfront costs of installation and implementation. The company’s fees are based on a portion of real energy savings delivered, which are independently audited and verified by third parties such as TÜV SÜD.

Three man working in-front of computers and monitors on wall
[Image: courtesy of bbp]

Buildings in Singapore tend to be significantly more energy-efficient than their regional counterparts, thanks to the push provided by the Building Construction Authority’s Green Mark. Hoe explains that in other markets where energy has been heavily subsidised for decades, the motivation to optimise is weak. The silver lining for bbp is that most business owners are always looking for cost savings, and Southeast Asia’s wide efficiency gap means greater potential gains for clients to realize returns much faster.

Dramatic cost savings have not always been enough to win customers over, however. “Ten years ago, nobody knew us,” says Hoe, “now, a stamp of approval from a global leader like IMDA gives us a lot of credibility with large clients. Our sales pitch decks always end with our IMDA-accredited status.” bbp is in partnership talks with other IMDA-accredited companies to pair complementary solutions and provide clients multi-pronged, tailored approaches to meet their net-zero targets. 

As climate change continues to transform the world, building a connected ecosystem of innovators will be key to solving its most pressing issues. “I don't think there's a solution that can help companies reach net-zero alone,” says Hoe: “it needs to be a concerted, collaborative effort.” 

IMDA and IMDA Accreditation logos

IMDA Accreditation Programme

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Edwin Low is the Director of Enterprise & Ecosystem Development at Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). 

Edwin uncovers opportunities in business deals, regional expansion, and fundraising for promising tech companies under the IMDA Accreditation and Spark programmes, to enable market access and pivot their growth curve. Portfolio companies that Edwin and his team worked with have gone on to drive impactful projects across sectors in their digital transformation.

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