Limits to digitalization: Exploring the transition challenges of Norwegian data centers

Energy transition hopes hinge on digitalization's ability to dematerialize. However, the digital is material. The cloud is a metaphor, made up of tangible infrastructure and data centers that rely on human and environmental inputs. Their overlooked footprints, massive and rising, jeopardize sustainability. Looking past cloud metaphors, we address data center footprints and conflicts. With unparalleled access to a secretive industry and broad participation from policy actors with conflicting digital agendas, L2D builds knowledge on the role of digitalization in Norway's energy transition.


Research Council of Norway award 344115, 2023-2027

Research partners and contact points: 

NTNU Social Research: Mads Dahl Gjefsen (PI), Lucia Liste, Berit Nilsen, Torgeir Haavik

NTNU Department of Social Anthropology: Jens Røyrvik

Boston University Institute for Global Sustainability: Benjamin Sovacool, Ayse Coskun, Can Hankendi

Reference group:

Norwegian Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development

Norwegian Communications Authority

Invest in Norway

Norwegian Data Center Industry

Løten municipality

Hadsel municipality

Hamar municipality Skien municipality

Vennesla municipality

Vågå municipality 

Advisory board:

Dr. Julia Velkova, Linköping University

Dr. Kris Kok, VU Amsterdam

Dr. Marius Korsnes, NTNU

Dr. Knut Jørgen Vie, University of Oslo


The energy transition tends to foreground the efficiency of energy-intensive industries over energy sufficiency. Limits to digitalization (L2D) will address this paradox by studying digital infrastructures (e.g., data centers) to explore the socio-environmental implications of digitalization. L2D will develop a conceptual framework for digital infrastructure sufficiency, thus contributing to the challenges outlined in the portfolio plan through addressing knowledge gaps around energy and material consumption and local impacts of data center establishments, seen against the beneficial prospects of digitalization through improved efficiency, de-materialization, and value-creation. Fundamentally, L2D asks whether these tensions imply a need for "limits" to digitalization, and what such limits might look like. 

L2D explores Twin Transition challenges through the lens of Norwegian data centers. We consider energy transitions' impacts on society, climate, and nature, through the on-going attempt by Norway to become a global hub for digital infrastructure, justified by reference to digitalization's environmental, climate, and societal benefits. Norwegian decision makers at all levels struggle to make sense of and govern the trade-offs around data center establishments. Through a novel partnership with Norwegian municipalities, national policy makers, and industry, L2D conducts local case studies, studies national governance in a cross-national comparative perspective, and helps shape the emerging frameworks around this nascent industry. The project's unprecedented access to and collaboration with the notoriously secretive data center industry aims to hold Norwegian industry partners accountable to the highest international standards, and enable leading scientific partners to develop knowledge and tools for improved decision-making and transparency around energy and data center governance.



NEWS 2023 $1.1 Million Awarded to Joint Study on Impacts of Data Centers in Norway's Clean Energy Transition

Funding supports research collaboration between NTNU Social Research and Boston University July 13, 2023 – As Norway strives to position itself as a hub for global digital infrastructure—building data centers for cloud storage and processing—questions about the benefits and tradeoffs of digitalization are being brought to the forefront of its sustainability policy.

NEWS 2023 Først da Universitetsavisa ringte, fikk de den glade nyheten: - Er det sant?

27 prosjekter får 300 millioner kroner fra Forskningsrådet. Mads Dahl Gjefsen i NTNU samfunnsforskning leder et av dem.

NYHETER 2023 Får 12 millioner av Forskningsrådet for å forske på datalagringsindustrien i samarbeid med seks kommuner

NTNU Samfunnsforsknings Mads Dahl Gjefsen er prosjektleder for «Limits to digitalization: Exploring the transition challenges of Norwegian data centers». Nå har han og kolleger fått 12 millioner kroner av Norsk forskningsråd for å undersøke utviklingen av Norges nye datalagringsindustri med kommunene Vennesla, Skien, Vågå, Hamar, Løten og Hadsel med på laget.

NEW PUBLICATION 2024 Transforming Sufficiently? Data Centers and the Paradoxes of Digital Infrastructure

Based on an exploratory study of local, national, and professional media narratives during Europe's energy crisis in 2022, we analyze digital infrastructure's attendant contradictions and new uncertainties using a paradox approach. We highlight gaps in, and suggest future research priorities for, normative ethical frameworks for digital sufficiency.


Project results 

All project results are made accessible according to open access principles via the project site at the Current Research Information System in Norway (CRISTIN)

Grant overview 

For information on the project funding see the Project Bank website hosted by the Research Council of Norway (RCN) (award number 344115) 


For questions or more information contact Mads Dahl Gjefsen, NTNU Social Reserach (PI):

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