How smart is Boulder SmartGridCity?

Here is an article that alleges that Boulder, Colorado's SmartGridCity project is in deep trouble. The article has a long laundry list of problems, but what jumped out at me is the list of so-called "partners." If you look at the SmartGridCity Partners page, you can see the root problem of this project is too many cooks. Just the administrative overhead of supporting this list of high priced consulting firms would sink any project. And the descriptions that accompany each partner reads like one of those buzz-phrase generators you find online. Here are a sampling of the buzz phrases:

  • ...intelligent distribution assets
  • ...fully integrated...solution
  • ...intelligent network
  • innovation
  • ...fully integrated
  • of breed
  • ...connecting customers to...investment decisions

So you have at least seven companies with seven proprietary and very likely incompatible technology "solutions" that are going to use taxpayer dollars to try to do a mash up of their stuff that will somehow save money. These kinds of efforts never work, in part because if you start with seven complex technologies, it is impossible to make them less complex by combining them. Fifty years of software development studies have shown this over and over again. It's not that different than Fred Brooks' mythical man month treatise, in which he showed that adding more workers to a software project already late just makes it later--in large part because adding more workers makes the development process more complex. The same principle is likely at work here. Adding more complex power management software to an already complex design makes it even more complex and, as study after study has shown, more error prone.

Here at Design Nine, we call ourselves "broadband architects" or "information architects." We work the way the traditional architect works--we do a clean, coherent high level design for our clients first, develop the financing and funding strategies needed to show the client how it will pay for itself, and then and only then do we go out to vendors.

My guess is that Smart Grid City ended up with seven or more "design" firms all trying to gain an advantage for their own stuff, and Boulder ended up with a mess. It's as if you wanted a house built, and instead of having an architect produce the design and supervise the construction, you told the plumber, the carpenters, the electrician, and the drywall guys to get together and come up with something. It's called "design by committee," and it is never pretty.

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Andrew.. As someone that saw this coming a long time ago, (Boulder has technically had 3--or was it 4?--different fiber build-outs in the space of 2 years) and as a Boulder resident, I think--despite your "too many cooks" assessment--the real issue is the cost overruns created by "changes in corporate direction" inside Xcel.

This one issue has ultimately created a SGC rate case before the Colorado PUC. (ie Xcel has asked the PUC to have Colorado rate payers foot a significant part of the extra cost of building out Boulder's SGC) Amd.. did I mention that Xcel might also be losing its francise agreement with the City of Boulder--which is up for renewal shortly.

Amazing how a good project can suffer at the hands of a corp. power struggle at the top--no matter how good your network design is. Food for thought..