“Reciprocal Innovation” Framework Planned

MSL has partnered with TFE Energy and Carnegie Mellon University Africa to plan the development of a “reciprocal innovation” framework, connecting the industrialized and emerging economies, in the area of distributed and off-grid energy systems. This framework will begin with a structured workshop, gathering global thought leaders from the technology, finance, and policy domains, and designed to promote creative and synergistic problem solving and sharing of ideas and inspirations. 

Carnegie Mellon, a leading U.S. research university, operates a campus in Kigali, Rwanda with a major focus on the emerging knowledge-based economy on the African continent. CMU Africa’s graduate programs are educating future leaders who will use their hands-on, experiential learning to advance technology innovation and grow the businesses that will transform Africa.

TFE Energy, a unit of TFE Consulting, is an EU- and Africa-based, values-led energy business, whose scope includes renewable energy technologies and energy access. TFE Consulting is an international advisory business supporting leading companies, investors, international lenders, organizations, and governments, with deep experience in Europe, South Asia, and Africa. 


Significant progress is being made throughout the world on accelerating the deployment of distributed and off-grid energy systems, including microgrids and minigrids. With few exceptions, this progress has occurred along two parallel – but fully independent – tracks: work in the industrialized world, oriented toward grid modernization; and work in the developing world, oriented toward energy access.

While these two “theaters” present very different challenges, opportunities, and constraints, they also hold a number of principles in common, including decentralized architectures and integration of local renewable generation; and this combination of commonalities across differences suggests the potential for a rewarding interchange of ideas.

We will convene the facilitated workshop as the first step in developing the “reciprocal innovation” framework, and an associated field of practice. The term reciprocal innovation is meant to convey that this is a two-way and reiterative process, that can begin with innovation sourced from either theater to foster a synergistic collaborative process. Points of reference that support this type of approach include the Santa Fe Institute’s cross-disciplinary workshop method,[1] and theories of creativity that rely on the concept of bringing diverse points of view to bear on a problem.[2] And there are numerous examples of innovations that originate in the especially challenging and resource-constrained environments of the developing world that go on to influence product and service design in more developed economies.[3]

Participants & Outcomes

We anticipate approximately 20 participants in the workshop, by invitation, and drawn equally from the two theaters. They will be selected according to the following criteria: deep domain expertise; creative problem-solving capacity; innovative practice; and exposure to the full breadth of progress across theaters and geographic regions. MSL and TFE principles will serve as facilitators, supported by an advisory committee representing leading organizations in the relevant domains, including the Africa Minigrid Developers AssociationHOMER Energy, PowerGen Renewable Energy, and others TBD. Academic Co-PI’s are Nathan Williams, Special Faculty member in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), and a visiting instructor at the CMU Africa campus in Rwanda; and Seth Blumsack, Professor of Energy Policy and Economics and International Affairs, Pennsylvania State University, External Faculty, Santa Fe Institute.

A white paper will be prepared for publication, summarizing the workshop process, results, and findings. Participants will be tasked with developing guidelines for further evolution of the field, which may include working groups focused on specific areas of innovation; project-based collaborations; and organizational infrastructure to continue the work and plan additional workshops.

In addition, all resources and outputs will be made available via suitable industry channels such as the Green Minigrid Helpdesk. The workshop is conceptualized as an on-going, evolving exercise and as such efforts will be made to maintain momentum and promote the creation of a supportive network of practitioners and influencers. Towards this end and as far as possible, local knowledge/action hubs will be created (hosted by local partner organizations, for example the Strathmore Energy Research Centre in Nairobi) that will foster continued interaction at both the local and international level.

Ultimately, we envision an enduring field of inquiry and practice designed to promote cross-theater synergy on an ongoing basis. Inquiries from potential sponsors are encouraged; please contact the project director.

[1] E.g., SFI’s workshop The Growing Gap between our Physical and Social Technologies

[2] E.g., Johansson’s “The Medici Effect” which contends that “…the most powerful innovation happens… where ideas and concepts from diverse industries, cultures, and disciplines collide.”

[3] E.g., Engineering Reverse Innovations, Harvard Business Review July-August 2015