Jake Whitcomb, SDM ’12: Sustainability Requires Systems Engineering

Jake Whitcomb By Eric Smalley
February 1, 2012

Early in life, Jake Whitcomb, SDM ’12, was a world-class competitive cross-country skier. Several years spent training in Norway exposed the American to a more sustainable society. "What I found was a country that was living in a more sophisticated, more technologically advanced way, and with a lot of community attributes—and they’re doing it using half the energy [compared to the United States]," said Whitcomb.

Whitcomb went on to found a company designed to help businesses and consumers reduce their environmental impact through clean energy investments. Later he launched a sustainability consulting practice for large consumer enterprises, including Coca-Cola and 1% for the Planet. A year and a half ago, he heard a presentation at MIT’s annual Conference on Systems Thinking for Contemporary Challenges by Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management John Sterman, which centered on Sterman’s work at the Copenhagen climate change conference. Sterman’s team used climate models and systems dynamics to show that by settling for politically feasible solutions, the world’s governments were destined to fall short of addressing the challenges presented by climate change.

That talk inspired Whitcomb to refocus his work on energy. The shift would require assembling skills in engineering complex systems, systems dynamics, and the management of product research and development (R&D) and design. Whitcomb believed MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program offered the best path to acquiring these. Whether for the purposes of addressing climate change, increasingly carbon-constrained markets, poverty alleviation, or energy security, "energy is the biggest lever we can pull right now, and we’ll need to combine engineering and social sciences to do that," said Whitcomb.

Whitcomb joined SDM to formalize his understanding of how R&D can best create the tools people need to practice sustainability. Improving design requires a systems perspective that merges "state-of-the-art technology, the politics of deployment, and the social sciences behind how we actually make this shift," Whitcomb said.

In addition to gaining access to MIT researchers working at the cutting edge of energy, joining the SDM program gives Whitcomb the opportunity to study alongside "some of the leading thinkers and doers from about every industry you can imagine," he said. "My background is in engagement—the technology and marketing side of energy and the environment—and that’s a unique angle to bring to an engineering program."

Whitcomb co-founded Brighter Planet while studying economics as an undergraduate at Middlebury College in 2005. The company raised $3.7 million and launched an industry-leading environmental credit and debit card rewards program and a sustainability web service. "The big problem—and also opportunity—that we identified was that 80 percent of Americans consider themselves environmentalists, but there are very few that are acting on those values outside of actions like recycling," said Whitcomb.

In 2008, Whitcomb started a consulting practice that helped corporations and nonprofits create sustainability programs and engagement strategies. He worked with Coca-Cola to make their marketing events environmentally sustainable, including the company’s sponsorship activities at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He also helped the nonprofit 1% for the Planet, a network of businesses that gave over $20 million to environmental causes (including Gulf Coast oil relief) in 2011 alone, to expand its global reach threefold.

As effective as these programs have been, today’s energy challenges require a broader perspective, said Whitcomb. "We need breakthrough innovations in low-carbon technologies to get the economics and accessibility pieces right," he said. "Folks like Bill Gates are saying we need to design miracles, and I very much agree with that—you can let [the challenge] freeze you, or you can let it move you."

A new SDM Fellow, Whitcomb aims to apply systems dynamics and complex systems management to promote new energy delivery technologies.

Jake Whitcomb is on the organizing team for the 2012 MIT Sustainability Summit. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jakewhitcomb

Jake Whitcomb
Photo by Kathy Tarantola Photography