Taking care of planet Earth

Business Impact: Taking care of planet Earth
Business Impact: Taking care of planet Earth

To take care of business and ensure its longevity, we must take care of the Earth. That’s the message of Audencia’s new school for ecological and social transition, Gaïa. 

In Greek mythology, Gaia is the personification of the Earth, and she has therefore become a natural choice for those seeking to preserve the environment; not least after the Gaia hypothesis – a theory centred on the mechanics of a complex system that shapes the Earth’s biosphere and maintains it as a fit environment for life – came to prominence in the late 1970s. 

At Audencia, Gaïa aims to further multidisciplinary understanding to help students and business take better care of the Earth. As environmental movements and awareness gather pace, it has begun by offering a programme for business students within Audencia’s Grande École master’s in management programme, as well as executive education modules for companies.

The school is headed up by Audencia professor José Maillet, who has a firm focus on climate solutions. The course he developed on economics and energy transition in 2019, for example, has now been integrated into the basic knowledge base of Audencia students and taken by more than 1,000 participants.

In this interview, Maillet tells Business Impact more about the programme for students, its aims and the responsibility of business education towards addressing environmental concerns.

What is the problem that the Gaïa programme is trying to solve in business education?

The devastating consequences of global warming, the collapse of biodiversity and the widening of inequalities (to name a few) place us in an emergency situation and oblige us, at the same time, to accelerate and to make the choice of a certain form of radicality.

This is the whole point of Gaïa, the first school of ecological and social transition backed by a business school. Gaïa is not just a programme for Audencia students; this is a school that caters to a much wider audience. Audencia employees, companies and many of its stakeholders already benefit from Gaïa’s expertise. Further programmes will appear in 2023 for students from a wide variety of backgrounds.

The new programme at Gaïa is an optional track on the Grand École master’s in management programme. What proportion of Grand École students have chosen this in the programme’s first year, and how do you expect this number to change over the coming three years?

Initially, we estimated that about 10 per cent of our intake of 500 students would be motivated by the Gaïa course [available in the Master 1, or M1, segment of the Grande École programme]. But as early as February this year, while the programme was in preparation, we discovered growing enthusiasm from Audencia students for these topics. All the recent major climatic events – the megafires, the floods, and now the war in Ukraine – have made many students aware of the relevance of a transversal education, combining hard sciences (physics, climatology, biology), human sciences and management sciences.

In the end, 193 out of an intake of 550 students joined the Gaïa course in September. A recent survey shows that a large number of first-year students want to join this course next year. It is therefore very likely that we will have even more Gaïa students in 2023.

Do you think a programme like Gaïa could or should become a mandatory part of the Grande École master’s in management programme?

The teaching of ecological and social transition topics is not new at Audencia. Students can choose the ‘CSR Track’ in their first year, but whatever track they choose, all students follow a compulsory course of 24 hours [on these topics] in the first year of the Grande École programme.

By the end of this course, they will already have a clear vision of the major changes to come. The specific aim of Gaïa is to allow students motivated by transition subjects to go faster and further, to experiment and ultimately offer them a truly transformative experience.

Audencia does not aim to train only managers of ecological and social transition. Other professions with strong technical expertise remain essential to the implementation of a successful ecological and social transition. For example, the school trains highly technical financial experts, capable of integrating environmental and social issues into management tools.

On the other hand, at Gaïa we train ecological and social transition managers with a solid background in finance, making it possible to take on board the necessary changes in this sector. Both sets of expertise are complementary. This kind of synergy already exists in certain disciplines. For instance, today’s biology research needs not only biologists, but also computer scientists with knowledge of biology to produce more relevant results. It is this kind of synergy between technical experts who understand Gaïa topics and managers of ecological and social transition that we seek to develop.

The Gaïa programme is divided into seven mandatory courses and three electives; which single course are you most excited by, and why?

There are plenty of amazing courses. One example is Climate Intelligence. First, the students learn about the works of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and climate forecasts for 2030, 2040, 2050 and 2100. They will then meet real companies that are questioning their own future. For 12 hours, the students will support those companies and help design business models according to the IPCC scenarios.

Working to anticipate and provide clarity about a highly uncertain future deeply engages both students and company executives, who discover a very different future from the one they had anticipated in their traditional business models.

How important is a multidisciplinary approach to the management of environmental and social issues?

Students have become aware of our dependence on the living world and know that there will be no more business if we do not take care of others and the planet earth. Everyone understood that we had to develop new business models, products, services and practices capable of creating new balances that are necessarily sustainable and inclusive. But we still need to understand the world around us to take care of it.

The true understanding of fundamental biological mechanisms, climate inertia, rebound effects and fossil energy dependence are all part of enabling our students to adopt a systemic vision of the challenges to come. Dismantling companies’ traditional management practices and enabling them to go beyond their own perimeters are major challenges necessary to tackle for the transition. Multidisciplinarity reduces blind spots and allows for a better understanding of the complexity of the world. This additional acuity is also very stimulating for our students.

What else has Gaïa, the school of ecological and social transition, done since its launch last year?

We have developed four executive education modules for companies. These four modules are a gateway to understanding the need to transform an organisation in order to adapt to the major changes to come. These executive programmes have been a great success with managers and business leaders. For Audencia employees, we also offer ecological and social training throughout the year.

Can you tell our readers more about the findings of the ClimatSup Business project ahead of the release of its final report in November?

I do not yet know the exact conclusions of the report, but it should show the importance of decompartmentalising expertise in management, academic research and pedagogy. Many teachers/researchers have expertise related to ecological and social transition, but there are not enough links between these areas of expertise to reinvent our ways of producing, working, consuming and living together. We probably need more sharing of our internal expertise on these topics to better help future managers make the transition.

What is the responsibility of business schools in helping to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals? Are you optimistic that they will be achieved by their target dates? 

Scientific and technical lessons related to energy, climate and biodiversity are essential, but they do not allow us to make the transitions that we so badly need. Proof of this is that 2022 will mark the highest level of net CO2 emissions ever recorded.

Engineers have been working for years on technical solutions aimed at improving efficiency, decarbonising and regenerating but they are not yet equipped to give society the inspiration and impetus to carry out the huge ecological and social transition projects that are required.

To get companies on board, we need inspiring and motivating narratives, something that marketing does very well. We also need competent HR experts who are aware of employees’ present and future energy constraints; business strategists who are capable of integrating environmental issues into the heart of companies’ business models; financiers and accountants who take into account biodiversity, climate, and energy challenges and ramifications to meet future compliance requirements.

Engineering schools do not train people in these skills specifically, so it is up to business schools and management universities to do so. Engineers know what to do to decarbonise, but they do not know how to ensure that this project is shared and carried out collectively.

Gaïa, by reconciling hard sciences with social sciences and business, offers solutions to this problem. But the effort must be made collectively, with academic partners, companies, states, NGOs and individuals. Will we be able to go fast enough in the transitions to avoid a bleak future? At Gaïa, we will do everything in our power to achieve this goal.

Jose Maillet

José Maillet is professor of ecological and social transition at Audencia, where he also leads Gaïa, the school for ecological and social transition. 

This article originally appeared in the print edition (November 2022) of Business Impact, magazine of the Business Graduates Association (BGA).

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