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Shifting to a form of growth that is more environmentally friendly calls into question most of our economic practices and thus our skills. Consequently, higher education must also rethink its courses. Delphine Manceau, NEOMA school dean, and Nicolas Béfort, director of the Chair in Bioeconomy and Sustainable Develop discuss the options.  

If we don’t take action in the next three years, climate change will likely become disastrous. This was the warning from the latest report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In this field, “higher education has a central role to play,”  Delphine Manceau, NEOMA dean, said in a March 2022 column in Figaro Etudiants. That means in particular business schools that are training the managers of tomorrow.  What skills do they need to teach them to develop a responsible business? First, the ability to have “a cross-functional and comprehensive outlook,” the school dean said. “Environmental concerns involve elements relating to biology, the physical sciences, geology, as well as economics, management, sociology and more,” Nicolas Béfort, NEOMA professor and director of the Chair in Bioeconomy and Sustainable Development, said, “It’s not simply a matter of swapping out a technology like a chemical pesticide for a natural one, for example, to solve an ecological issue. It involves the entire value chain, including all the means of production and transformation, economic models, commercial strategies, which need to be reformed. “Managers need to be able to develop new tools and explore other economic forms,” Nicolas Béfort said.

Know how mediate between two imperfect technological solutions

But only one cross-functional and comprehensive outlook is not enough to succeed in the ecological transition. Managers also need to know how to make realistic and operational choices. “We need to help tomorrow’s decisionmakers to not only understand the economic equations for each technical solution, but also to know how to evaluate options based on many, different criteria, various environmental and energy impacts, and assess the social acceptability,” Nicolas Béfort said.  

What is the best solution for the environment, an electric or hydrogen car? Is the use of these apparently cleaner technologies really more beneficial? Free from the guilty conscience of a combustion-engine vehicle, aren’t users likely to drive more (which is called the rebound effect) and in the end expand their carbon footprint? “Technological solutions are imperfect and never profitable at the beginning. Decisionmakers thus need to be able to push forward projects, while reflecting on their applications and their economic sustainability,” Nicolas said. “It’s for these complex challenges that we need to instruct and prepare our youth,” Delphine Manceau said.

Know how to shift from a standardisation economy to a variety-based economy

Once the decision is made, you still need to lead this transition, drive the change and turn ideas into strategy. This requires new skills. “When a company is going through a transformation, it must continue to do business,” Nicola Béfort said. “The engineers need to be taught about economics and transition management.” This means learning to go from one model to another, from a standardisation economy to a variety economy, from short term to long term, from assured profitability to uncertain profitability, while ensuring not to exceed the limits of the planet’s energy renewal, which means knowing how the natural and physical sciences work.

Thus only “a resolutely scientific and multi-disciplinary approach will open the path towards a truly responsible business,” Delphine Manceau said, “The model for this is the Netherlands,” Nicola Béfort said. “At the end of the 1990s, the Dutch government invested million to launch research and generate knowledge and to set up transition programmes. This was met with great success.” In France, we’re not there yet. “Our higher education is often a single-discipline model. Few programmes break down borders between skills and forms of knowledge, with few integrating biology and physics instruction with philosophy and ethics courses.” Even if Delphine Manceau is delighted with the significant developments in academic courses over the past few years.

NEOMA is already opening disciplines  

The ideal programme is a double major in business culture and sciences that combines scientific knowledge, economic activity and societal challenges. “Cooperation between institutions dedicated to engineering and agronomy sciences with institutions devoted to management, for example, have largely shown the value in it,” Delphine Manceau said.

In this field, NEOMA has not been outdone, as Nicolas Béfort says. For twenty-five years, the Masternova programme has been fully in line with this approach. This Advanced Masters (AM) in Innovation Management in Agro-activities and Bio-industries offers a dual skillset in life sciences and managerial disciplines to benefit innovative projects in the fields of agribusiness, healthcare, biotechnologies, cosmetics and plant-based chemistry.

And what about the NEOMA Chair in Bioeconomy, which has been fully committed since 2021 to this pursuit of turning the new generation into the decoders of the ecological transition? The challenge is clear: move beyond the short-view opinions and judgements of these subjects to establish proper diagnostics (which are often complex) and ultimately, through the research work, identify viable solutions. “We have taken much inspiration from what has been done outside France to build our project,” the dean said. “We’ve embraced this multi-disciplinary approach by bringing together a dozen professors from several disciplines including marketing, economics, management and more. We’ve been working with biologists and engineers as well.” This kind of approach also suits engineering and management students because there are now many more young people who want to reduce their impact on the planet rather than optimise the performance of the latest smartphones. IPCC can now breathe a bit easier.