A B-School First: How This Emlyon Dean Is Pushing The Boundaries Of Classroom Innovation

Thomas Gauthier, Emlyon’s associate dean in pedagogy in the anthropocene

Thomas Gauthier’s journey is redefining business education, challenging norms and fostering a new era of strategic thinking. And it’s happening at Emlyon Business School

A year and a half ago, Emlyon’s dean offered Gauthier the position of Associate Dean for Pedagogical Innovation. After consideration, he turned down the offer — and instead said he would be happy to accept a different role: Associate Dean for Pedagogy in the Anthropocene. This fall, Gauthier officially stepped into that newly created position, making him the first with the title at any business school, anywhere.

The Anthropocene is the epoch when human activity first began to have an impact on Earth. How does this pertain to business school? “We are recognizing for the very first time in history,” Gauthier tells Poets&Quants, “that there are biophysical limits to how we can organize ourselves.” 


In Emlyon’s core course Sustainable Futures, which was launched in 2018, Gauthier teaches his students to think about business differently, in a way that transcends the boundaries of innovation.

“The world of organizations functions one way today,” he says, “However, pedagogy in the Anthropocene opens up the hypothesis that the world may be organized differently tomorrow.” 

Sustainable Futures is a live case-based course, where participants meet with leadership of an organization and engage in a thorough analysis of the company’s worldviews — a process that varies greatly from one organization to the next. Consider the examples of Elon Musk and Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia. “They both have very different world views,” Gauthier says, “and they connect with the Earth in very different ways.”

The companies examined in the course are anywhere from multinationals to family businesses. Students seek and identify the driving forces at play in the environment within which the company operates, and try to get at the impacts on the organization are have gone unaddressed or are misunderstood or unimaginable from the viewpoint of the leadership. They then use their findings to strategize that company’s future, crafting narratives of alternative plausible futures that go beyond what the organization currently envisions.

Participants then stage these scenarios — much like plays — and case organization leaders get a chance to step into their own roles.

“This allows them to experience their own alternative futures, with the goal of creating experiences of their possible futures to improve their future stances — here and now, in the present,” Gauthier says. 


sustainability at business schoolsGauthier teaches under the umbrella of a concept he first heard of on a train ride in the Netherlands called “foresight,” also sometimes referred to as scenario planning. By definition, foresight describes practices, methods, tools and techniques that help organizations actively explore alternative futures and make informed decisions in order to make wise decisions in the present. 

“Frankly, I fell in love with what this was all about – exploring alternative futures and questioning the present by trying to imagine unprecedented times.” This way of thinking stems from the realization that societies won’t always be structured the way they are today. 

“This takes a deliberate effort,” says Gauthier. “It takes letting go of what we know of the past, letting go of expecting that the future is going to be a pale copy of the past, then engaging with your imagination to explore unprecedented futures.” 

Gauthier often refers to the movie called “The Game” in his class, directed by David Fincher, which is all about staging immersive experiences and sometimes referred to as design fiction. 

He aims to help those in management science and Earth systems better understand each other where they have traditionally faced challenges when it comes to understanding each other. 


In exploring pedagogy in the Anthropocene, Gauthier and his colleagues have identified three “tensions.” The first centers on the push for sustainable development while recognizing the need to design a habitable world.

The second is in regard to whether they should focus solely on expanding the scope of futures or also get students (and case organization representatives) to learn to recognize and close down obsolete futures. The third, he says, addresses whether their goal should be to teach students to excel in discussing the world, or graduate students who have learned and practiced the art of empathetically diving into and engaging with the specific challenges faced by real business leaders. 

“I am inclined to favor the second track every time,” says Gauthier. 

Gauthier studied physics and chemistry and biology, obtained his master’s from MIT, held diverse research roles, and pursued a doctorate in clinical medicine at Imperial College London. Seeking to become a foresight professional and now striving to redefine the discipline in the context of the Anthropocene and planetary boundaries, he found a role at emlyon business school, where he’s now a permanent faculty member and holds the Carbone 4 chair “Strategy in the Anthropocene.” 

“There are many outstanding business schools out there, and many students have a tough time deciding where to go, which school to select. I wish for my school to be recognized as a place where students can come and grow into philosophers in action. I consider business schools to be well positioned to train philosophers in action, to train young professionals,” notes Gauthier. 


Gauthier hopes to introduce an interactive conference which is tentatively called Strategies in the Anthropocene, where the school would welcome business leaders who are said to have taken unprecedented strategic direction and now operate based upon an “Anthropocene inside” worldview. 

In the conference, Gauthier says the business leaders would explain their decision-making process and stop and ask participants what they would have done if the students were in their shoes.

This would give students a chance to put all their knowledge to practice in the disciplines they have studied to construct a decision, share their decision, then learn from leaders how they proceeded to align their business decision with a genuine, all-encompassing appreciation for the Anthropocene, defining wicked issues.


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