The art of “Back Casting” needs care

Backcasting is a planning method that starts with defining a desirable future and then works backwards to identify policies and programs that will connect that specified “future to the present”. The fundamentals of the method were outlined by John. B. Robinson from the University of Waterloo in 1990. The fundamental question of backcasting asks: “if we want to attain a certain goal, what actions must be taken to get there?”

While forecasting involves predicting the future based on current trend analysis, backcasting approaches the challenge of discussing the future from the opposite direction; it is “a method in which the future desired conditions are envisioned, and steps are then defined to attain those conditions, rather than taking steps that are merely a continuation of present methods extrapolated into the future”

I have collected different views on “Backcasting”.

Those are from assorted references like Wikipedia, from past work on water and energy systems, from Natural Step, from Innosight, discussed and promoted in Mark Johnson’s book “Lead for the Future” and a really recent one from Roxi Nicolussi and her Backcasting; Creating a Strategic Roadmap for the Future” or finally here, this one “All Roads Lead From The Future Back — A Vision and Spoke Model” by Aidan McCullen. I am looking to further explore the applications applied in water, energy and climate work.

So exploring backcasting as a method

Backcasting involves establishing the description of a very definite and particular future situation.

It then involves an imaginary moving backwards in time, step-by-step, in as many stages as are considered necessary, from the future to the present to reveal the mechanism through which that particular specified future could be attained from the present.

Backcasting is not concerned with predicting the future: The major distinguishing characteristic of backcasting analyses is the concern, not with likely energy futures, but with how desirable futures can be attained. Thus, it is explicitly normative, involving “working backwards” from a particular future end-point to the present to determine what policy measures would be required to reach that future.[

The concept of “backcasting” is central to a strategic approach for sustainable development. It is a way of planning in which a successful outcome is imagined in the future, followed by the question: “what do we need to do today to reach that successful outcome?” This is more effective than relying too much on forecasting, which tends to have the effect of presenting a more limited range of options, hence stifling creativity. More importantly, it projects the problems of today into the future.

In the context of sustainability, we can imagine an infinite number of scenarios for a sustainable society – and ‘backcasting from scenarios’ can be thought of as a jigsaw puzzle. We have a shared picture of where we want to go. We put the pieces together to get there. However, getting large groups of people to agree on the desired future scenario is often all but impossible. Further, scenarios that are too specific may limit innovation and distract our minds from the innovative, creative solutions necessary for sustainable development.

Over the years, I have pursued the Three Horizons methodology. I am more comfortable in this and applied this approach to countless issues or future thinking out as it feels more casting forward.

Backcasting offers a different approach nicely illustrated here.

Backcasting is further explained or applied.

So strategic sustainable development relies on ‘backcasting from sustainability principles’ – which are based in science and represent something we can all agree on: if these principles are violated, our global society is unsustainable. To achieve a sustainable society, we know we have to not violate those principles – we don’t know exactly what that society will look like. Still, we can define success on a principle level. In that way, backcasting from principles is more like chess – we don’t know exactly what success will look like, but we know the principles of checkmate – and we go about playing the game in a strategic way, always keeping that vision of future success in mind.

Natural systems are complex and non-linear, and while we understand more and more about how they behave on the principle level, we still cannot predict the weather. Social systems are far more complex. Still, we try to force these systems into models so we can ‘understand’ them and ‘predict’ how they will behave.

To do this, we are forced to make assumptions that often make the models reductionist, simplistic, and absurd. For example, in economic systems, the assumptions that all people are ‘rational actors’ and that there is ‘perfect information’. In large part, this is due to a tradition of compartmentalized disciplines in academia, where the social scientists have pushed a quantitative, value-neutral approach to study these systems in the misguided pursuit of establishing concrete laws similar to the laws of nature.

Even if we could predict the future, why would we want to? We have the power to create a better future.

If you backcast, future cast or apply the three horizons we do need to look out, into the future and try and bring it back to the present so we can move towards that desired state in a planned and methodical way.

More on backcasting in the future!!

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