New Metrics
Backcasting:
A Roadmap to Transformational Change

As we have entered a new year, I’d like to take a closer look at the concept of backcasting for coming up with strategies that marry ‘transformational change’ (as sustainability practitioners like to call those meaningful sustainability outcomes that leap beyond ‘making things less bad’) with viability and desirability.

Backcasting? Am I casting my eyes on what lies behind us? No, in fact backcasting looks far ahead in order to create bridges towards desirable outcomes for the future.

Forecasting, whereby we translate past and current trends and behavior into estimates of the future, is a common tool to increase our understanding of what the future may hold. But what if the current trends are part of the problem? Forecasting alone, as a predictive tool, may provide precious little divergence of perspective.

Backcasting, on the contrary, starts by defining a desired future (e.g. vision) and then looks back to assess what would be required to get there. It can enable stakeholders to introduce more imaginative new ideas — opening up the dialogue to a future we can create.

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Instead of extrapolating the current to predict the future, we interpolate the future from the outcome we desire back to where we are now (the current) and define the values in between — i.e. the roadmap needed to arrive at our intended destination. Think, for example, of imagining one’s dream job or dream house and working out a strategy to get there — or at least as close as possible.

Backcasting can therefore make for a valuable tool when:

  • Addressing complex problems, affecting many sectors and levels of society;
  • Incremental change is not sufficient;
  • Externalities play a key role and are not satisfactorily addressed by the market; and
  • Dominant trends - often the cornerstones of forecasts — are part of the problem.

Backcasting can be used in combination with scenario planning, where stakeholders are presented with multiple scenarios and future timeframes, the latter enabling them to better understand the proposed rate of change.

Backcasting as a workshop approach

As simple as it may sound to envision future success and work backwards to identify what approaches can be taken in order to achieve results, many people don’t do this when faced with ‘sticky’ challenges. Therefore, I’d like to show how backcasting can be useful in a workshop setting, partially based on my own experiences a few years ago in Chile.

Sensitizing people to the pace of change

We often underestimate how fast the world around us changes and how fundamental and transformational many of these changes were. Sensitizing can also help us more readily identify key trends that are likely to fundamentally change the landscape in which we currently operate (the baseline).

Consider for example the city of London, which predicted in 1894 that by 1950 every street in the city would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure. Related health, safety and waste-management issues of streets getting covered in manure (and flies!) were slowly driving the city into planning gridlock. The invention of the combustion engine was therefore an environmental savior.

Imagining our desired or ideal future, keeping the end-goal in mind

Let me reiterate this: The idea is to ‘imagine our desired or ideal future,’ regardless of whether it is achievable with the technology and financial resources of today. This is where many people get stuck; they artificially restrict themselves to what they imagine is feasible in the near-future, forgetting the future is yet to be created!

We can also phrase this somewhat differently, i.e. defining the end-goal or purpose — a key principle in RMI’s ‘Factor Ten Engineering’ approach. With this I mean that understanding what we’re really aiming to achieve and why can help us work out the possible pathways of getting there. For example, is the end-goal ‘to build more roads’ to relieve a forecasted increase in traffic congestion? Or is the goal mobility and minimizing travel times/distances, for which we can develop several (hypothetical) scenarios with a combination of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ measures?

To help draw out thoughts we may also want to ask people to describe what’s not to like about the continuation of the Business As Usual (BAU) alternative.

In case of the Chilean project I was involved in — a mine expansion — we came up with BAU issues such as unscheduled shutdowns or downtime, which can be extremely costly; complaints from nearby sensitive receivers, which not only ate up considerable time but resulted in negative media attention; large volumes of (contaminated) waste or wastewater, drawing on resources through their required management and/or safe disposal – especially in light of more stringent future regulations. Hence, all in the room were fairly quick to agree that their ideal mine was one of zero waste, zero emissions, zero complaints and zero downtime.

Reinventing pathways to close the gap between the current state and our desired outcome

Henry Ford is often quoted as saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Or perhaps it would have been horses that create 50 percent less manure. Backcasting doesn’t focus on solving a root problem by substituting iterative ‘good enough’ solutions that make the situation we already have more manageable. Instead it sets us on a path of creative innovation, squarely focused on tackling the systemic causes (why?) and working towards an eventual purpose (e.g. improved and safe mobility for all). This way we will often come up with new solutions that we may not yet be able to fully articulate or conceive.

With enhanced insight on what stands between the present and our desired future — including our tendency to extrapolate rather than to reimagine — we can in smaller group settings tap into people’s specific knowledge and skills, and embolden them to create inventive solutions and map out pathways, identify promising opportunities and risks, and where necessary apply short- and longer-term timeframes. If well facilitated, backcasting can be an easy-to-use yet powerful tool to leap up the ‘lean and green’ curve with greater focus and aspiration.

The future starts today

Backcasting is but one of the tools as part of the art (or science) we call strategic foresight and is applied by organizations including Forum for the Future and The Natural Step. It’s a tool that combines well with approaches such as system innovation and scenario planning — which deserve separate articles — and while we may not necessarily be able to fully create the future we desire (flying cars in 2015?), backcasting can make us go beyond the incremental improvement mindset that still defines a major part of the thinking around sustainable futures. And this can be as simple as the realization that, when it comes to mobility, our end-goal is not to build cities for automobiles — as many city planners have become to believe — but to create livable Cities for People, as architect Jan Gehl came to understand long ago.

This post first appeared on 2degrees on January 5, 2015.

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