Backcasting – shaping the future you desire
When developing new strategies, innovations and solutions, it’s wise to take future developments into account. Consider what you expect to happen and adjust your plans accordingly. While this is perfectly reasonable, you can also turn the procedure around; backcasting allows you to reason backwards from a desirable future scenario, thus enabling you to map out the actions required to reach your goal.
What is backcasting?
Ambitious goals are marvellous, but without a proper plan, goals are little more than dreams. To shape the future, you’ll need to figure out what actions are required to get the results you desire. Backcasting allows you to do exactly this. Backcasting is a way to plan big changes, by starting from your desired outcome and working your way back to the current situation. You visualise your end goal and consider what needs to happen to make this ideal situation a reality.
Forecasting vs. Backcasting
Backcasting might make you think of forecasting. But while both are ways of planning for the future, the methods differ quite substantially.
Forecasting is a method of looking at the future. Based on current information and developments you generate a vision on what is yet to come. A prediction, if you will. Based on this prediction, you develop a strategy. You anticipate changes that are not yet there and take appropriate action to minimize any possible negative impact. You might even adjust course in such a way that you take optimal advantage of the expected developments.
Backcasting follows a less reactive approach. While backcasting, you don’t try to predict the future. Instead, you design it. You imagine your ideal dream scenario and picture exactly what that situation would look like. What follows is a thought experiment; you imagine looking back, pondering the changes that were necessary to give rise to this situation.
Step by step, you work your way back towards the current situation. You’re basically drawing a treasure map back from the destination to the starting point. You describe exactly what is required to reach the desired situation. What you’ll end up with is a roadmap with smaller goals that, combined, lead up to a big change.
Long term plans
While backcasting can be used to plan relatively short term changes (like a safer intersection, a better customer experience or improved cooperation between two departments in your organization), it is even more valuable when large and complex challenges are concerned. Long term challenges like reversing climate change, reforming healthcare or making an entire industry circular. Backcasting allows you to design change processes that take time.
To apply backcasting to your challenge, simply follow the steps below. As no one innovates alone, make sure you do this exercise in collaboration with important stakeholders.
1. Create your dream scenario
The first step in the process is visualizing your perfect scenario. What does the ideal future look like? Try to picture this situation as vividly as possible and describe what happens and which actors are involved.
2. Work your way back
Consider what’s needed to make your ideal situation come true, one step at a time. What’s required to make this situation possible? An what’s required for that? Keep going until you get to your current situation. You’ve now sketched a roadmap with all the important hurdles to take if you want to end up turning your fantasy into a reality. Each of these steps will bring you closer to your ultimate goal.
3. Elaborate on each of the steps
Consider, per step, what needs to be done to reach that particular subgoal. Who and what do you need to make it happen?
Following these three steps allows you to create a roadmap that suits your vision. A way to turn your dream scenario into concrete plans, a strategy or policy.
Backcasting is closely related to the risk analysis method Pre-mortem. The Pre-mortem is a thought experiment in which you look back from a distant point in the future, to determine what went wrong with your project. You do this exercise before you’ve even started the project. The point of the exercise is to figure out what could possibly go wrong and what you can do to avert disaster. Curious? We’ve written about it here: https://hatrabbits.com/en/the-pre-mortem/