What is Backcasting

The concept of “backcasting” is central to a strategic approach to planning for sustainable development and innovation. A successful outcome is imagined in the future, then the question is asked: “what do we need to do today to reach that vision of success?” We do this all the time when we plan a trip to buy groceries or find a new home.

Backcasting is often more effective than forecasting, which tends to produce a more limited range of options, hence stifling creativity. More importantly, forecasting relies on what is known today–but that knowledge is always imperfect and things change over time.

Backcasting from Scenarios vs. Principles

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

So strategic sustainable development relies on backcasting from sustainability principles – principles based in science, that represent something we can all agree on: if these principles are violated, our global society is un-sustainable. 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, but we can define success on a principle level. In this way, backcasting from principles is more like chess – we don’t know exactly what the board will look like when we get to checkmate, but we know the principles of checkmate – and we go about playing the game in strategic ways, always keeping that vision of future success in mind.

Complexity Demands Backcasting from Principles

Natural physical systems (like climate or the ocean) are complex and non-linear, and while we are getting better at it, we often cannot predict what outcomes they will produce, or when those outcomes will emerge. Social systems are even more complex.  Still, we try to force all 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 economics the assumptions that all people are ‘rational actors’ and that there is ‘perfect information’ are incorrect. In large part, this tendency of ours to make simplistic, reductionist models comes from an academic tradition of compartmentalized disciplines, where social scientists have pushed a quantitative, value-neutral approach to studying 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. The complexity of social systems within the biosphere demands a whole-system perspective and employing backcasting from sustainability principles. In this way, we can acknowledge the value-laden reality of social systems. We can all take a transdisciplinary approach to learning to better understand the basic constraints in which we must operate. And together, we can implement the changes in how we do things necessary to create a sustainable society.