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Backcasting is the process of looking backward in time from an assumed set of future circumstances, to better understand what could lead there and explore appropriate intervention. This chapter appears in the revised edition of Universal Methods of Design. See also entries on Design Fiction <> and Horizon Scanning <>.
Design Phase:
18 Universal Methods of Design
Self reporting
Expert review
Design process
06 Backcasting
Backcasting is the process of looking backward in time from an
assumed set of circumstances in a future time, to better understand
what could lead there, in order to explore appropriate intervention.
Forecasting is about starting from conditions in the present and looking forward in time to ask
what pathway seems likely to follow. Backcasting is the converse—starting from a stipulated future
outcome, and interpolating backward in time toward the present, asking what would need to happen
in order to arrive at those outcomes.
It relates to Scenarios: the creation and maintenance of a plurality of forward views and alternative
theories of how change might unfold. And it also relates to Visioning: the elaboration of a preferred
scenario that can be used to make plans. As a pioneer of both peace studies and futures studies,
Elise Boulding, reminds us, “We cannot achieve what we cannot imagine.”1
The state of affairs from which one backcasts, therefore, is not what is currently expected or prob-
able: such a hypothesis is the result of forecasting, a different task calling for different methods.
Instead you backcast from a future state that you want to explore, a desirable outcome for example.
Such inquiry echoes the most fundamental purpose and definition of design, for to ask if and how
the system might get there is a way to generate candidate interventions that might influence that
system. As Herbert Simon declared, “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at
changing existing situations into preferred ones.2
The word backcasting was coined and originally proposed for a normative use of scenarios in the
energy industry: “backcasts are not intended to indicate what the future will likely be, but to indicate
the relative implications of different policy goals.3 Its use has since broadened, including develop-
ment of participatory approaches incorporating perspectives from diverse stakeholders, although
still typically with a normative bent: “The essence of the backcasting approach to future studies is
the articulation of desired futures, and the analysis of how they might be achieved.”4
The management and foresight method “Three Horizons,” developed over the past decade, can be
seen as a way of operationalizing this perspective.5, 6, 7 In essence this method divides the change
process into three phases: now (horizon one), then (horizon three), and the interim phase between
(horizon two). It provides a way of attending to and creating a narrative out of whatever is really at
stake in transitioning from one state of affairs to another.
Chapter contribution by Stuart Candy
Different types of projects
are linked to each other
via mid- and long-term
co-created visions. These
“ecologies” of projects
and initiatives becomes
“steps” along the transition
pathway toward the desired
midterm future.
Midterm visions provide
tangible goals and
objectives that near-term
projects can steer toward.
When the midterm
vision is achieved, the
outcomes form a cyclic
process of long-term
revisioning that ensures
the vision remains vital
and relevant.
Co-created, long-term
visions serve as both
“magnets” drawing
stakeholders into the
future and a “compass”
by which to steer near
and midterm projects.
Present Desired Futures
See also Horizon Scanning • Scenarios • Transition Design
Backcasting from the long-term visions to the present,
creates a transition pathway and projects become “steps”
in a transition toward the desirable future.
Courtesy of Terry Irwin
1. Boulding, J. Russell. “Peace Culture: An Overview
(2000)” in Elise Boulding: A Pioneer in Peace
Research, Peacemaking, Feminism, Future Studies
and the Family. J. R. Boulding, ed. Switzerland:
Springer, 2017: 115–20.
2. Simon, Herbert A. The Sciences of the Artificial,
3rd ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.
3. Robinson, John Bridger. “Energy Backcasting: A
Proposed Method of Policy Analysis.” Energy Policy
10, no. 4 (1982): 337–344.
4. Robinson, John, Sarah Burch, Sonia Talwar, Meg
O’Shea, and Mike Walsh. “Envisioning Sustainability:
Recent Progress in the Use of Participatory
Backcasting Approaches for Sustainability Research.”
Technological Forecasting & Social Change 78 (2011):
5. Hodgson, Anthony and Bill Sharpe. “Deepening
Futures with System Structure” in Bill Sharpe and
Kees van der Heijden, eds. Scenarios for Success:
Turning Insights into Action. Chichester, UK: Wiley,
2007: 121–144.
6. Curry, Andrew and Anthony Hodgson. “Seeing in
Multiple Horizons: Connecting Futures to Strategy.
Journal of Futures Studies 13, no. 1 (2008): 1–20.
7. Wahl, Daniel C. Designing Regenerative Cultures.
Axminster, England: Triarchy Press, 2016.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
This paper describes a futures method called the "Three Horizons" which enables different futures and strategic methods to be integrated as and when appropriate. The method is still in development. It differs sig- nificantly from the original version described in the management literature a decade ago. The approach has several strengths. It can relate drivers and trends-based futures analysis to emerging issues. It enables policy or strategy implications of futures to be identified. And it links futures work to processes of change. The paper connects this latter aspect to models of change developed within the 'social shaping' school of technology. Finally, it summarises a number of futures applications where this evolving technique has been used.
Full-text available
There have recently emerged a number of analyses which suggest that there exists a large potential for ‘soft energy’ policy paths. It is difficult to illustrate this argument using conventional forecasting techniques, therefore these analyses tend to use an alternative method, called energy backcasting. This involves setting policy goals and then determining how those goals could be met. As yet, however, little attention has been paid to the theoretical aspects of backcasting techniques. In this article a specific backcasting method is proposed, which, it is argued, allows consideration of many factors obscured in traditional energy supply and demand forecasts.
This chapter explores the use of system concepts to help to reach deeper insights in the scenarios of the future. It proposes that by searching for a ‘dominant loop’ in an imagined future, it becomes possible to exhibit and contrast the essential dynamics of the scenarios, and that by considering the evolution of the future as three different orientations to the present, one can reach a richer understanding of the dynamics of change. Such considerations can help the decision makers to see when they are at entrepreneurial moment because they understand the flow of events, and they have reached a deep confidence in their own ability to act in a way that is in tune with the unfolding logic. Such methods may appear at first sight to be rather technical. They are certainly founded on a great deal of research and intellectual effort by a wide variety of workers.
This paper describes recent progress in the utilization of participatory scenario-based backcasting approaches to sustainability research that blend quantitative and qualitative analyses in order to explore alternative climate change futures, as undertaken in a range of academic, government, and private sector projects in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada. These projects reveal that buy-in to policy proposals may be enhanced by participation, but there is a risk of participants being overwhelmed by the complexity of the choices they are being asked to make. Furthermore, tools are grounded in a process, which must itself be the explicit focus of attention in designing successful backcasting projects and combining participatory backcasting techniques with more interactive processes that can enhance our ability to explore highly complex and uncertain, value-laden issues. These approaches can be used to drive action and support decision-making, but for a truly consultative and consensus-oriented process to occur, it is important that a broad sample of the community be engaged in the discussion that are equipped with technical knowledge or understanding of the goals of the process in order to participate in an equitable and effective fashion.
in Elise Boulding: A Pioneer in Peace Research, Peacemaking, Feminism, Future Studies and the Family
  • J Boulding
  • Russell
Boulding, J. Russell. "Peace Culture: An Overview (2000)" in Elise Boulding: A Pioneer in Peace Research, Peacemaking, Feminism, Future Studies and the Family. J. R. Boulding, ed. Switzerland: Springer, 2017: 115-20.
Designing Regenerative Cultures
  • Daniel C Wahl
Wahl, Daniel C. Designing Regenerative Cultures.