18 Universal Methods of Design
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 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
visions serve as both
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,
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.