Backcasting is a method to develop normative scenarios and explore their feasibility and implications. Important in the sustainability arena, it is as a tool with which to connect desirable long term future scenarios to the present situation by means of a participatory process.
The term ‘Backcasting’ was coined by Robinson [Robinson, 1982] as a futures method to develop normative scenarios and explore their feasibility and implications. It became important in the sustainability arena for obvious reasons and is often used as a tool to connect desirable long term future scenarios (50 years) to the present situation by means of a participatory process. After creating a vision of a desirable future, alternative solutions are set out, with the participation of important stakeholders. Those alternative solutions are explored, and bottlenecks identified. With the involvement of the stakeholders, an option is chosen and an action plan set up. The stakeholders then define their roles and commit to them. Backcasting is used in complex situations with many stakeholders where although there is a desired future vision, it is unclear how to reach it.
It leads to research plans for implementation of the actions needed and participation is an essential feature. It can be characterised as a social learning process and the long term perspective makes it possible to let go of the present way of meeting certain specific social needs.
The method is used in situations where there is a normative objective and fundamentally uncertain future events that influence these objectives. The knowledge about the system conditions and the underlying social dynamics can also have a powerful impact on the environment, but are unpredictable. The need for participation of stakeholders is strong and the future vision cannot be realised by a hierarchical approach, or limited stakeholders. The desired future cannot be achieved by simply extrapolation from the present arrangements, but need a fundamental different approach of fulfilling the social need.
The target audience are middle and higher management of industry, research and government. As one of the objectives is to establish commitment, the linkage with decision makers is important. The focus on action plans for solving complex social issues, implicates the participation of representatives of several institutional stakeholders.
The main characteristic of the Backcasting approach is to involve stakeholders at an early stage in the Foresight process and develop a future long term vision of the desired scenario. Then all participants can translate this back into tangible actions (“think in jumps, act in steps”). The following steps can be followed:
1. Strategic problem orientation and definition: Align with the problem to assess the present needs and clarify current and future unsustainable aspects. This includes the identification of relevant stakeholders.
2. Development of future vision: The next step is to create visions on how a future can be established where the assessed problems and unsustainable aspects are solved. Charcoal sketches are made to visualise the long term future scenarios.
3. Backcasting: Set out alternative solutions. Possible ways to develop the desired future are developed and discussed among the participants.
4. Explore solutions/options and identify bottlenecks: The different solution pathways are further defined and analysed to prepare on the selection process in the next step. A possible method to use can be LCA.
5. Selection of option and implementation of action plan: The pathways are discussed among the participating stakeholders and a selection is made for one pathway to be made operational. Part of this step is developing an action plan, including ways to tackle the bottlenecks identified.
6. Define roles of stakeholders and setup co-operation agreements: A solid platform for action is set up, in which all major stakeholders participate. Responsibilities are set in long term agreements and an innovation champion is identified who can carry the work forward.
7. Implement research agenda: In the last step, the action plan is translated and implemented to the research and development agendas or the individual participating stakeholders
The process can take 1 to 2 years and need substantial financial resources (up to €500,000, for example). The skills needed are social and process oriented skills, in particular, although experience in LCA and further economic analysis is obviously also needed.
The main types of output are:
• Inspiring charcoal sketches of future visions and possible pathways to them.
• In depth economic, cultural and technological analysis of the pathways.
• Joint ventures on specific pathways
• Shared visions
Pros and cons
A positive aspect of the method is the ability to freely discuss problems with stakeholders who have conflicting interests (because of the long term perspective). Also content and process is integrated in a practical approach. The negative side to Backcasting is the somewhat long project time needed. This leads to the possibility that the representatives change, leading to delays. Also the technological character can sometimes be to dominant, ‘scaring’ representatives, and the budget needed is relatively high. A very important aspect often forgotten is the follow up monitoring and evaluation of progress.
The described Backcasting method is used in the sustainability arena and has a high participatory aspect. Other variants are:
• Quantitative modelling using Backcasting
• Backcasting quick scans.
Looking at Backcasting, the following complementary methods are often used:
• Essays to sketch future visions
• LCA and economic stakeholder analysis for describing the alternatives
• Technological roadmapping for description of the alternatives.
• Brainstorming workshops for inspirational creation of alternative pathways.
• Is there a mismatch between desired future vision and present situation?
• Does the solution need co-operation between different institutional stakeholders?
• Is the future perspective long term?
• Has my team got experience in participatory processes?