future, goals

Backcasting with the Future in Mind

“The future is not a road to be discovered, it is a place to be created” -Goran Carstedt

Backcasting is a fancy term for something we are all familiar with. It simply refers to the process of deciding on something we want in the future and then figuring out what we have to do today to get there. We usually backcast whenever we think about some future possibility, whether it be a change in career, buying a house, or planning for retirement.

For example, let’s say that you are working as a dishwasher but want to become an electrician. There may be a number of options for proceeding, but it is likely that they will involve going to college, finding an apprenticeship, and then passing your exams, and so on.

Depending on your financial situation, you may need to put your studies on hold for a while in order to save money for school, but even this step is part of your overall strategy to arrive at success – becoming an electrician. It is the most effective way of figuring out how to get from where we are today to where we want to be in the future. But when we plan for the future in larger groups, such as communities, municipalities or businesses, wet end to use forecasting instead. This involves using past information to establish trends and then developing a plan based on projecting them out into the future.

For example, if we notice that a growing number of people are using the food bank, then we might plan to increase funding for it or even open a second food bank. Forecasting is very effective if we are happy with how things are going. But what if we want – or need – a very different future than the one we are headed toward? That’s when we need to backcast. Returning to the food bank example, we need to look upstream and backcast if we want to eliminate the need for food banks in the first place.

Backcasting is particularly useful when current trends are part of the problem that you’re trying to address. In the case of planning for sustainability, backcasting is a useful methodology because of the complexity of the sustainability challenge and the need to develop new ways of doing things to address the challenge. Backcasting also helps ensure that we move toward our desired goal as efficiently as possible.

The focus on beginning with the end in mind means that planners start by agreeing on the conditions for a successful outcome. Think about the last time you moved to a new home. You may have started by deciding on some conditions that would make the home a success, such as whether it was close to school or work, whether it had enough bedrooms, and how much it cost. After defining your criteria for success, you probably began to look for your home as efficiently as possible by using the conditions as a screen to determine which homes to visit. This way, you kept your options open but didn’t waste any time looking at houses you couldn’t afford or would never want to live in. Similarly, the principles for sustainability help us identify the conditions for success in a sustainable society.

Since the principles are the result of broad scientific consensus, they help frame a goal that people and organizations all over the world can share. If we can agree on those principles as the basic criteria for a sustainable society, they become our starting point and help us evaluate our ideas and plan for the future while making the most effective and efficient use of our resources.

Written by Kelly Baxter, Alaya Boisvert, Chris Lindberg, and Kim Mackrael
Adapted from The Natural Step’s Sustainability Primer: Step by Natural Step<

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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