Backcasting: Creating a Strategic Roadmap from the Future

Note: this is a research excerpt from Roxanne Nicolussi’s “Bigger Thinking for Smaller Enterprises”, published in 2017 and licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

A vision means nothing without the tools to turn it into reality. As Kotter (1995) explains, the basic elements of the vision should be organized into a strategy for achieving that vision so that the transformation does not disintegrate into a set of unrelated and confusing directions and activities (Fernandez & Rainey, 2006, p.169). Emelo (2011) has outlined four crucial steps when it comes to using foresight to collaborate on a vision: collaboration from people of different levels and perspectives, reflection on the past, envisioning the future by sorting through the long-term implications of trends for unexpected challenges and unexploited opportunities, and strategizing to gauge the required commitment for each future opportunity as well as assessing its impact.

A well-articulated direction stimulates behavioural responses in the organization, ideally in the desired direction. There are, however, cases in which pitfalls and unintended consequences result in a realized direction different from the one that is desired (Dyson et al., 2015). It is for this reason that a clearly articulated vision in combination with a clearly articulated roadmap can increase the potential to achieve success. Reverse-engineering of futures, also referred to as backcasting, is one way to articulate that roadmap.

Reverse-engineering of futures, or backcasting, defines a desirable future and then works backwards to identify major events and decisions that generated the future, to allow organizations to consider what actions, policies and programs are needed today that will connect the future to the present. The foresight practice of backcasting, or reverse-engineering of futures provides a means by which participants can align on steps to achievement. Encouraging the creation of a shared vision, Senge’s (1994) third characteristic to becoming a learning organization, walks the user through the process of formulating a vision to direct change and the development of strategies for realizing that vision. Backcasting reminds participants that the future is not linear, and can have many alternative outcomes depending on decisions made and the impact of external events (Jackson, 2013).

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The traditional process of strategic planning has two traps, according to Johnson and Davis (2014): the first trap is about getting stuck in the present; the second trap is about getting stranded in the future. First, the “present forward mindset,” holds the assumption that the company’s existing business can simply be extended into the future (Johnson & Davis, 2014). Second, open scenario planning exercises with no strategic follow-up result in highly abstract vision statements or promises of the company’s glorious prospects in a brave new world without an actual plan on how to get there (Johnson & Davis, 2014). Long-term planning is not a lost cause; it simply needs to be approached with the right tools. Needed is a more rigorous approach that enables members to align their plan for the future that can be executed starting today. This can be achieved by understanding the multiple futures available, selecting a preferred future within that space (visioning is one but not the only tool), and understanding what key actions and milestones may be needed to get to the preferred future by backcasting.

Backcasting applies when participants propose a future event or situation and then work backward to construct a plausible causal chain leading from the present to the desired future (Schroeder & Tilley, n.d.). The process works backwards to identify technologies, policies, and operational plans needed to build a path between the present and the future. Backcasting is an approach that involves working back from an imagined future, to establish what path might take one there from the present (Popper, 2008). Robinson (1990) mentioned that backcasting is not necessarily only about how desirable futures can be attained, but also possibly about analyzing the degree to which businesses can avoid or respond to undesirable futures.

A backcasting approach addresses two problems according to Robinson (1990);

  1. Human ability to predict the future is very constrained. There is fundamental uncertainty about future events due to lack of knowledge about system conditions and underlying dynamics, the prospects for innovation and surprise, and the intentional nature of human decision-making.
  2. The most likely future may not be the most desirable future. This is addressed through an explicitly normative approach to the future.

Working backwards from a particular desired future end-point to the present, backcasting determines the physical feasibility of that future and the measures that would be required to reach that point. It helps businesses think about the mitigation and response to undesirable futures. Instead of getting stuck in the past or the future, businesses are encouraged to expand the possibilities for the future of the business in their minds and create an actionable roadmap to achieve that which is preferable.

A Brief Overview: How Backcasting is Used

Dreborg (1996) argues that backcasting is an approach that is preferable when the problem is complex and major changes are required, as the dominant trends are part of the problem, externalities are significant, and the time horizon is long. Similarly, Eames and Egmose (2011) have recommended backcasting as a sustainability foresight tool for the emphasis that is placed on looking at longer-term desirable futures. Vergagt and Quist (2011) highlight the ability of backcasting to lead coordination, cooperation, and high order learning between stakeholders. However, one could argue that backcasting can be used equally well for short, medium and long-term objectives. Backcasting as a process does not set a time horizon, it is the desirable future state that does.

Not all uses have been documented; this is very likely a mere handful of the times and ways backcasting has been used. The practice has many variations including multiple scenarios and multiple desired futures. It has been used at different stages in planning processes, as well.

Some variations of the practice include:

  • Target-oriented backcasting (Vergagt & Quist, 2011): Hojer et al. (2011) developed visions for a low-energy future of Stockholm that are more elaborate than the pathways to get there, prompting important policy planning decisions.
  • Tuominen et al. (2014) used a model they called pluralistic backcasting, in which multiple preferred futures are taken as starting points. • Design-Orienting Scenarios (DOS): socially and technologically innovative scenario production for sustainable households with a wide range of stakeholders that were clustered into groups.
  • Social Practice Theory: applied by Doyle and Davies (2013) to examine the transition to sustainable household consumption, Social Practice Theory works by constructing three scenarios with varying levels of socio-cultural, regulatory, and technological advancement.
  • Shared history: participants construct a historical timeline of trends leading to the present. It asks: what are the continuities in our history and what is discontinuous? The narrative explains the logic, highlights, and assumptions of how and why an initiative is expected to work.
  • Literature-based narrative themes: Eames et al. (2016) explored the role of hydrogen economy as a guiding vision shaping the co-evolution of technology and society.
  • Repertory grid method: used to uncover conflicting positions of stakeholders for contested technological futures, value judgements, and problem framings by Van de Kerkof et al. (2009).
  • Integrated Assessment: developed land degradation and desertification scenarios based on participatory Factor-Actor-Sector framework looking forward.
  • Backcasting is used as a quantitative exercise using evidence-based (scientific) forecasting principles to determine relative absolute errors by Greed, Armstrong, and Soon (2008).
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Figure 6 is an adaptation of the impact of innovation consultancy Innosight’s version of backcasting, called the “future-back approach” (Johnson & Davis, 2014). Innosight is promoting the process one of their consultants may walk a client through. Since one of an SME’s biggest barriers is its access to resources, it is beneficial for SMEs to understand the whole process, in order to one day be able to conduct these processes independently.

Despite there being many different variations of backcasting, the documented practices have the following consistencies;

  1. At least one desired future is co-created by participants.
  2. The desired future is plotted in the distant future.
  3. Participants anticipate required steps in order to reach the desired future.

This approach used in addition to visioning, can help participants align with one another’s mental models of a desirable future and the steps required to attain it.

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