Authours: Karl Schroeder & Robert Tilley
Edited by Christine Keene


Goal-oriented foresight methodologies may declare targets that lie quite far in the future. For example:

  1. Reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2050
  2. Put astronauts on Mars by 2030

There is a disconnect between such long-range targets and immediate policy and business planning. How does one relate a goal that may lie more than a generation in the future to a set of steps performed now and designed to achieve that end?


In backcasting, foresight participants propose a future event or situation and then work backward to construct a plausible causal chain leading from here to there. Backcasting is commonly used as a team-oriented brainstorming tool, often as part of a scenario-based foresight methodology. The technique had its origin in energy futures studies in the 1970s.

Use When

This technique is used during problem framing. Any resultant solution would broadly affect many stakeholders across a multitude of societal dimensions, such as technological, cultural, social, institutional and organizational.

Use For

Projecting a transformative societal change that challenges existing assumptions for problems of significant complexity with a long enough time horizon to allow for making determined choices is the key role of backcasting. It is used to identify signals of change and also to determine short-term planning and policy goals that might facilitate a long-term outcome. Furthermore, backcasting is used in cases when it is applicable and desired to actively dictate a future outcome rather than merely predicting or understanding it.


The backcasting method is adaptive in its steps based the specific context under which it is being applied, the stakeholders involved and which complementary methods are being used within the broader foresight exercise. The result is a process that can be considered more as a set of guiding principles than as a strict process.

1) Domain and Demographics – First, the team needs to clarify the issues of the current state and identify which areas are to be targeted. This stage also involves the identification of all key and relevant stakeholders.

2) Future Vision – The team defines and describes a future in which the problems and issues identified have been solved. This involves creating future scenarios whereby the problem has been solved by meeting the stated objectives.

3) Session – The team develops possible steps on how to reach the future vision from the present, addressing the variety of dimensions (i.e., technological, cultural, social, institutional and organizational) that require consideration. This step also includes developing multiple options from which the best option can be assessed, as well as addressing the feasibility of the possible steps involved.

The following is an overview of the process:

  • Participants form break-out groups, each of which chooses one of the scenarios chosen in previous steps;
  • Participants draw a timeline on a white-board or flip-board with “now” at the left and the future date of the chosen scenario at the right.
  • In a discussion phase, participants are asked to contribute ideas about what events and decisions could lead from the present situation to a future in which the scenario is true. Events can be anything, up to and including meteor strikes and plagues. During this phase, facilitators must be careful not to let a single voice dominate the discussion. Significant disagreements are allowed. The discussion may converge on a common narrative, but it is important that the facilitator end this phase before the narrative has become too detailed.
  • Each participant is encouraged to write one or two key events or decisions on post-it notes. They are encouraged to make their own choices, and other group members are not allowed to veto responses. The events may contribute to a common narrative, or it may be that person’s own opinion.
  • Each participant places his or her note somewhere on the timeline. There may or may not be a single narrative represented by the end of this phase.
  • A final discussion phase converges on common themes among the narrative strands represented by the notes. Discussion is encouraged about exactly where on the timeline an event or decision should occur.
  • Participants choose a small set of near-term and mid-term goals or decisions, or signals to watch for, based on the narratives that have emerged from the process. These are written up as the process deliverable.

4) Analysis – After developing options, rigor is used to assess the options and select the best option, with the goal of creating an actionable plan while mitigating foreseen threats to successful implementation.

5) Implementation – An action plan is established and put into motion addressing the responsibilities of all major stakeholders for implementation.

Environmentally Sustainable Transport (EST)
The OECD’s project set out to change six criteria by 2030 relating to EST for membering countries—for noise, land use, emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogenoxides, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter.

SusHouse project
The EU-funded SusHouse project was concerned with developing and evaluating strategies for transitions to sustainable households through seeing a factor 20 environmental gain in the next 50 years. Three household functions were studied: (1) clothing care; (2) shelter; and, (3) nutrition, each in three different countries using the below process as the approach.


Backcasting can be done as a quantitative exercise.  For an example of quantitative backcasting applied to IPCC data, refer to “Benchmark Forecasts for Climate Change” by Kester C. Green, J. Scott Armstrong, and Willie Soonz (University of Pennsylvania, 2008)

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