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Introduction to Backcasting

Artwork by Tanishk Katalkar

Futuring or futures thinking is a cross-disciplinary approach to considering potential futures by exploring trends and drivers for change that may lead to different future scenarios. Read more about futuring here.

What is Backcasting?

In this article, we’ll dive deeper into one of the two most popular techniques for futuring: Backcasting. It is a planning method where you define a desirable future and then work towards it. This method is credited to John B. Robinson and sought to answer the question, “ If we want to attain a certain goal, what actions must be taken to get there?”

Backcasting vs Forecasting

Simply put, backcasting is reverse forecasting. While forecasting uses historical data as input to predict the direction trends would take in the future, backcasting does the opposite. It starts by defining a desirable future and then works backward to identify the steps needed to connect the present to that future. Backcasting allows you to identify and analyze the possible events and obstacles that will come up on the way to the ideal future. Which technologies will be required to reach that ideal future? Which socio-cultural changes will make that path shorter? Is the future we imagine even feasible? Backcasting comes up with answers to these questions.

Source: Centre for Environment Education, India

One of the best real-world examples of backcasting to create an ideal future is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. These goals create a blueprint for peace, equality, and growth. For each SDG, there exist detailed targets which are broken-down versions of the original goals. All the steps taken by the sustainable development goals should align with the vision imagined.


Fundamentally, there are 4 steps involved:

  1. Setting long-term targets;

  2. Evaluating these targets against the current trends;

  3. Creating images of the ideal future;

  4. Analyzing the images and measuring their feasibility and potential.

Multiple different methodologies converge on the steps but have certain contextual inconsistencies. For example, the Sustainable Technology Development approach which is related to the Dutch government program. While focusing on broad participation it also uses creativity that transcends already existing paradigms for change. On the other hand, Robinson’s approach uses social, economic, and environmental impact analysis.

Why backcasting?

Since backcasting in sustainability is for a larger cause and can solve bigger problems, some requisites need to be met.

  1. The problem should be a complex one and require a major change,

  2. The current trends should be a part of the problem,

  3. The scope and time left must be enough to create multiple scenarios for considering and testing different solutions and directions that can be possibly taken.

A futuristic real-world scenario

Imagine that 20 years from now, all the electricity sources become solar-powered. Take a step back, look at the bigger picture and think of what needs to be done to get to that. Ask questions. Which mechanisms need to be in place for this to happen? Solar panels need to be affordable and easily available, installation services should be accessible and the building architecture should be able to support the solar panel installation. What would help the building architecture be more supportive of these endeavors? The architecture firms would need to create more inclusive blueprints while also making sure that construction prices don’t increase. Greater investment in research and development would also be required.

This process is a small snippet of what is entailed in a backcasting approach to a real-world problem. This example also helped identify the different stakeholders involved and pick the ones who might resist the change. This scenario also made it easier to create a distinction between the more achievable and influenceable elements from the more difficult ones.

Backcasting is a popular approach because it focuses on creating goals that can stand the test of continuous change. It is an adaptive technique because the road gets paved on the way to the desired outcome. There is a need to create ideal future scenarios so that we can work toward them, but what is also imperative is the analysis of how current practices fit into the goals we set.


Backcasting in futures studies: a synthesized scholarly and planning approach to strategic smart sustainable city development, European Journal of Futures Research, Simon Elias Bibri, 27 July 2018

Using A Backcasting Framework to Develop Future School Models: What If Compulsory Schooling Was A 21st Century Invention?, Journal of Futures Research, Jason McGrath and John Fischetti

Backcasting the future, Research Gate, Niko Roorda, March 2001

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