Scenarios are plausible stories about possible future developments. Backcasting is a method to develop scenarios and explore their feasibility and implications starting from the future towards the present.
Name of Method
Scenarios are a method for exploring future uncertainties in operating environment. They depict alternative futures on society and pathways through which those futures can be attained and emancipate stakeholders to action. Backcasting scenarios are being constructed from distant future towards present. Their purpose is to discover alternative pathways through which a desired goal can be met.
Type/Level of Method
Visioning alternative futures in complex issue. Backcasting is a method that can help to imagine desired future states and actions needed to get to the desired state in complex issues. With this method, you can explore which institutional, organizational, and regulatory changes changes are necessary for achieving the future vision of zero-carbon society.
Problem, Purpose and Needs
Long-term transformation to carbon neutral society is unlikely to be attained through incremental change. Avoiding catastrophic climate change is a global priority that almost all cities agree on. Scenarios are needed if we want to turn these priorities into successful and sustaining action.
Scenarios are a tool for exploring future uncertainties in operating environment. They depict alternative futures on society and pathways through which those futures can be attained and emancipate stakeholders to action. They show a logical chain of events that demonstrate how future events are linked. Scenarios help in building capabilities for strategic steps, identifying actors that should be prepared for change and finding right timing for action.
There are two main types of scenarios: Forecasting scenarios are being constructed from present day towards distant future. Their purpose is to explore to what types obstacles and opportunities we should prepare ourselves for. Backcasting scenarios are being constructed from distant future towards present. Their purpose is to discover alternative pathways through which a desired goal can be met. In other words, backcasting is not concerned with predicting the future. It is a strategic problem-solving framework to explore how to reach specified outcomes in the future.
Backcasting can be a relevant option when forecasting studies indicate that long-term developments seem to lead to undesirable outcomes. Backcasting scenarios allow for new options to be considered reasonable, thus widening the perception of what could be feasible and realistic in the long-term.
Typically, backcasting is part of a comprehensive scenario process.
The steps of scenario process are:
1. Select the subject, goal and research questions
2. Horizon scanning
3. Futures table
4. Future images
5. Scenarios (backcasting method used here)
Backcasting is based on horizon scanning that provides an operation analysis based of which futures table and future states are created. Backcasting is a method to describe what has happened between the future states and the present moment.
Relevance to Climate Neutrality
Essential Considerations for Commissioning Authorities
Governance Models and Approaches
Spectrum of participation
Actors and Stakeholder Relationships
Actors and Stakeholders
Interaction between participants
Social Innovation Development Stage
Backcasting can be implemented in a workshop or as a part of a longer scenario process that can last from a couple of weeks to several months. The time spent depends heavily on the end-use of the exercise.
Meaningful and feasible backcasting scenarios typically require background work, a horizon scanning, that deserves a considerable amount of time to become deep enough.
Resources and Investments
Resources and Investments
Step by Step
Backcasting scenarios describe the chain of events from the future states to the present. The process is conducted trough moving backward in time in as many different stages as it is required to find mechanisms trough which the present actions could lead to attaining that particular future scenario.
Typically 2-5 scenarios are created from the future states.
The chain of events is created by writing a narrative for each future state on how the actions followed each other and what were the changes that made certain developments stronger than another.
Actions are explored in a series of 1-20 years time slots in a timeline. For example, if the scenario starts from year 2050, one can create a timeline and explore what happened in 2040, 2030 and 2022. It is important to reflect the causalities between different events, trends, uncertainties and decisions. Weak signals and wildcard are good to include in the narrative.
How to write them?
1) Read and reflect what were the original research questions and futures states?
2) What are the main developments that this scenario is describing?
3) What are the central transformations and events that justify the scenario?
4) Write a logical path / chain of events from the future state towards the present
5) Repeat the process for other future states identified in the process
6) Make sure the scenarios differ from each other
Other elements that can be used in the narration process:
1) Creating imaginary personas, fictional news stories from the future, “future artefacts” and other design prompts
2) Describing the same, most important features in each scenario (e.g. actors, uncertainties, events)
3) Naming the scenarios and listing their most relevant features
4) Utilizing images, modelling, graphs
How to use them?
Important part of the scenario part are the conclusions. Conclusions can be made, for example, by analyzing certain scenarios and comparing them and their transformation to each other. In addition conclusions can made by comparing different scenarios and their implications on the decisions, actions, operational models or strategies that have been developed or are under development. Overall, it is important to reflect what kind of actions would be needed to promote the desired future states and actions identified in backcasting process that could have an impact in real-life. Here close collaboration among key stakeholder is an important success factor.
Scenarios that result from a backcasting process are typically evaluated with different stakeholders. They can be evaluated by their feasibility and probability. For example, a workshop can be organized to test with stakeholders does the scenarios resonate and what implications they could have. Also, an expert panel can be used to evaluate their relevance.
It is important to highlight that, in addition the scenarios delivered, the process in itself is valuable in itself as it brings together different stakeholder to envision the future together
Flexibility and Adaptability
Backcasting requires an operational analysis that is based on horizon scanning that, if done well and profoundly, requires a desktop analysis, interviews with experts and researchers, stakeholder interaction and workshops. In addition, futures tables and futures states should be created as a starting point for backcasting exercise. Horizon scanning and future states can be created as lighter versions in a workshop. However, profound scenarios are based on deeper analysis that requires time and effort.
Existing Guidelines and Best Practice
The backcasting approach is well-suited for long-term urban sustainability solutions due to its normative, goal-oriented, and problem-solving character. Typically backcasting is applied on long-term complex issues, involving many aspects of society as well as technological innovations and change.
References and Further Resources
Backcasting: a roadmap for transformational change
Bibri, S.E. (2018): Backcasting in futures studies: a synthesized scholarly and planning approach to strategic smart sustainable city development. Eur J Futures Res 6, 13 https://doi.org/10.1186/s40309-018-0142-z
Neuvonen, A. et al (2014): Low-carbon futures and sustainable lifestyles: A backcasting scenario approach. Futures. Vol 58. 66-76.
Neuvonen, A. et al (2017):, Metropolitan vision making – using backcasting as a strategic learning process to shape metropolitan futures, Futures, Vol 86, 73-83.
Lätti, R. et al (2022): Skenaarioiden rakentaminen tulevaisuustaulukkomenetelmällä in Tulevaisuudentutkimustutuksi – perusteita ja menetelmiä. Heikkilä et al. Tulevaisuuden tutkimuskeskus Turun yliopisto.