Backcasting – Definition

Cite this article as:"Backcasting – Definition," in The Business Professor, updated March 4, 2019, last accessed October 25, 2020,

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Backcasting Definition

Backcasting is a method used in planning. It begins with outlining a desired goal or object. Next, identify the programs and policies needed to connect that desired future back to the present.

A Little More on What is Backcasting

John B. Robinson from the University of Waterloo outlined the primary elements of the backcasting method. The essential question of the technique asks: “If we hope to reach a specific goal, what steps must we take to get there?”

The method of forecasting involves a prediction of the future based on analyzing the current trends. Backcasting, however, discusses the future by envisioning the desired future conditions and then defining the actions to get to those conditions — not merely continuing with the steps of a current method inferring into the future.

In data analysis and statistics, backcasting is opposite forecasting:

  • Forecasting uses prediction of unknown dependent variable values based on known independent variable values.
  • Backcasting uses the prediction of unknown independent variable values that might have existed to justify known dependent variable values.

Backcasting involves imaginarily moving step-by-step backward in time in as many phases needed from the future to the present to affirm methods by which to arrive at a specified future.

The vital characteristic of distinction in backcasting is that it’s not about predicting the future but instead it is figuring out how desirable futures can be attained.

Within the scheme of technology, backcasting involves picturing the requirements technology must satisfy in the future by determining the process and direction development might take to meet those futuristic demands.

Backcasting helps to specify the targets that should be set for a particular direction of technology development. It’s relative to sustainable development because it can determine the essence and to what extent a technological challenge is at hand when searching for the process toward sustainable technology, which are technologies focused on the principles of pollution reduction, energy efficiency, reuse and recycling and so forth.

References for Backcasting

Academic Research on Backcasting

  • •    Essence of backcasting, Dreborg, K. H. (1996). Futures, 28(9), 813-828. In the long run, for sustainable development, which is a complex area, there will probably need to be significant changes in industrialized societies. Backcasting characteristically is an appropriate approach for problem-solving in long term problem areas such as sustainability because policies need to be formed. Core theoretical presuppositions supporting backcasting should get assessed by contextual discovery and not by merit judging in the context of justification. The goal of backcasting is to provide policymakers and those interested from the general public with an idea of the future as the basis for forming decisions and opinions.
  • •    Backcasting—A framework for strategic planning, Holmberg, J., & Robèrt, K. H. (2000). International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology, 7(4), 291-308. Backcasting is a planning process that is especially useful when dealing with complicated current problems and when the trends of the present time contribute to those problems. With plans for sustainability, backcasting improves the chances of dealing with the complex issues in a coordinated and systemic way. The principles used for backcasting should not overlap and need to be general enough to bring together diverse sectors of society and in business to cover the applicable sustainability elements. Investments for this undertaking should offer a strong possibility for a quick return on investment and have technical flexibility to benefit future investments in line with the non-overlapping sustainability principles.
  • •    Past and future of backcasting: The shift to stakeholder participation and a proposal for a methodological framework, Quist, J., & Vergragt, P. (2006). Futures, 38(9), 1027-1045. This paper discusses the past, present, and future of backcasting and presents a systematic structure for participatory backcasting that involves five stages. The authors also discuss the tools and methods that can be used in the suggested framework. An agenda for research is presented to evaluate and compare backcasting studies and their influence after two years, and the paper also discusses the future of participatory backcasting.
  • •    Backcasting: a natural step in operationalising sustainable development, Holmberg, J. (1998). Greener management international, 30-30. The transition of sustainable development means decision-makers have to make smart decisions which will require system thinking, which involves identifying the overall fundamentals of how the affected system works, such as regulations for traffic in the traffic system. The authors feel that when the total elements have been recognized, specific aspects of the system can relate to them. The Natural Step which began in 1989 in Sweden led to the creation of four non-overlapping principles for sustainability. Taking those principles and backcasting, experts in various fields of business and science can conclude what specific activities are necessary.
  • •    Determinism and backcasting in future studies, Höjer, M., & Mattsson, L. G. (2000). Futures, 32(7), 613-634. The authors criticize four regularly referenced approaches to future studies, using research from the field of transport. The four frequently cited procedures don’t show opportunities or what actions needs to be taken to break current trends and bring about change. The authors present a more promising way by suggesting backcasting, particularly for situations calling for a significant difference. This study reveals how different forecasting and backcasting approaches work together. Forecasting techniques inform of when backcasting should be used.
  • •    Backcasting for sustainability: Introduction to the special issue, Vergragt, P. J., & Quist, J. (2011). Backcasting for sustainability: Introduction to the special issue. The authors explore the various backcasting experiments and studies of several papers. They present a future research agenda after summing up the documents to position backcasting for sustainability in the broader scope of prospective studies.
  • •    Unlearning and backcasting: rethinking some of the questions we ask about the future, Robinson, J. B. (1988). Technological forecasting and social change, 33(4), 325-338. Robinson believes that the questions being asked about the future through socioeconomic and resource policy forecasting is off track and misguided. The best way to see the possibility of different prospects is to use backcasting techniques to test the impacts and feasibility of such outcomes. The attention is then placed on choice and practicability instead of probability and prediction. Backcasting can direct how forecasts are used and prepared.
  • •    Combining participative backcasting and exploratory scenario development: experiences from the SCENES project, Kok, K., van Vliet, M., Bärlund, I., Dubel, A., & Sendzimir, J. (2011). Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 78(5), 835-851. This paper discusses the methods and outcomes of stakeholder workshops to come up with pan-European scenarios for the future of Europe’s fresh waters.  In particular, the authors assess the results and methods of bringing together exploratory scenario development technique with the backcasting approach. Through backcasting, the authors were able to establish four timelines with each one using a developed exploratory scenario as context. As a result, they were able to find a significant number of opportunities and obstacles in making those timelines a possibility. The authors attempt to show how pleasing and practical it is the concept and method of blending backcasting analysis with exploratory scenario development.
  • •    The impact and spin-off of participatory backcasting: From vision to niche, Quist, J., Thissen, W., & Vergragt, P. J. (2011). Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 78(5), 883-897. The authors investigate the spin-off and follow-up of participatory experiments involving backcasting. This paper presents a systematic framework for backcasting and show that the visions generated from the research are stable and flexible.

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