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Backcasting

August 17, 2012

The response to ‘sidecasting’ (in contrast with forecasting and backcasting) as a name was generally favourable and it is a specific type of cast in fly fishing (my metaphor for this series of posts) so I am keeping to it for the moment.  It also means ‘moving excavated material to the downslope side during road and landing construction’ and I am less sure of that, but a little thought will produce something!  Backcasting of course has its origins in issues relating to sustainable development/energy policy in Scandinavia so there is an ecological theme here waiting to come out.  I did get the suggestion of oblique-casting which is probably more accurate but doesn’t trip of the tongue as well and obliquity has wider use in intervention design so I think I will retain it for that context.

One of the defining articles for backcasting as a method is Dreborg’s 1996 article in Futures (Vol 28 no 9 pp 813-828) Essence of Backcasting.  He quotes Robinson, the originator of the method as follows:

The major distinguishing characteristic of backcasting analysis is a concern, not with what futures are likely to happen, but with how desirable futures can be obtained.  It is thus explicitly normative, involving working backwards from a particular desirable future end-point to the present in order to determine the physical feasibility of that future and what policy measures would be required to reach that point.

The emphasis is mine and links to my suggestion last time that this method firmly sits within the systems tradition of defining an ideal future end state and then attempting to close the gap.  I also emphasise analytical.  If you look at the literature on backcasting it is frequently dealing with issues where high coherence is possible through analysis.  Issues of energy policy for example may have a high level of uncertainty about how to achieve political buy-in to policy changes, but the feasibility of the necessary steps can be determined objectively within the scientific and engineering communities.   At this stage, it may be worth reading my recent posts on coherence and consensus and also on the nature of coherence as I will be bringing those ideas into play here as well both in this and the next (hopefully final) post.  It is also emphasised in the literature that the method works best with long term complex issues and I can see the sense of this.  Gaining consensus is easier when you move away from the immediate short term, especially when there is a political cost to any policy change.  The political cost of consensus is one aspect that has a profound influence on our ability to win an agreement independently of any evidence so that is important.

Backcasting also needs to be understood as a reaction against forecasting.  The basic idea is that we need to move away from extrapolating what is likely to happening and responding, to trying to get a better handle on determining where we want to me and proactively shifting things in that direction; all good stuff.  Clearly backcasting and forecasting all manifest at some stage in scenarios.  Scenarios can be seen as a way of understanding the range of possibilities that can be imagined in the future, but backcasting scenarios have to “reflect solutions to a specified societal problem” to quote Dreborg again.  So backcasting is teleological (concerned with telos or final cause) in nature but is also assumes causality and this is something is shares with forecasting.

Now Dreborg (p819) has a rather nice table contrasting Forecasting with Backcasting.  So in my next post, I plan to extend that from two to three columns to show the differences between forecasting, backcasting and side casting and their interdependence.

 

Banner picture by jack murrey on Unsplash

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