Backcasting

“We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it.”

– Dennis Gabor

What is backcasting?

In order to prepare for the future, sometimes we have to work backwards. The method of backcasting is the opposite of forecasting (Backcasting). According to Backcast Partners, “backcasting is a business planning method in which future desired conditions are envisioned and steps are then defined to attain those conditions,” (What is Backcasting). Instead of assessing all of the information and predicting the future, backcasting takes a goal and comes up with the appropriate steps to reach that goal. This method is commonly confused with forecasting, but the two concepts are slightly different in their approach and outcome (Irman). 

John B. Robinson came up with the term in 1990, according to his article Futures under glass: A recipe for people who hate to predict. He explains that the methodology “is proposed for scenario analysis of changes over 20–100 years into the future,” (Robinson, 1990). In terms of design, finance, and business, the timeline can be shortened to 25-50 years (Moutain, 2018). Robinson mostly references backcasting in terms of environmental and sustainability testing, but admits the method can be applied to areas of human activity (Robinson, 1990). By tweaking some of his original steps, backcasting can be a great tool to help plan a company’s future.

How is it used in UX design?

Backcasting has more to do with inventing the future than adapting to it (Fazal, 2014). According to chapter two of Backcasting For A Sustainable Future: the impact after 10 years by Jaco Quist, there are several approaches to backcasting. Out of the four backcasting strategies that Quist described, Robinson’s approach is the easiest to relate to design. His methodology consists of six steps. Note: when applying this methodology in terms of UX design, step four (specify “exogenous variables and inputs”) can be omitted.

  1. determine objectives
  2. specify goals, constraints, and targets 
  3. Describe present systems and its material flaws
  4. specify exogenous variables and inputs
  5. undertake scenario construction
  6. undertake (scenario) impact

Working backward identifies technologies, policies, and plans that need to be built for the future (Frey 2020). That way, everything is envisioned to obtain the desired future. 

Backcasting broken down into 4 simple steps

Determining Objective

  • Gather a team
  • Determine timeline
    • Is this going to be a one, five, or ten-year project?

Specific Goals

  • What do you want to accomplish? 

Describe Present Systems

  • What is your current situation? 
    • What are the present technologies?
    • What are the present policies?
    • What is the current plan?

Undertake Scenario Construction

  • What actions can you take?
  • What assumptions can you make?

Undertake Scenario Impact

  • What is the impact of those actions?
  • What is the impact of those assumptions?
  • Is this plan going to help you reach your goal? 

What tools does backcasting require?

The backcasting method requires imagination, analytical skills, research skills, and willingness to think outside the box. To determine objects and specific goals, strong analytical and research skills will be essential to determining the desired goal for your website. You and your team will need to be critical in deciding elements like company core values, communication, and design. 

Studies using backcasting

The majority of studies using backcasting have to do with the environment and sustainability. The strategy of backcasting allows them to assume a future and predict the steps that it will take to get there. The first study has to do with developing the sustainability of Stockholm, Sweden. The second study focuses on the development of sustainable housing for low-income citizens of Brazil. 

  1. An article in Technological Forecasting and Social Change described how scientists used backcasting to illustrate potential images of Stockholm in 2050. The study uses time and space to come up with a plan for the sustainability development of the city and its citizens (Hojer, 2011). The plan shows potential living activities with 60% lower energy consumption that 2000 (Hojer, 2011). This study is important because; by using backcasting, the researchers can come up with multiple possible scenarios to better society as a whole. 
  2. An article in Journal for Cleaner Production looked at backcasting and system dynamics to sustainably improve low-income housing in Brazil. The study determined the objective between 2012 and 2030. They used a backcasting approach to look at different scenarios. “Three “desired future situations” were combined with three possible “future scenarios”: optimistic, intermediate, and pessimistic,” (Musse, 2018). By using different perspectives, they were able to determine a number of houses that can be built within an area. This study is essential because “the case represents a partnership between community, academia, and government and fosters the application of new technologies to old social issues, (Musse, 2018).

Conclusion

Even though backcasting is dominantly used in sustainability research, it can still be modified to benefit UX design. The technique can help designers better prepare for the future. By inventing the desired future, it is easier to come up with the steps to obtain it over time. It clearly lays out the policies, technologies, and plans that impact the future of the company and the user experience. 

References

Backcasting. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/backcasting.html

Fazal, H. (2014, March 16). What is Backcasting? How is it different from Forecasting? Retrieved March 24, 2020, from https://pakaccountants.com/what-is-backcasting-and-difference-forecasting/

Frey, T. (2020, January 9). The Future Favors the Bold – 8 Backcasting Scenarios for Understanding the Future. Retrieved from https://futuristspeaker.com/business-trends/the-future-favors-the-bold-8-backcasting-scenarios-for-understanding-the-future/

Höjer, M., Gullberg, A., & Pettersson, R. (2011). Backcasting images of the future city—Time and space for sustainable development in Stockholm. Technological Forecasting and Social Change78(5), 819–834. doi: 10.1016/j.techfore.2011.01.009

Imran. (2016, April 25). What is the difference between Backcasting and Forecasting. Retrieved from https://discuss.analyticsvidhya.com/t/what-is-the-difference-between-backcasting-and-forecasting/8824/2

Moutain, A. (2018, August 7). Backcasting. Retrieved from https://www.betterevaluation.org/en/evaluation-options/backcasting

Musse, J. D. O., Homrich, A. S., Mello, R. D., & Carvalho, M. M. (2018). Applying backcasting and system dynamics towards sustainable development: The housing planning case for low-income citizens in Brazil. Journal of Cleaner Production193, 97–114. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.04.219

Quist, J. (2007). Backcasting for a sustainable future: the impact after 10 years. Delft: Eburon.

Robinson, J. B. (1990). Futures under glass. Futures22(8), 820–842. doi: 10.1016/0016-3287(90)90018-d

What is Backcasting. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.backcastpartners.com/what-is-backcasting/

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