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15 Nov 2010

Ingredients of Transition: Backcasting


Backcasting is a key ingredient of the creation of an ENERGY DESCENT ACTION PLAN, and an essential companion to any process of VISIONING, if that visioning is going to stand any chance of moving beyond being fantasy. It enables clear and practical STRATEGIC THINKING and an in-depth consideration of how a new STRATEGIC LOCAL INFRASTRUCTURE might become a reality.

(We are collecting and discussing these Transition ingredients on Transition Network’s website to keep all comments in one place. Please leave feedback and comments, suggestions for alternative pictures, anecdotes, stories and projects for this ingredient here).

The challenge:

Creating a vision of the future is all very well, but could well become an enjoyable but rather abstract dreaming exercise if it is not also accompanied by a process of backcasting. Visions of the future are the first step to a concrete plan for how to make that future a reality, otherwise they are a waste of time, and merely fantasy.

Core Text

Backcasting is a straightforward idea, one which follows on naturally from the process of visioning. I’m sure it has been around for a while, but the first time I heard of it was in an excellent book “Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns Can Change to Sustainable Practices” by Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti (2004). They argue for a process which starts with visioning a desirable future and then working backwards. It is based on the question “if we want to get somewhere, what actions do we need to take in order to get there?”

For example, if by 2018, 50% of any new buildings in a community are proposed to include 50% local materials, backcasting is very useful in terms of identifying what would need to be done by when, in order for this to be a possibility. If construction-grade hemp is to be a key part of that, backcasting allows you to consider:

• By when would the infrastructure for processing locally grown hemp need to be in place?
• At what stage would it be necessary to begin training local builders in using hemp in construction?
• When would the first trials on local farmland need to take place?

…. and so on. Key to successful backcasting is that the future scenarios that underpin it are desired outcomes, and have emerged from some sort of visioning process. It can also be done for a range of scenarios which can emerge from a futures scenario planning process. You could think of it that forecasting and scenario planning go in one direction, from here forward, whereas backcasting comes the other way, from the future back to us.

When Transition Town Totnes was creating its Energy Descent Action Plan, backcasting played a key role. In the first round of workshops, people identified their key assumptions about the kind of future they were anticipating. Then they looked at future scenarios, and what they felt to be most likely, concluding with a visioning exercise, inviting people to imagine the scenarios they had created. After this was done, the backcasting began, in two stages. Firstly workshop participants were invited to backcast in groups, moving around between the tables to share ideas, identifying what felt like the crucial stages in the journey towards the vision of the future that they had created. They also made use of ‘The Transition Timeline’, a long laminated board showing a line running from 2009 to 2030, onto which people were invited to post future events or stories written on Post-it notes (see photo above). Secondly, the team creating the EDAP then pulled together the material created in the workshops and used them as the foundation for a more detailed narrative, a more thorough timeline for Transition1. Backcasting proved to be a dynamic and highly creative process, involving a great mixture of serious thought and silly imaginative flights of fancy.

One exercise which is a good way of bringing backcasting to life is the 2030 School Reunion exercise which was first done at the launch of the process that led to the creation of TTT’s ‘EDAP’2. Here 4 actors play different characters who all attended the local secondary school in 2010. The group divides into 4 smaller groups, each of which has lots of cards each of which tell a different aspect of the story of where the character’s life went between 2010 and 2030, and what happened in the world around them. The audience share what they know about the character, and then after discussion in groups, the actors role play a school reunion, and the characters meeting each other and catching up on their lives. If done well, with good actors, it can be a surprisingly engaging and moving exercise.

The solution:

Once your initiative, through a range of activities and processes, has developed a vision of the future of the community in a lower-energy world, the next step is to backcast. How might we get there, year on year? Which structures and institutions would need to be in place in order for it to become a reality? Where do we start, and indeed, what have we already done that might also be useful? The process of backcasting is creative, fun and also very much focuses the mind on where best to expend our energy to get the Transition process underway.

Connections to other patterns:

Facilitating successful backcasting is a great opportunity to engage ARTS AND CREATIVITY in the process, and also some of the COMMUNITY BRAINSTORMING TOOLS may also be useful. Some of the existing PRACTICAL MANIFESTATIONS already underway can be a good place to start in exploring their potential. MEANINGFUL MAPS can be very good for rooting your backcasting in a context, as can the ROLE OF STORYTELLING, to bring these ideas to life.


1. Which can be read in Hodgson, J, Hopkins, R. (2010) Transition in Action: Totnes and District 2030: an Energy Descent Plan. Transition Town Totnes/Green Books.

2. You can read a write-up of this exercise and how to do it on Transition Culture here.

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