Instructions for a Future-Backwards activity: Backcasting to shift the status quo

Quote from Elise Boulding, “We cannot achieve what we cannot imagine.” White text on purple background.
Quote from Peace Studies activist Elise Boulding. Illustrations by Rachel Arredondo

Here I provide instructions for an activity of backcasting called Future-Backwards. Imagining a path backwards can be a powerful tool to inform strategies to move forward. Future-Backwards uses ideas about long-term futures as a creative — rather than analytical — assessment. Future concepts are vehicles to explore, generate, and engage with, rather than for predicting or validating. These activities can help define, strategize, and rehearse paths to imagining the ambitious change we want to help bring about.

Essentially, instead of planning from the present day, which tends to trap our thinking within the status quo, this practice has you plan backwards from where you could end up. Whether collaborative or solo, it often reveals new ideas about what we definitely want to try to do and what we definitely want to avoid.

Quote from Vincent Ialenti, “In this spirit of adventurous learning, we can practice stretching our minds across time.” Black text with purple highlights. Graphics illustrate looking backwards.
Quote from Vincent Ialenti, “In this spirit of adventurous learning, we can practice stretching our minds across time.” Black text with purple highlights. Graphics illustrate looking backwards.

This format of a backcasting activity was developed by consultancy, Cognitive Edge, and it can be used in almost any context. You might try it out with personal projects, business contexts, and social justice activities. It is typically done with sticky notes on a wall, so that they can be seen by a group of people and moved around. But I have also had success with this as a simple online worksheet.

Participants can be rushed through this in an hour, but it is more robust to set aside a 3+ hours, if working with several other people, so that each step can be discussed. Most often, with activities like this, it is the conversation, not the end product, that teaches us the most.

The activity has six steps, once you have identified the situation to work on.

Setup:

  • Identifying your opportunity area.It could be as broad as “the future of our organization” or as specific as “this 3-month project I’m about to start.” I’ve used this activity to think through my own PhD research, how an innovation lab can increase its influences within an organization, and with how education might become less colonizing… so the sky is not the limit here!
  • Bringing the right people into the room is important for setup. Following Christine Ortiz Guzman’s approaches to equitable processes, we can ask, “Who is most proximate to the problem?” Who is harmed by this issue, who has influence, who has lived experience? Bringing those folks together to generate new visions will be generative and informative.

Think about strengths and weaknesses. Prioritize the most significant aspects of the opportunity space. These might be, “We meet our budget goals every year.” Or “We are good at attracting new volunteers, but they don’t stick around long.” Sticky notes or computer documents are useful for this, because you can write out a series of ideas and then move the three most important to the top of your list and hide the rest.

This is a chance to go deep into the doomsday scenarios. Imagine a ridiculously bad future: perhaps your work increases the amount of racism in the world, or people are displaced, disenfranchised, or sickened by your efforts! You may need to pick a time horizon for this one, if it’s not inherent in your situation. If it is a big space with significant changes needed, it is helpful to set a far time horizon. “In 30 years, if we have fully embraced diversity, equity, and inclusion, what will this organization look like?” It is provocative and enlightening to imagine the worst possible outcome in 30 or 50 years. It is a long enough time horizon that big shifts might be possible. That’s what we are going for here. But, if you have chosen a 3-month project, while it would be interesting to think through the impact it will have in the long term, it may be most helpful to say, “As the end of this project, what is the worst that could happen?” And then you will move into the positive light.

The same rules apply though. Imagine a ridiculously optimistic future. No filters, no second guessing. What will it look like when this work is amazingly successful and changes the world? Brainstorm a series of options and then select the three that are most significant or useful.

And then “backwards” begins.

Image of a digital sticky note board setup for backcasting from two possible futures (ideal and worst-case)

Starting from the outrageously positive future, we are going to imagine the path that got you here, backwards — starting from the last event that caused everything to fall into place. With a sticky note just to the left of the final three sentences, what would be the event that happens right before all of the goals are reached? And then, what would happen right before that? And before that? Depending on the amount of time you have, you can timebox this activity and move on after ten or thirty minutes. Or you can stick with this backwards path until you reach the present day.

And then, do the same for the hellish state.

Here you start to see the actions that need to be prevented and avoided. Once you have completed your mapping of the Futures-Backwards, you take time to reflect on what you learned.

Do you have a new perspective on the who, what, how, where, when, and why of your work? This activity often reveals new objectives we hadn’t focused on before, and new ways to be cautious.

  • What are the key messages in your vision?
  • What actions could you add to your planning?
  • How do we take steps to avoid that terrible future coming into being?
  • What do you want to be sure to bring with you into the future?
  • What do you want to leave behind?

And then let me know how it went!

Additional details from Cognitive Edge

Additional instructions here, Adventures with Agile: Future-Backwards

Another favorite activity: 3-Horizons

Design → AntiRacism → Design | pursuing a PhD in #TransitionDesign @CarnegieMellonDesign