Backcasting the Future

Photo: Startup Stock Photos

Suppose you’ve ever watched the evening news. In that case, you might have noticed that one of the most popular local television segments includes the weather forecast, a prediction of what weather will look like at a given time.

Instead of forecasting and predicting the future, I’d like to introduce you to the concept of backcasting. Backcasting is a planning tool that helps plan complex problems. The process looks at a desired future outcome and then identifies the events that need to occur to achieve that goal. 

Backcast by Design

I’ve grown to love the backcasting model. Effective educators heavily use backcasting to develop curriculum. However, they call the practice backward design. The educator identifies the desired outcome for student learning and then creates all the required skills and lessons students need to become proficient.

For example, I want my students to create a mini-documentary of their community in my media arts class. For these students to be successful in this project, I have backcasted all of the necessary skills students need to have to be successful in their endeavors. Some of the backcasted lessons include:

  1. Setting up a tripod and camera
  2. Developing an understanding of technical camera controls
  3. Becoming proficient with principles of photography
  4. Recording audio
  5. Conducting in-depth interviews
  6. Managing media in digital editing software
  7. Creating  basic video editing cuts
  8. Developing a concise narrative story
  9. Gathering and editing secondary video footage
  10. Color grading footage
  11. Enhancing edits with primary video effects
  12. Soliciting feedback and refining work.
  13. Compressing and delivering video projects for web distribution

By breaking down all of the skills required by students, I can plan more effectively and with intent. It also helps to know what the assessment looks like at the end of the unit, a documentary film.  I can collect additional data from evaluations along the way to monitor progress and adjust my practice as I see fit, ultimately leading students through this journey with a vision of the result.

The result of backcasting: ‘Close to 190,000.’ This student film received a National Student Production Award, and New England Regional Student Production Award.

In contrast, some teachers prefer not to use this method. Instead, teachers look at content, plan a sequence of activities and lessons, and develop an assessment at the end of the task. I’d argue this is not an effective practice of planning, as it encourages disengagement from students, as the assessment is not the driving force of the lesson. Without having a tangible outcome, students will realize that the unit is pointless and incur a regression of student learning.

Backcasting Complex Issues

Photo: Roxi Nicolussi

Backcasting increases value for all sectors and industries, particularly in areas that need to solve a complex problem whose solution is not yet determined. It promotes innovation and forces people to think more critically of unknown possibilities. 

An example of historic backcasting comes from the invention of the automobile. Henry Ford turned to backcast the car when horses caused significant health issues with abundant horse manure in cities across the globe. He didn’t just come up with a solution. He transformed the way people move across the world by challenging the accepted norms of society. 

The vision affords to backcast its strength. Currently, researchers and scientists develop backcasting methodologies to solve immense world problems.

Researcher Simon Elias Bibri utilizes backcasting to develop sustainable cities and identifies backcasting as a critical tool for his research.

‘Backcasting is a special scenario methodology to develop future models for the smart, sustainable city as a planning tool for urban sustainability. Goal-oriented backcasting approaches declare long-range targets that lie quite far in the future. Visionary images of a long-term future can stimulate an accelerated movement towards achieving the goals of urban sustainability.”

Simon Elias Bibri

Researchers David N. Bengston, Lynne M. Westphal, and Michael J. Dockry developed a backcasting wheel method used to revise the US Forest Service plan.

“The essence of Backcasting is developing a pathway that connects a preferred future to the present and identifying milestones along the pathway that can be used by planners and policymakers to track progress (UK Government Office for Science 2017).”

David N. Bengston, Lynne M. Westphal, and Michael J. Dockry

While I don’t know what the future looks like, backcasting certainly can help create the vision of the future, and design a pathway for that future to materialize.

Leave a Reply