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Backcasting is a planning method that starts with defining a desirable future and then works backwards to identify policies and programs that will connect the future to the present.[1] The fundamentals of the method were outlined by John. B Robinson from the University of Waterloo in 1990.[2] The fundamental question of backcasting asks: "if we want to attain a certain goal, what actions must be taken to get there?"[3][4]Forecasting is the process of predicting the future based on current trend analysis. Backcasting approaches the challenge of discussing the future from the opposite direction.[5]

In statistics and data analysis, backcasting can be considered the opposite of forecasting. Whereas forecasting is predicting the future (unknown) values of the dependent variables based on known values of the independent variable, backcasting can be considered the prediction of the unknown values of the independent variables that might have existed to explain the known values of the dependent variable.[6]

Practical applications

Backcasting is increasingly used in urban planning and resource management of water and energy. It was used by Dr. Peter Gleick and colleagues at the Pacific Institute in a 1995 study on California water policy, as an alternative to traditional California water planning approaches.[7] In 2006, the Capital Regional District Water Services, which services the greater Victoria area in British Columbia, Canada, committed to backcasting to the year 2050 as a formal element of all future strategic water planning initiatives.[8]

Backcasting is a key component of the soft energy path, a concept developed by Amory Lovins after the shock of the 1973 energy crisis in the United States.[9]

Backcasting from Sustainability Principles, or System conditions of sustainability is a key concept of the 'Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development' pioneered by Karl-Henrik Robèrt, founder of The Natural Step, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to applied research for sustainability, in cooperation with a global academic Alliance for Strategic Sustainable Development which links universities which cooperate with businesses, and other NGOs. It has been refined and tested by peer-review and application within businesses (widely known examples are: Interface, Nike, Whistler).

Backcasting is used in climate reconstruction or cosmology to determine the conditions (i.e., values of unknown independent variables) that existed in the distant past based on known (more accurately estimated) values of past dependent variables.[6]

Research groups that use backcasting

Other resources


  1. Page 12. The Soft Path for Water in a Nutshell (2005). Oliver M Brandes and David B. Brooks. A joint publication of Friends of the Earth Canada and the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance. University of Victoria, Victoria BC.
  2. Robinson, John. B. 1990. Futures under glass: a recipe for people who hate to predict Futures, vol. 22, issue 8, pp. 820–842.
  3. Tinker, J. 1996. From 'Introduction' ix-xv. Life in 2030: Exploring a Sustainable Future for Canada, edited by J.B. Robinson et al. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
  4. Page 5. Environmental Change and Challenge : A Canadian Perspective by Philip Dearden, Bruce Mitchell. ISBN 0-19-541014-9 / 9780195410143 / 0-19-541014-9. Oxford University Press.
  5. Holmberg, J. & Robèrt, K.H. 2000. Backcasting from non-overlapping sustainability principles: a framework for strategic planning. International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology, 74, 291–308.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Stan Development Team (2014-07-20). Stan Modeling Language: User's Guide and Reference Manual. pg. 39: Stan.CS1 maint: location (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Gleick, P.H., P. Loh, S.V. Gomez, J. Morrison. 1995. California Water 2020: A Sustainable Vision. Pacific Institute, Oakland, California (May 1995)
  9. "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?" published in Foreign Affairs, in October 1976