Imagining a desired future can inspire strategy and action, but the path to success is not always obvious. At innovate change, we use future focused scenarios to provide a picture of the future, then we ‘backcast’ to work out how to get there. Developing policy, services or programmes from this perspective helps us to imagine the impact of our plans on real people.
Future focused scenarios
Future visions are commonly used as a tool for planning, especially in relation to strategy, disasters or sustainability.
They are useful for getting a diverse range of stakeholders to articulate their shared vision of a desirable future. Future focused scenarios can also be used as part of a design process to encourage people to imagine specific outcomes or ideas in concrete ways.
Future focused scenarios work best when developed collectively through a participatory process. Not only does a participatory process allow for a rich range of inputs to shape scenarios, but it enables stakeholder learning and buy-in.
One of the ways we have developed scenarios is by facilitating the co-creation of the scenarios in a workshop environment. We provide ‘ingredients’, such as the name and age of a persona, indicators of success, and key trends. Workshop participants blend these ingredients with a dash of imagination to create a scenario that describes a desirable future situation. When we worked on the National Drug Policy, this participatory approach enabled a range of government officials to realise how drug and alcohol issues had an impact on their work, regardless of their actual work area.
Once we have created future focused scenarios, we can work backwards to determine how to reach the desired vision or state. Through ‘backcasting’, people identify the key events, conditions and triggers that would be needed to reach this future. The key question at this stage is “what would need to exist for this state or vision to be arrived at?” Or, in other words, “What actions and assumptions lead us to this future?”
Backcasting from future focused scenarios is an alternative to forecasting. Forecasting is unlikely to generate solutions that break trends or challenge the status quo, because its point of departure is the present situation and dominant trends. Backcasting, on the other hand, takes us on a journey to the desired future from the present, by starting with the destination we want to reach then working backwards. When we aim to achieve sustainable systems-level change and innovation, backcasting is a useful tool.
We have also found backcasting to be a helpful method for generating and sharpening ideas. It can be easy to come up with new ideas that sound great but are not that feasible in practice. Backcasting can be a good reality check.
In our workshops and innovation injection sessions, we sometimes provide participants with a half-formed idea and ask them to work backwards, identifying what must exist or change for this idea to work. Participants then identify various activities, conditions, resources, roles and behaviours that underlie the idea. This activity can complement prototyping as a useful way to quickly break open and tease out an idea.
If you’re interested in finding out more about future focused scenarios and backcasting, here are a couple of useful sources you might like to check out: