“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” – Soren Kierkegaard (1844)

This quote from Danish Philosopher Kierkegaard illustrates a well-known issue in futures research: we act in the hope of specific outcomes or consequences (‘forward’ perspective), whereas we look at the past and see sets of causes (‘backward’ perspective). Those two perspectives enact opposite logics, set at different moments in time and space – so that forward and backward looking are quite irreconcilable. This explains in turn why, most of the time, outcomes don’t come well in line with initial expectations.

As far as futures studies are concerned, some work has nonetheless been undertaken and a few methods take to remedy this state of affairs. The ‘backcasting’ approach comes first in this category. It consists of working backwards from a desired future in order to identify major causes (in terms of events and processes, systems, …). From then on, a bigger picture of what is at stake with the desired future is shaped.

“Backcasting reminds participants that the future is not linear, and can have many alternative outcomes depending on decisions made and the impact of external events on an organisation”. – Raphael Popper

Backcasting nevertheless applies specifically in contexts where envisioning a desired future makes sense. Alternatively, it can also serve as thought experiment, with the aim of getting to think of futures through various perspectives.