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“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) often unrelated to our own actions.

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 outcomes often don’t come well in line with our initial expectations.

Research in futures studies has nonetheless produced a few methods that 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, …).

Since we already intuitively forecast, the method, by focusing on the less intuitive backcasting, reconciles the two points of view. 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 applies specifically in contexts where envisioning a desired future makes sense. But it can also serve as thought experiment, with the aim of getting to think of futures through various perspectives.

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