Backcasting: Imagining the future

We’ve all heard of forecasting, the art of looking at current and past data, trends and ways of thinking to predict the future. Yet forecasting rarely gives rise to big audacious inventions. The most that forecasting will allow us to do is create bigger even monstrous versions of what exists, but something novel? I think not. To do that, we need to do the exact opposite. We need to travel to the future and then work our way back into the present. Allow me to share a term that I very recently stumbled upon and can’t get out of my head. If you know me, you know how strongly I believe in fancy terms that increasing stickiness and backcasting is exactly that.

Backcasting starts by taking a leap into the future and embracing all that is preposterous. It focuses on all that outrageous, unique and breaks the shackles of feasibility. The brains behind the cartoon series ‘Jetsons’ introduced us a few decades ago to a series of preposterous ideas that are now part of our everyday life.  In the words of Mike Maples, Jr. Co-founder and partner at Floodgate and whose blog introduced me to the term – “Breakthrough builders are visitors from the future, telling us what’s coming. They seem crazy in the present but they are right about the future”.

In Mike’s opinion, there are three steps to backcasting. You can stay here and read them or you could head to his blog and read them there. I recommend you do both.

Step 1: Look for inflections

This step involves fine tuning our observation skills to spot any shift in circumstances, behavior and beliefs. While some argue that it is the major shifts that signal where there might be a breakthrough, I believe that the tiny ones are just as indicative. When you begin to keep your antennas alert for shifts – tectonic or otherwise, you are more likely to amplify them in your future imaginary world. These shifts will rarely tell you what the breakthrough is but when you begin to fold them into your imagination, you might just strike gold. These could be technology, regulatory or belief inflections. The reason they form step one is because they help you with a starting point that you can then extend.

Step 2: Live in the future

This is by far the best activity one can engage in. So often we are encouraged not to live in the past or the future but to savour the present. This is one opportunity to live in the future and do so meaningfully. There exists a future that is plausible, one that is possible and then one that is so preposterous that you may find yourself feeling foolish. The best thing to do is ‘take up residence in the future.’ Once you have lived in the future for long enough, you will automatically arrive at step 3 that allows you to backtrack into the present.

Step 3: Gather breakthrough insights

Insights are future scenarios that are exponential and surprising. This stage involves seeking out other future thinkers and figuring which insights when followed through could make the future possible. Insights here are not the conclusions that you derive from looking at existing data or trends, these are signs that weave together different kinds of information to identify non-obvious opportunities or needs.  Bounce these insights with different people under different scenarios. Collect multiple insights and view them from every angle.

When you’ve flowed through each step, you will likely end up with something big and audacious. It is then time to put your head down and build the team that will build the jet that will take you to your imagined future. We all know that we are going to end up in a future that is very different from now. It could be because we have destroyed the climate (or saved it), battled a virus or found ourselves on a different planet. Either ways, only our imagination will get us there.


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