Backcasting to the future

Valerie Keller
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The year was 2025. The place was the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos where 200 Young Global Leaders convened a Planetary Congress with the goal of “backcasting” to a more sustainable, equitable world.

As ‘Keeper’ of this congress, I guided our backcasting, looking at demographic, social and technological game-changers since 2013. Thirteen ‘Guardians’ of the world’s systems drew on their real-world expertise to lead debates on governance, trade, business and finance, jobs, urbanization, media, health, the environment and food-water-energy nexus.

Based on current data trends, the pictures painted of our 2025 world were, not surprisingly, often bleak. But there was hope: armed with new information and revelations, the congress members could go back to 2013 and do it right.

As we experienced in Davos, the impact of such “backcasting” is palpable and transformative. The biggest “ah ha” moment from immersing oneself in a future world is a striking awareness of the interdependencies of all systems. Gains in food access and nutrition, for example, are impossible without linking and syncing with water, energy and the environment; losses in one area incur correlated losses in others.

Backcasting makes another reality crystal clear. In our complex world of 2013 – as our host planet is ailing, many economies stagnating and social inequalities growing – we critically need collaboration and cooperation. Drawing on Buckminster Fuller’s analogy of Earth as a spaceship, without active stewardship, we perish. It is time we fully embrace the mentality that we are all in this together and that our finite resources should be used wisely.

The RIO+20 Sustainable Development Goals give humanity a compelling charter: inclusive social development, inclusive economic development, environmental sustainability, peace and security. But realizing these noble goals requires politicians exiting their echo chambers, business people coming out of corporate suites, activists off protest lines and academics out of ivory towers. It requires mutual understanding and implementing shared visions across industries and geographies, and across generations, cultures and faiths.

While our world clearly has a long way to go in this respect, I am heartened by global strides towards an emerging ethos of interconnectivity and collaboration. During the Forum’s Annual Meeting we saw this mindset manifested in debates about sustainability, shared value and a shifting from linear (take-consume-throw away) to circular (design-to-reuse) economies.

The backcasting challenge for the Young Global Leaders was to design a world that works for everyone – where even our most vulnerable can live with dignity and fulfillment. Creating that world is the challenge for us all.

Given our rapid-fire pace and short-termism – and considering all the complexities and interconnectivities – it is often difficult to start from “here” and think about “there”. It is often easier and more powerful to start from “there” and design backwards – for teams in companies and countries to backcast to a more sustainable and equitable future. That is the power of backcasting: it shows us how to get it right going forward from today to prevent hindsight regrets in our future.

Author: Valerie Keller is CEO of Veritas and Associate Fellow at University of Oxford, SaÏd Business School and participated at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos 2013

Image: The logo of the World Economic Forum is seen in Davos REUTERS/Michael Buholzer

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