Backcasting? Presencing? Reverse Engineering a Vision of the Future

Backcasting Our Way to a Better Future: 8 Eye-Opening Scenarios

I like this idea. I have seen it before in Otto Scharmer’s works, Theory U and Leading from the Emerging Future. He calls it “presencing” and has spent most of his adult life leading people to learn how to do “presencing”. I have a hard time getting some of Scharmer’s ideas, but this one by Thomas Frey, backcasting, seems like an entry trick into learning how to be present to emerging futures just as Scharmer advocates. In this case here is the template that Frey uses in his very handy article, “Backcasting Our Way to a Better Future: 8 Eye-Opening Scenarios“.

Frey assumes the following:

  1. The internal steering wheel that our subconscious relies on to guide us through our daily lives is our inner vision of the future.
  2. We all have an inner vision of the future. It is our subconscious guide, our steering wheel.
  3. While we’re not conscious of its role and how it works, our inner vision determines every action we will       take today. In other words, our inner vision determines our outer daily action.
  4. Every potential decision (to buy, to do, to be) requires a yea or nay from the inner vision.

Frey sees his role as one of helping people rethink their inner vision of the future. If they change that vision, then they will change the way they currently make decisions. This is an optimistic way of viewing change: we can, with the help of others and ourselves, rethink our inner vision of what the future holds and in turn change how we make new decisions, decisions based on new, revised futures.

One of the tools Frey likes to work with he calls “backcasting”. Backcasting is one way to revise the inner vision with a new, emergent future. Backcasting is unlike forecasting–predicting the future from sensing what is happening now. Backcasting is a technique that starts in the future and works backwards.

Here is a backcasting scenario specifically designed by Frey. He wants us to think of backcasting as a form of reverse engineering where we envision a potential future then identifying tech, policies and plans that can build a path from future to present. With backcasting, a successful outcome is imagined and the question is asked, “What do we need to do today to reach that vision of the future?”

Here is Frey’s first scenario:

Scenario #1

Newspaper headline reads: “New gravity-controlling technology demonstrated, reduces gravity by as much as 50%”

Newton’s laws of gravity provide us with a description of how the forces of gravity affect us, but not what gravity is. Even today, gravity remains a mysterious force, whose nature and attributes have confounded researchers for centuries.

Anti-gravity has been an ongoing theme among science fiction writers ever since H.G. Wells talked about the gravity blocking substance “Cavorite” in his book The First Men in the Moon, but even as researchers have made some inroads, the field of gravity remains poorly understood.


If someone actually invents a gravity-reducing technology, what is the best way to demonstrate it?

What are some of the ways a gravity reducing technology will be used in business and industry? Also, what are the potential abuses?

How long before we see headlines like this?

Here is how I might turn this into a template

Scenario #1

  • Step one:  Create newspaper headline that refers to some new idea in the future as above.The headline is one that embraces a concept in the future as the one above–gravity control
  • Step two: Introduce background on current concept (gravity) then background on new concept (anti-gravity)
  • Step three: Ask questions that trigger adjacency thinking, affordances thinking, possibilities thinking. Types of questions: If-Then? How might the concept be used? Abused? Timeline?

My Backcasting Scenario

Class Newspaper headline reads: Non-ESL Teacher Helps Mixed ESL/Native Speaker Writing Composition Learners Improve Reading and Writing Fluency

Background on ESL for non-ESL teachers: I have had several composition classes filled with ESL students. They are very difficult to teach on every level. Do they understand your teaching goals? Do those goals fit with theirs? Where is their fluency at the moment? How will you take them to competency and how will you measure that? New techniques have been created that allow Non-ESL teachers to perform 50% better than before.

  • Questions:
    • Do ESL instructors know how to help non-ESL instructors teach non-native speakers? Can juniors and seniors in university who are still non-fluent in English writing and reading perform at an advance composition level?
    • If we use these tools, will they help with fluency in English?
      • Make it Visual
      • Build in more group work.
      • Communicate with the ESL teacher.
      • Honor the “silent period.”
      • Allow some scaffolding with the native language.
      • Look out for culturally unique vocabulary.
      • Use sentence frames to give students practice with academic language.
      • Pre-teach whenever possible.
      • Learn about the cultural background of your students, but don’t make a child speak for his entire culture.
      • Show them how to take themselves  less seriously, but always take them  seriously.

Still working on this. I will try some more of these scenarios, but the idea of reverse engineering the classroom future is fascinating especially if you involve your learners at every step along the way.  I would love for every student in my classes to be able to create their own backcast scenario for the semester especially my students who have never been given the opportunity.


  1. // Reply

    Hi Terry,

    The idea of “backcasting” may have roots in this paper by Dr. Richard Elmore, of Harvard University, titled, “Forward and Backward Mapping: Reversible Logic in the Analysis of Public Policy.”
    It was published in 1983 thus this link to the article points to a hard-to-read PDF.

    I first found a copy of this in the early 1990s and the thinking has influenced me since then. Instead of gov’t or foundations setting a target and providing strict rules for how you get t here, this suggest setting a target and providing the resources to people at the starting line, then keep providing on-going support to help them innovate ways to reach the target.

    My graphics point to an end goal of kids becoming fully functioning adults, with jobs, after 20-25 years of support from when they are born. Providing resources to school and non-school support systems who are aligning their work with this long-term target is what I continue to encourage.

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