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Back to the Future

Today's need for new solutions calls for "backcasting" as an alternative to integrated design.

By Scott Lewis
July 2012
Illustration by Ciara Phelan\www.colagene.com

Ever considered putting a futurist on your design team? One might help you overcome one of the biggest obstacles to the creation of a sustainable future—the integrated design process. Consider what John Robinson wrote in 1988 in the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change: "To the degree that the future is not already determined but remains to be created, then the search for the most likely future (i.e., the best prediction) is not only misguided but counterproductive. Thus, what are needed are not techniques that converge on likelihood but techniques that reveal possibility and test the feasibility and impacts of alternative futures."

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Integrated design for sustainability does not equip us to "reveal possibility." Instead, it is used to eke out marginal gains by optimizing the design process after we have predicted what we think we can "realistically" achieve, given the familiar constraints—fear of untested solutions, apprehension about budgets and schedules, the tendency to avoid risk and embrace the familiar.

I prefer a methodology called backcasting, which prompts design teams to look beyond "realistic" visions for projects by instead envisioning outcomes that fulfill the scientifically validated principles of sustainability. Backcasting turns the notion of forecasting—the practice of looking forward from where you are today to predict a future outcome—on its head. It says simply, What are the necessary steps to get from where you are today to the end result?

Backcasting gained currency for sustainable development in 2001, when Karl-Henrik Robért, Paul Hawken, and others published an article titled "Strategic Sustainable Development" in the Journal of Cleaner Production. They explained, "Without first defining a future 'landing place' on a systems level, reaching sustainability is an unlikely outcome of any effort."

Inspired by this article, four collaborators and I adapted backcasting for built environment planning and design applications. I have used backcasting on dozens of projects in my firm. But what is significant about these projects is not that a high level of LEED certification was achieved but, rather, the problem-solving innovation that backcasting stimulated.

The vision for the double-platinum (NC and EB) Oregon Health and Science University Center for Health and Healing (GreenSource, October 2007) was to "integrate the principle of The Natural Step sustainability framework into all design, materials selection, and construction process decisions to the maximum extent possible." This overall vision led the team to set a goal of no potable water for non-potable uses. At the time, Oregon did not permit the use of rainwater for fixture flushing. Rather than dismissing rainwater use as impossible, the backcasting process prompted the team to ask, "What do we need to do today to make this possible?" They ended up working with state officials to change the code.

In a world challenged by climate change, vanishing species, and resource scarcity crises, innovative approaches that challenge conventional thinking are not only interesting—they are urgently needed. Rather than forecasting what can be achieved within the usual constraints and submitting to a vision of a predetermined future, backcasting puts sustainable designers in the driver's seat. In asking, "What future will you create?" it returns your greatest powers—creativity and choice.

Scott Lewis is the founder and CEO of Brightworks Sustainability Advisors which has offices across the country.


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