In envisioning the future what are our options as designers? We can employ trends to forecast the directions in which our solution should evolve. But is there another way? I am a great fan of backcasting — imagining the desired future and working our way backwards. It offers space for a design vision and the impact which we would like to see happen.
Wherever I look around people ask for trends to define the directions in which their products or services should evolve. How should we change our banking system for Millennials? What sort of home-care technology would elderly accept? Trends help to see some possible directions.
Trends are a part of forecasting methodology, which according to Wikipedia is: “the process of making predictions of the future based on past and present data and most commonly by analysis of trends.[…] Risk and uncertainty are central to forecasting; it is generally considered good practice to indicate the degree of uncertainty attaching to forecasts.”
I’ve worked with trends for quite some time and more often than not felt that the concepts created based on them felt short with respect to their potential. In other words, I had an impression that the outcomes were often solutions for today not for the future. And what’s more — they were following the business policies rather than actual customer needs.
So, I kept on looking around for a different approach.
One day I bumped into a term: backcasting. It sounded intriguing. Wikipedia says: “Backcasting is a planning method that starts with defining a desirable future and then working backwards to identify policies and programs that will connect that specified future to the present. The fundamental question of backcasting asks: ‘if we want to attain a certain goal, what actions must be taken to get there?’”
Backcasting allows for shifting the focus from the contemporary to the desired future. This approach is already used in urban planning, resource management of water and energy, sustainability, climate reconstruction and cosmology. Why not use it in design?
I believe that backcasting offers an opportunity to define the future rather than to keep on following the trends as they emerge as a conglomeration of coincidences. It gives us a chance to become deterministic not opportunistic. To define the variables we would like to see happen rather then to wait for the unpredictable futures.
But how to do it?
The general idea for backcasting seems pretty straightforward: you imagine the desired future scenario(s) and work your way backwards. Let’s take reduction of consumption as a topic. Research points out what level of consumption will offer a sustainable future for us. Obviously, the problem is of the “wicked” kind with levels of complexity and interdependability. Yet, it is not impossible to imagine parallel scenarios that could be applied leading to reduction of food waste, overuse of cars or irresponsible agricultural practices. It sounds as straightforward as boring. Somehow there is a limited number of cool tools that might make the backcasting popular within the Design Thinking movement. I keep on thinking how to bring attractiveness to the term and thus far came up with one pretty powerful tool.
Letter from the future
Imagine your service or product is already on the market and it has been a success. Your customer has just written to you praising you for the positive impact your service had on her life. How would such a letter sound?
I run this exercise for the first time during a design challenge regarding fighting obesity with men over 50. That’s how the letter from our customer Joe sounded like:
“Hi Be a Hero creators,
Thank you for creating your platform. It has transformed my life and the lives of my family and some friends. I have almost given up on losing weight. what can you do if you have put 60 kilos over your belt? It feels like a mountain to climb and you simply give up before you even get started. I was at terms with the fact that I might be dying a little prematurely but I thought: at least I had my share of steaks. This is what I thought. But down deep I knew it was not good for me and not good for my family.
One day I was driving a couple who started chatting about the Be a hero program. It sounded like a typical charity program at first and I know I don’t have enough money to join all these programs around. But then they said that you can “exchange” your weight for money paid by Coca Cola and some other company (I never heard of them before). That sounded too good to be true. Then a few days later I heard an interview on the radio, which again mentioned this program. It was Stephen Fry. He had this rant about him going back and forth on his weight to keep on helping others. I laughed to the tears about that. And I thought that maybe this might be something for me. What triggered me: this thought that even if I don’t manage to lose it all, I can do something good. You get a few ways to help others if you are behind your wheel day in day out.
I mentioned it to Clara. She laughed at first. But then when we were at Tesco, she spotted these scales wit the Be a hero brand and she started teasing my to try it out if I wanted to. To be honest, I felt annoyed and embarrassed at the same time. I am not a person to laugh at. I grabbed the scale — fortunately it was in promotion — and bought it. Obviously, I regretted it the moment we got home. I didn’t even want to know how much I weighed. But the box for the scale had some powerful line saying how much you could help yourself and others. So, I decided to check it out online.
The cool thing was, that I didn’t have to subscribe to anything to poke around. I could set up a call with a coach and explain what went though my head. That helped. He suggested I joined one of the weekly meetings of one of the groups to listen in. I saw myself among the guys like me, fighting the same stuff as I. I thought: Hell, let’s give it a try…
I registered. I got on my scale. That was freaky. I knew now I was far more overweight I dared to admit… so, it felt like there was no way back;) I got to choose the charity I wanted to contribute. I don’t feel that much for the causes from the other side of the world but I spotted one helping the animal shelter in my county. I am a big fan of dogs, so I thought — this one looks like something for me.
The next scary thing was all this technology I needed to master to join in. All these Zooms, Slacks, WordPresses… The cool thing was that at first I just downloaded Zoom and kept on logging to the portal to join my mates. And slowly they got me onto all these other tools.
As I was to loose s#^t lot of weigh, the coaches scheduled a bi-daily meetings with me for the first two weeks to make a solid plan. They also asked me to go to my GP to get a proper check-up (another scary “must do”). We came up with the plan and I shared that plan with my group. We would meet up any time one of us needed some pat in the back. We would chat on Slack and push each other to stick to our plan. Some days were rough. For me. But I could see how others broke and raised over and over again. So, what the hell could I have done — I just had to go for it.
Two weeks later I check my charity “results” — it turned out that I virtually supported this dog Al. By losing my first 5 kilos I managed to sponsor his food for three months. Whoa! that was something. I showed it to Clara and she said: hell, I need to join you in this platform, cause you spend more time chatting with them than with me. And if you turn into this slim dude, I will have to get prettier myself.
One year later, I am 30 kilos lighter and Clara lost 15 kilos. We adopted Al… He is a devil biting everything around. We should have known better;) But he is a family now and he makes me walk my 10 000 steps. I supported 5 other dogs with food for next 6 months. Clara got hooked into helping our school (you can create your own charity plans with be a hero — that is powerful). She even managed to convince other mothers to join in and now they are not only gossiping in the real world, they are constantly online. This gets annoying but I am the only one to blame for introducing her to Be a hero.
Funny — what started as a small step grew into our life style. We met a lot of great people and formed new friendships. I am telling my clients about my story and they are really impressed. It is a cool topic to discuss, especially as I have all the coins glued to my car.
It doesn’t mean it was not hard. But it was worthwhile — that’s for sure!
Yeah, but does it work?
After the initial success, I kept on using this method with my clients and it really shows a great potential. There is, of course, an initial reluctance to write the letter. People in the workshops look at me with a huge question mark in their eyes wondering: are you really asking us to do it? But over and over again, after the exercise is over, they feel inspired and more courageous to design something that goes beyond the next quarter gains. Backcasting offers an opportunity to have a real influence. To make the world a happier place. A place we want it to be.