Sustainability Backcasting In Gothenburg

PhD Summer School Group Photo

Sustainability backcasting is vital if we are to achieve long term sustainability. This article explains how and why we should undertake backcasting.

This is a short article on my experience on the Climate KIC PhD Summer School in the beautiful city of Gothenburg, Sweden, learning about how to use the Backcasting Method to solve complex societal problems from the master of backcasting himself – Prof. John Holmberg.

Every year, Climate KIC runs a two week PhD summer school aimed at educating and inspiring PhD students working in the field of sustainability. This year the summer school was held in Gothenburg – home to the largest harbour in Scandinavia, Volvo and the Challenge Lab – situated at Chalmers University.

PhD Summer School

The Challenge Lab allows masters students to take on the planets biggest challenges together with the triple helix – industry, government and academia. The aim of the challenge hub is to become an important hub for the triple helix actors within the five regional knowledge clusters where all actors can gather around the students, as they all are interested in and care for the students.

“Backcasting is a key process during the whole Challenge lab process (Holmberg and Robèrt 2000). Backcasting from sustainability principles is also the starting point to free the mind from today’s unsustainable path-depending system and start from a desirable sustainable future.”

Outline of the PhD Summer School

The aim of the summer school was to bring the PhD students, including myself, up to speed with cutting edge thinking on the backcasting process to solve complex sustainability challenges as well as expose us to real world challenges that Gothenburg and the surrounding region is experiencing with regards to transitioning to a more sustainable society.

We passed the first week receiving presentations from Prof. John Holmberg and the rest of the Challenge Lab team on techniques for backcasting, team working, dialogue and design thinking. We also visited a chemicals cluster that is hoping to transition to fossil free production by 2030. We were also set group challenges where we were able to practice the backcasting method in a real world environment.

Lessons learned

I could talk for hours about what I learned on the PhD summer school – however, to save both of us the time I will condense it down to my top three learnings:

Lesson 1: How to Backcast like a pro

To undertake the backcasting process you need to follow four steps.

Step 1: The Future Firstly allow your stakeholders to cast forward into the future. To imagine a society that they would like to live in, say 2050. To do this they need to use the four pillars of sustainable development – economy, environment, society and wellbeing. Under each of these they need to identify and agree a list of fundamental principles  – for example under environment, a fundamental principle may be – “In order for a society to be sustainable, nature’s functions and diversity are not systematically subject to increasing concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust”.

The point of these principles, as John pointed out is that creativity is supported if experts in various fields share the framework for planning on a principle level, but are allowed to be free to handle the concrete details within that framework.

Once the principles have been decided a vision can be agreed upon.

Step 2: Current Reality Next you must facilitate the stakeholders to map the current reality i.e. develop a model of reality as it is today. You can use a number of tools for this including mapping the system, looking at the differing scales of the problem – through the multi level perspective or the socio technical system model.

Step 3&4: Identify the gaps and generate ideas and concepts This is a challenging step. It requires identifying the gaps between the agreed future vision and the current reality. We adopted the 7 Step Design Thinking tool. I think this was one of the most valuable tools I learned. Basically, you list vision in the first column. Column two is the fundamental needs to achieve said vision. Column 3 lists the requirements for each need. Once you have the requirements, column 4 outlines the purpose of those needs, column 5 is the ideas, column 6 is the concepts (collection of ideas) and column 7 is how to visualise these ideas/concepts.

The aim of the process is to work from left to right in the table working your way across from column 1 to 7. The important thing to note that this process is iterative and you must continually return to a previous column to update/revise based on your findings. This was the hard part.

From this design process – you can then put in place clear steps to implement these ideas and solutions to reach the agreed vision.

PhD Summer School Working pic

Lesson 2: Vision is critical

The second lesson I learned is that two of the biggest reasons we fail to solve complex problems is that none of us are on the same page and we are trapped in short term thinking. As John put it, backcasting gives us the freedom not to think outside the box, but to entirely reinvent the box…together. Having gone through the experience – the fundamental principles were so useful at keeping the problem and the goal above any one stakeholder so that there was no risk of competitive gridlock or politics between stakeholder – rather they were all working towards the same unified goal.

Lesson 3: A neutral space is key

The final lesson I learned that having a neutral space, such as the Challenge Lab, is incredibly powerful for letting all the stakeholders, whether from government, industry or academia to leave their baggage at the door and work in a shared space together to co-envision the future.  Without such a space to really think broadly and more long term about the future, there is a big risk, in this rapidly changing and complex world that we would never reach a sustainable society as everyone would be running in totally different directions and would solely be focussed on their short term actions.

I am hopeful that if we can create more of these spaces, not just for industry and academia for for society at large, then we may help to avoid come of the huge problems that are facing us and future generations such as climate change, war, resource depletion and many others.

It makes sense that such an open and equal society that is Sweden harbours such a space. I think we can all learn a lot from these Fikaloving, frisbee golf playing bunch.

This blog originally appeared at Jack Barrie’s blog: Thinkcircles. Check it out if you want to know more about the transition to a circular economy.

See also the Storify from the PhD Summer School at Chalmers Challenge Lab in Gothenburg:



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