Visioning and Backcasting

Who is this for: Programme leaders, people supporting programme design process, people guiding project processes 

When you might need visioning and backcasting: Starting a project, reviewing and refreshing a project, needing to think broadly about project and impact, considering different options for getting a big picture, developing vision, getting a future perspective 




What are visioning and backcasting? 

Visioning is a future thinking tool that involves picturing a desirable future. It differs from forecasting, which aims to predict the future based on data and trends, and scenario building, which describes potential alternative futures based on key trends or decisions. Outputs from this process can provide inspiration, direction, and clarity to a project. 

A future-thinking tool complementary to visioning, backcasting involves identifying steps to achieving a desirable future. Backcasters imagine that they have achieved their vision and then identify steps that were required to achieve this. 

As visioning requires further steps to create practical actions and backcasting needs to start from a vision, it is best to use these two processes together. 


Why use visioning and backcasting? 

When working in complex spaces with many perspectives, knowledge sources, or stakeholders, it can be hard to clarify and get agreement on direction of projects. Using visioning and backcasting can provide a way to surface understandings and create a shared vision. These processes can also create motivation by giving a goal to work towards and a pathway to get there. 


When should visioning and backcasting be used? 

Visioning and backcasting may be most useful for complex projects at the idea development and project establishment stages, to bring clarity around direction and purpose. Involving stakeholders in these processes can be particularly helpful, so everyone has a shared understanding.  

Other times in a project lifespan when these tools may be useful include: 

  • Annual/ biannual reviews of project direction and purpose
  • Times of uncertainty about project vision and direction 
  • Reviews of project impact. 

What specific approaches are out there? 

There are many ways to conduct these processes. For some co-design projects tackling complex problems, these may involve multiple workshops with stakeholders and be a major focus of the project. However, shorter sessions are likely to be appropriate for many New Zealand research projects. Approaches that have been adapted from Climate-KIC’s ‘Visual toolbox for system innovation’ and tested at AgResearch include: 

  • Visual Story – visioning technique 
  • Future Radars – backcasting technique. 

Guides to using these approaches are available in this toolbox – see ‘How to run a visioning and backcasting session’ and the associated runsheet.

Other resources for visioning and backcasting include: