Developing countries exploring pathways to climate compatibility


Communities learning about possible and desirable futures


Future Subjunctive is one of the best articles I have read in years. It’s about backcasting as social learning. For John Robinson, backcasting the future emerges from process, which communities learn about possible and desirable futures. Sound familiar? It seems to me that this Canadian researcher has discovered very similar things as we have in the South African Long Term Mitigation Scenarios (LTMS) and MAPS. And he has articulated the theory more elegantly. He outlines how the division between traditionally qualitative scenarios and quantitative forecasting is overcome in back-casting. Robinson also describes back-casting – what we would call ‘linking’ – as combining narrative analysis with qualitative modelling. Note the qualitative – Robinson and his team think it best not to use optimization models – perhaps different to what we have found in our own “design approach” to modelling. However, the notion that behaviour should be external to models, not ‘endogenised’, is well worth thinking through. The article is not just a theoretical piece, though, but applied to intensive work with local communities in the Georgia Basin Futures Project. More recent update on engagement between those communities and researchers can be found in other articles by Robinson (Robinson et al. 2011) and colleagues (Sheppard et al. 2011). I’d most recommend reading the 2003 article.

It provides a clear definition of back-casting, as starting from desirable futures and exploring their feasibility; but then refining the definition as more emergent. It spends a good part talking about the importance of user interfaces – and goes the whole way be using computer games – that are both “fun to use” and “true to life”. The article suggests it may not be helpful to only examine scenarios that perturb a single ‘business-as-usual’ projection. The time-frame suggested for this kind of analysis if 40 years, again very similar – with an interesting rationale: being within the working life-time of most participants’ children. The spatial chosen is much more local, which makes for fascinating reading of the case studies. In short, read the article!



Robinson, J 2003. Future subjunctive: backcasting as social learning. Futures 35: 839–856.

Robinson, J, Burch, S, Talwar, S, O’Shea, M & Walsh, M 2011. Envisioning sustainability: Recent progress in the use of participatory backcasting approaches for sustainability research Technological Forecasting & Social Change 78: 756–768.

Sheppard, S, Shaw, A, Flanders, S, Burch, S, Wiek, A, Carmichael, J, Robinson, J & Cohen, S 2011. Future visioning of local climate change: A framework for community engagement and planning with scenarios and visualization. Futures 43: 400–412.


Blog author: Harald Winkler, Energy Research Centre, University of Cape Town.

Note: This blog was also posted on the Energy Research Centre (University of Cape Town) blog site

The image is courtesy of Arising

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