Backcasting: A Natural Step in Operationalising Sustainable Development(*)

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Author: John Holmberg
Date: Autumn 1998
Publisher: Greenleaf Publishing
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,153 words

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THIS PAPER presents a method for strategic planning developed in co-operation with and applied by The Natural Step network of scientists and business corporations. It includes examples from companies that have used the method in their strategic planning for sustainability. The main difference between the method presented here and other approaches is that this method is: (i) based on a framework of four non-overlapping principles of sustainability; and: (ii) based on backcasting, that is, instead of trying to predict the future from today's trends (traditional forecasting), one also tries to liberate beliefs about today's situation and to understand what requirements and possibilities sustainability will involve in the future. The method consists of four steps. In the first step, conditions for a future sustainable society are defined. In the next step, the firm's current activities and competences are analysed in relation to these conditions. In the third step, future possibilities for the firm are envisaged. In the final step, flexible strategies are identified that can link the present situation with the desirable future sustainable situation.


THE PRESENT GENERATION of humans on earth is faced with the challenge of establishing sustainable relationships between the global society and the ecosphere as well as within the global society itself. The current starting point is a very difficult one, consisting of ongoing degradation of natural capital, large discrepancies between living conditions within and between nations and rapid global population growth. The current societal and technical inefficiencies and unused potentials also imply great possibilities for improvement. Thus, `sustainable development' (WCED 1987) is a huge mission that involves a profound transformation of societal metabolism.

During this transition towards sustainability, decision-makers will have to address the complexity and the dynamics of ecosystems and climate in relation to societal activity. They will, of course, also face the traditional complexity and dynamics within society, such as the pace of technological change, the uncertainty in consumer expectations, and the unpredictability of new regulations.

Making intelligent decisions in a complex, dynamic and uncertain system invariably requires system thinking. One important aspect of system thinking is the identification of the overall principles of how the system works, e.g. traffic regulations in the traffic system, economic theory in the economic system, etc. When the overall principles have been identified, all the details in the system can be related to them.

Starting from this reasoning, a process called `The Natural Step' was begun in Sweden in 1989, in which scientists tried to identify what they at least were able to agree on (rather than what they disagreed on) regarding sustainability. This led to the formulation of four non-over-lapping principles for sustainability (Holmberg et al. 1996; Holmberg and Robert 1997). The principles are used as a non-prescriptive starting point for system thinking about sustainability. Starting from the principles, different actors within science, business, organisations and municipalities (who are experts within their own fields) ask themselves relevant questions and draw conclusions about what these principles will imply for their specific activities.

The principles have, for instance,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A55308829