Have you ever set a specific goal for yourself, like running next year’s marathon, taking your first overseas trip, learning a new skill or language, or changing your career path? Take a moment to consider how you transformed that goal into a reality. Did you set a timeframe for when you wanted to reach said goal, then work backward, creating a plan for how to get there? If so, then you did a thing called backcasting.
What is backcasting?
Backcasting is a process in which you consider an ideal future state, then build a roadmap for reaching it. While forecasting uses the past and present to predict the future, backcasting starts from the future, and works backward determining the best path to achieve it. Forecasting predicts. Backcasting envisions.
Why backcasting matters.
Backcasting’s proactive approach breathes new life into innovation and problem solving compared to the reactive cycles of only solving today’s challenges. And, it can help address just about any issue—from technological, societal, political, sustainable, business and design—basically in any instance where we can imagine a better solution than the current state.
Let’s look at a couple of inspiring stories in which moments of transformation occurred from dreaming first, then taking action after.
Edwin Land and Polaroid
In 1944, Edwin Land—the founder and CEO of Polaroid—was vacationing with his daughter when she asked him why she couldn’t see the picture he had just taken of her. This innocent question sparked a new idea that Land and his company got to work making. Polaroid started with the idea, then worked back to where they were to find a way to create it. A few years later, in 1948, Polaroid invented and released the first “instant camera.” The camera incorporated a darkroom into the camera itself. A picture could be taken, developed, and tangibly seen in a single moment for the first time in history.
However brilliant the invention was, this first version didn’t fulfill Land’s ultimate vision. It was an enormous leap in the right direction, but the user experience and engineering were still cumbersome and clunky. As described in an article by the Smithsonian, “Land had long envisioned an SX-70-type camera, involving a self-contained, one-step process with no fuss and no mess.” This first version was not exactly that.
Polaroid continued to iterate and improve on the notion till 1972, when the one-step instant camera called the SX-70 hit the market. The SX-70 was a revolutionary consumer product. It was easy to use, encompassed advanced internal workings, and beautiful and sophisticated product design. It has become an ongoing cultural influence—even today. Land’s vision and Polaroid’s invention transformed traditional photography, the consumer market, and culture along the way.
The Polaroid camera was also a business success. By the 1970s, Polaroid controlled almost two-thirds of the instant camera market. According to an article in Digital Camera World, “Polaroid was producing more than 5,000 units per day of the SX 70 and, despite spending half a billion on new factories, it still couldn’t keep up with the demand. By 1978 Polaroid sales hit a whopping $1.3 billion and had sold more than 9.4 million units worldwide.”
Gunpei Yokoi and Nintendo
Gunpei Yokoi was a fresh college graduate with an electrical engineering degree when Nintendo hired him in 1965 to keep the company’s old printing press oiled up and running—Nintendo was originally a card game company. But, at the time, they were a struggling business experiencing a bit of an identity crisis—exploring business opportunities in noodle making, taxi services, and even “love hotels.” A true engineer at heart, Yokoi used his downtime at work to tinker with gadgets, which he ultimately turned into successful games for Nintendo. Soon after, Nintendo’s President, Hiroshi Yamauchi, smartly promoted him to the head of a new R&D department.
One day while riding a train, he noticed a man fidgeting with his calculator out of sheer boredom. As he recollected, “I noticed this bored salaryman playing with his calculator. That’s when it hit me: I oughtta make a tiny game for killing time.”
Soon after, a gadget called the Game & Watch launched in 1980. This was the first iteration in Yokoi’s ultimate vision, which we finally received in 1989 in the form of the Game Boy. As an article in Vice describes, “No longer would gamers be tethered to their home televisions. With the Game Boy, they could play anywhere, anytime.”
The Game Boy’s success wasn’t a result of expensive, inventive, state-of-the-art technology, and it actually used existing technology and parts pieced together in a new way. It satisfied Yokoi’s future vision for a game console that is small and durable enough to travel with and the business’s goals of keeping it affordable to design and sell. The game boy changed the gaming world while satisfying the design and business needs by taking deliberate actions determined by their future goals. The product was (and still is) adored by people of all ages worldwide.
Vice explains the impact Yokoi’s invention, “In the West, the Game Boy came with the puzzle game Tetris—the textbook definition of a “killer app” that made legions of gamers out of those who’d never imagined picking up a controller before, including one President George H.W. Bush (photographed playing while recovering from surgery) and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (photographed playing aboard Air Force One.).”
Speculating better visions for the future—whether for yourself, your company, society, or the environment—can gain momentum when you exercise backcasting, then take the required actions to propel towards that final vision, step-by-step. You might get there by developing new technologies like Polaroid or rethinking the use of existing objects like Nintendo. No matter how you get there, remember you won’t reach your ideal future state in one step. Like the examples shared above, each company released a less than perfect vision, then used it as a springboard towards the next iteration with a better outcome. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. Let your ultimate vision guide your path, then take the first step. Then the next one after that
For more inspiring stories that involve the concept of backcasting, consider learning more about Nike’s revolutionary Flyknit technology, or the 15-minute community circles, currently being implemented in Shanghai’s 23 million populace city.
If you’re interested in conducting a backcasting exercise, you can learn how to do so at Design Method Toolkit.
Chen, Ryan. (2020, January 8). Design Defined: How ‘Forecasting and Backcasting’ Enable Disruptive Innovation. Bressler Group. https://www.bresslergroup.com/blog/design-defined-forecasting-and-backcasting/
Milan, Matthew. (2008, April 13). Backcasting 101. Slideshare. https://www.slideshare.net/mmilan/backcasting-101-final-public
Edwards, Owen. (2012, March). How the Polaroid Stormed the Photographic World. Smithsonian. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-the-polaroid-stormed-the-photographic-world-98275389/
Rooke, Hannah. (2021, September 3). Polaroid: the instant camera trend that has gone full circle. Digital Camera World. https://www.digitalcameraworld.com/uk/news/polaroid-the-instant-camera-trend-that-has-gone-full-circle
ACS. (n.d.). Edwin Land and Polaroid Photography. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/land-instant-photography.html
Calonius, Erik. (2011, March 21). Polaroid and Apple: Innovation Through Mental Invention. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/1739935/polaroid-and-apple-innovation-through-mental-invention?position=13&campaign_date=06082018
Boston.com. (2012, October 3). History of Polaroid and Edwin Land. https://www.boston.com/uncategorized/noprimarytagmatch/2012/10/03/history-of-polaroid-and-edwin-land/
Harvard Business School. (n.d.). Edwin H. Land and the Polaroid Corporation: The formative years. https://www.library.hbs.edu/hc/polaroid/taking-the-product-to-market/impact-of-the-new-medium/
Vice. (2020, November 12). How Gunpei Yokoi Reinvented Nintendo. https://www.vice.com/en/article/pkdbx7/how-gunpei-yokoi-reinvented-nintendo
Voll, C.S. (2021, June 26). Nintendo’s Game & Watch Ignited a Design Transformation. Super Jump Magazine. https://superjumpmagazine.com/nintendos-game-watch-ignited-a-design-transformation-7b517cbcd59d
Brown, E. (2020, September 3). How Nintendo Won With Old Technology. Super Jump Magazine. https://superjumpmagazine.com/done-how-nintendo-won-with-old-technology-1f6df806c4c9