Cows grazing underneath solar panels

How We Used Backcasting to Develop ‘Histories of the Future’ for Food, Energy, Water, and Ecosystem Security

Imagine it’s 2050. In the Upper Mississippi River Basin, we have reached goals set at least three decades prior for sustainable and secure food and energy production, improved water quality, and biodiversity.

Now, how did we get there?

This mental exercise is called backcasting, and it’s the approach FEWscapes has taken to engage our community partners in developing scenarios for the future of food, energy, water, and ecosystems.

In short, backcasting starts with setting a desired future and then looking back to assess what it will take to reach that end goal. It’s like standing in the future and looking in the rearview mirror, or like writing histories about the future.

As Simon Elias Bibri puts it in his 2018 analysis of backcasting methods used in sustainable development:

“Backcasting is concerned with how desirable futures can be created and attained rather than what future states of affairs are likely to occur. In other words, backcasting is not concerned with predicting the future; rather, it is a strategic problem-solving framework, in the quest for the answer to how to reach specified outcomes in the future.”

Backcasting is well suited for addressing complex problems that require big changes – and what could be more complex than ensuring future generations have sufficient food, clean energy and water, and healthy ecosystems? The approach is supposed to help participants move beyond the incremental-improvement mindset and encourage aspirational, solutions-oriented ideas for creating a future people want.

But it’s not the FEWscapes research team that is penning these histories about the future. Rather, we’ve recruited the help of a diverse set of community partners, professionals from the agriculture and natural resources sectors who are working on policies and programs for food, energy, water, and ecosystem security in the Upper Mississippi River Basin.

Because these policies and programs are often at the state level, we have three state “hubs” – Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. To provide a cross-state, regional perspective, our fourth hub consists of members of the Hypoxia Task Force Coordinating Committee and SERA-46, both multi-state groups focused on nutrient loss reduction in the Mississippi River Basin, an issue that intersects food, energy, water, and ecosystems.

Our community partners’ participation is crucial for helping us ensure our research will be useful to related policy and programming. They are in a much better position than we, as researchers, are to propose possible actions to achieve a desirable future; meanwhile, our research team is well positioned to use our models to elucidate the outcomes of those possible actions.

For our backcasting exercise, we facilitated virtual discussions with each of our four community partner hubs to develop scenarios reflecting what they think it will take – in terms of changes in land use and society, for example – to reach the following set of goals simultaneously. These “end points” for food, energy, water, and ecosystem security by 2050 reflect present-day national commitments:

  • Food: Increase agricultural production by 40% (a USDA goal)
  • Energy: Achieve net zero carbon emissions (a White House commitment)
  • Water: Reduce nutrient loss in the Mississippi River Basin by 45% and reduce nitrate levels in all drinking water sources to below the 10ppm limit (the estimated nutrient loss reduction needs to reach the EPA goal for reducing the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone and EPA’s drinking water quality standard, respectively)
  • Ecosystems: Conserve at least 30% of lands (a White House commitment)

Disclaimer: We recognize these goals face disagreement and may be a bit ambiguous. But we needed to establish goals that could arguably be called “common,” and we see their ambiguity as more of an asset to transformative thinking than a barrier.

For practical reasons, we divided each community partner hub into four breakout groups, each tasked with developing a sub-scenario for the food, energy, water, or ecosystems goal. The sub-scenarios would then be integrated into a single comprehensive scenario.

Because we needed specific information to inform our models – i.e., what happens to land use and management in the Upper Mississippi River Basin over the next three decades – we gave participants a set of discussion questions to guide their conversation and stimulate their thinking. Of particular importance was what changes occur to the landscape, where they occur, to what extent they occur, and when they occur.

In our experience with scenario development, we have found it can be difficult for people to think beyond the realities and constraints of today. So, we encouraged participants to think boldly and ambitiously, and to avoid getting stuck in what I call the likelihood trap – a mental fixation on what seems likely to happen based on how the world is today.

Once time was up for developing the sub-scenarios, we reconvened as a whole group to share each sub-scenario and give others who weren’t in that breakout group an opportunity to comment, ask questions, or add to it. A next step for us as a research team is to synthesize and integrate each hub’s sub-scenarios into a single comprehensive scenario, resulting in at least four backcasted scenarios that can be modeled.

While we’re not ready yet to share the backcasted scenarios, we will share a few reflections from some of our community partners who participated in the exercise in these videos.

A few FEWscapes community partners reflect on their backcasting experience.
A few FEWscapes community partners share one idea they think can help achieve food, energy, water, and ecosystem security in the Upper Mississippi River Basin by 2050.

(And if you’re wondering why the cows and solar panels in the header image, one idea that came up several times in our backcasting discussions was agrivoltaics.)

Header image courtesy University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center.