Chad Park explains ‘backcasting’


Chad Park is Chief Innovation Officer of The Natural Step Canada and director of the Energy Futures Lab. Based in Alberta, the Lab is a multi-interest collaboration bringing people together to create, test, and scale ideas for tackling climate change, energy security, and sustainable development.

He argues that building systems that are fit for the future means beginning with the desired end in mind and working together to move in that direction.  That is ‘backcasting’. Chad explains how the principles of sustainability can be embedded within the backcasting approach.

First explorers

Sustainability – what it means and how business should engage with the concept – has been a recurring theme over the past few years for my MSc research students at the University of Warwick. Recently I attended a workshop entitled Flourishing is the Outcome at Plymouth University’s Futures Entrepreneurship Centre. It was run by Antony Upward of Edward James Consulting Ltd. An updated set of the slides Antony used are here. He explained that his work was an extension of the business model ontology developed by Alex Osterwalder. Then he showed how the resulting Flourishing Business Canvas and its associated toolkit enable us to describe strongly sustainable business models, i.e. businesses which are sufficiently profitable while simultaneously creating social and environmental benefits. I was impressed: the approach ties together the various strands in a beautifully elegant way.

Two of my students this year are doing an MSc in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Their projects require each to develop a business model and the Flourishing Business Canvas might be an excellent tool for that purpose. So I have approached Antony to explore the possibility of us joining his group of First Explorers who, in return for giving feedback on their experience using the tool (so that it can be improved) get a free license to use the Flourishing Business Innovation Toolkit including the Canvas. Background information about all this is in the links below.

Three minute video to introduce the ideas
A 300 word explanation in plain English
One page overview of the research project
A deeper dive into the ideas
Details of the evaluation process

Antony presented a colloquium covering the research behind the Flourishing Business Canvas on 5 December at the University of Hamburg.  The Prezi presentation he made is here and the video of the presentation is available here.

The bigger picture

PPM-frameworkIn an earlier posting I used the figure at right to show one view of the bigger picture in programme and project management. The idea is that project outputs combine to enable the programme outcome(s) and these, over time, bring about a strategic impact. Different types of stakeholder seek different forms of value at different points in the model.
lifecycle-of-systemAnother useful view is that of the system lifecycle (see figure at right). This shows the outputs from one or more projects being used to deliver a system. The system is operated, maintained and repaired. It can be adapted and enhanced to satisfy changing needs. Eventually it is decommissioned and its component parts recycled or otherwise disposed of. Note that the system can comprise humans as well as physical artefacts; for example it might be a school. In that case one of the project outputs might need to be trained teachers.

If we now look at the bigger picture through a sustainability lens, what other views or insights can we generate and what can these tell us about the meaning of ‘sustainable project management’?

UNOPS and sustainability

On its website UNOPS says that it provides five services. Three of these include the word ‘sustainable’: sustainable infrastructure; sustainable procurement; and sustainable project management. Their use of the term seems to fit with OED’s third definition of ‘sustainable’ given in an earlier posting, ie:
a. Capable of being maintained or continued at a certain rate or level.
b. Designating forms of human activity (esp. of an economic nature) in which environmental degradation is minimized, esp. by avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources; of or relating to activity of this type. Also: designating a natural resource which is exploited in such a way as to avoid its long-term depletion.

The description of sustainable project management contains the idea of “measuring sustainable success“. They describe this by saying that (my emphasis) “… local authorities and communities are engaged and all potential outcomes and impacts are considered, to make a real, sustainable and positive difference. This is why UNOPS measures project success beyond time, cost and quality. We focus on incorporating lessons learned from tens of thousands of projects to find the best way to contribute to the development goals of our partners. …. By considering the economic and environmental impacts of a project, and by promoting local ownership and building local capacity, we prioritize project sustainability.

The description of UNOPS sustainable infrastructure service leads with a section on ‘promoting sustainability‘. This explains that (my emphasis) “engaging with UNOPS makes for a partnership built on shared sustainable development goals, which promotes community engagement, environmentally-friendly construction, the capacity development of local industries and gender equality.

There is a policy for sustainable infrastructure whose purpose is “to ensure that the development and living conditions of all segments of society are not put at risk, but enhanced by the design and implementation of infrastructure projects. In particular, it enables the identification of opportunities for sustainable infrastructure activities, while simultaneously facilitating the detection of socially or environmentally detrimental impacts associated with the design, development and implementation of infrastructure projects and the creation of methods to eliminate or mitigate these impacts.” The policy sets standards for sustainable development to be incorporated into UNOPS infrastructure activities. The standards cover four areas to be considered by projects:

  • human rights;
  • labour and decent work;
  • the environment;
  • transparency, accountability and anti-corruption

For its third sustainable service, UNOPS seeks to advance “sustainable practices in procurement”. These involve:

  • “building long-term environmental, economic and social considerations into solicitation and contract documents;
  • informing our partners of the environmental impacts of various products;
  • applying different evaluation models to allow consideration of life cycle cost and total cost of ownership.”


“sustainable, adj.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 7 March 2013 <>.