The January Energy Futures Lab (co-hosted by The Natural Step) workshop was the first chance for the EFL Fellows to dip their toes into backcasting waters. Backcasting is central to the Lab because it establishes the creative tension between our desired future and the current reality that will drive innovation in the Lab.

Outcomes from the Backcasting Exercise

Energy Futures Lab

The Fellows did hard and good work together in far too compressed amount of time. After our first iteration we jointly assessed each Fellow’s satisfaction with the draft, i.e. how well did it articulate the transition that we’re seeking to enable together? We found our initial output lacking in a few key ways:

  • First our desired future did not feel bold or ambitious enough. There was a feeling that it could set a path for incremental improvement rather than inspiring our commitment to transformative, breakthrough ideas.
  • Our attempts to rapidly synthesize a range of rich conversations and insights resulted in statements that felt watered down. As one Fellow noted – they could have been generated by any group, rather than the vast collective experience in the room. This was particularly true for the desired future.
  • We didn’t capture enough of the current energy system strengths that we can leverage for the transition.

I also noted that the backcasting exercise may have left some of us holding early narratives just as tightly as before. Did Fellows who may believe that fossil fuels have no future have their view challenged in any way? Conversely, did the Fellows who may believe that our current economic dependence on fossil fuels is so pronounced that any talk of an alternative future is unrealistic have their view challenged?

We’re all here together because we’ve expressed a belief that there can and must be some common ground among such diverse views and that working together is not only possible, but necessary if Alberta is to chart a new leadership course in a carbon competitive global economy.

Backcasting from the science-based principles helps define the system conditions for a sustainable economy and offers us a way to find that common ground. Working toward an energy system that aligns with these principles will ensure that we are shooting for one that is truly fit for the future.

It will also help us step beyond debates about fossil fuels to imagine new potential roles for hydrocarbons in a low-carbon economy and in the period of transition to get there. Most importantly, backcasting from principles will help us identify that there are multiple pathways to get to that future. Players from all across the system can be engaged in parallel and aligned (but distinct) innovation efforts. This is the great potential of the Energy Futures Lab as a forum for innovation.

This was clearly a first step in a longer-term process for the group to get more shared about what the future requires of us.

Lessons Learned

Nevertheless, in hindsight it’s easy to see what could have been better about the design of the January backcasting session to help this amazing group get a little further with its first iteration.

The first and obvious thing to adjust was that we needed more time. Beyond that, in my view there is one very big opportunity that could have been arranged differently: switching the order of the “desired future” and “assessing current reality” aspects of the backcasting exercise. Ironically, Fellow, Dick Eberson from the City of Calgary, raised this at the outset of the exercise. In my response I stated that when backcasting from sustainability principles it doesn’t matter which side of the gap you start with, since you end up iterating both sides a number of times. And that there are some benefits to doing a rigorous analysis of the current system through the lens of sustainability principles first.

In my experience, helping many different groups with backcasting, this is often true. But in this case, starting with the “desired future” and imagining the future of Alberta’s energy system through the lens of sustainability principles would have created some space to deepen insights about the implications of sustainability science for Alberta’s energy system. We would have gotten to some of the meatier, more challenging topics more quickly. – like the role of hydrocarbons in a sustainable future. It would have created a bit more space for debate and dialogue to allow the fellows to challenge some of their respective assumptions and paradigms. It also would have allowed us to delve a bit deeper into truly transformative potential visions like the one EFL Advisory Council member Suzanne West outlined in an interview posted here.

Finally, doing it this way would have allowed us to spend relatively more time on the future and relatively less time assessing the current reality. It also would have been a more energizing and uplifting close to the first day, instead of a dreary and sobering look at the challenges we face. We could have then spent time during the current reality assessment to reflect on what is working about the current system – i.e. what strengths can we build on?

This adjustment would have clearly positioned a presentation by Alberta Energy’s Chief Energy Economist Mathew Foss, which relied heavily on forecasting, as part of the current reality that we need to contend with as we seek to transition to our desired future.

Next Steps

Going forward, we’ll have a stronger focus and tighter process for building a shared understanding and expression of “the energy system that the future requires of us.” A group of six EFL Fellows volunteered to work together with backcasting experts from the EFL design team to articulate the next iteration of the “transition” gap.

We’ll likely also organize sessions for all the Fellows in multiple locations between now and May to work through drafts together and to dive deeper into some of the more challenging and contentious points. The platform of the EFL also offers us some excellent opportunities to consult beyond the Fellowship to gather input, for example by consulting with the EFL Steering Committee and Advisory council.

As we do this, we will support the Fellows in using science-based principles as design constraints for the sustainable future. We’ll push ourselves to get beyond broad generalities about a desired future state to get to a level of specificity that both demonstrates full alignment with sustainability principles and can also clearly drive innovation efforts.

We’ve got all the raw material we need, and there could be no more impressive, engaged, constructive group of people to work together on this vitally important task than the EFL Fellows.

Getting it roughly right could make the difference between an Energy Futures Lab that reaches its full transformative potential and one that generates some interesting and modest improvements on the status quo.

Our special thanks to JamesOur special thanks to James!

In other words, we have some important unfinished business!