Re-focusing on the future: Backcasting carbon neutral cities

On July 5th, Demos Helsinki’s cofounder Aleksi Neuvonen presents his research on the use of foresight methodology in building carbon-neutral cities. His thesis, done at Radboud University Nijmegen, School of Management, adds to the extensive discussion on how cities can drive essential transformations forward.

Contemporary cities have been updating their planning and governance systems to cope with the need to become carbon-neutral within the following decades. Hundreds of cities and regions worldwide have adopted time-bound carbon neutrality targets that impose new principles and conditions on planning.

Could backcasting serve as a tool that can help urban planning in successfully facing this new context?

Backcasting scenarios work backwards from an envisioned future image (e.g. a future within the 1.5. degrees global warming target) to the present day, depicting alternative pathways within the boundaries of desirability or acceptability. 

Research questions 

  1. How can backcasting scenarios re-focus urban and regional planning in regard to the implementation of normative goals on carbon neutrality?
  2. How do futures studies, their epistemes and practices, affect urban planning?
  3. How do backcasting scenarios systematically and co-creatively define alternative pathways to carbon-neutral cities and societies?
  4. How are domains, processes, content and objectives of planning being re-conceptualised due to the imperative of carbon neutrality?

Key findings 

  1. A transformative frame on the future has been largely absent in urban planning; meanwhile, in future studies, there are established methods, practices and epistemic principles to deal with that frame. 
  2. The case studies on backcasting scenario approach demonstrate how to expand the scope of potential (transformative) solutions leading toward carbon neutrality. This requires focusing the scenario work on emancipating stakeholders to learning, new forms of agency and collaboration. 
  3. Carbon neutrality targets should be understood as normative goals that redefine the direction of the development of cities and their planning. These targets give rise to kinds of trading zones in which stakeholders participate from the perspective of their own priorities on the decarbonisation process. Those targets can lead to the formation of ‘visionary fields’ and ‘action arenas’ that allow the redefinition of contents, domains and processes of urban planning.
  4. The backcasting scenario approach helps in understanding and creating collective learning on carbon neutrality as a society-wide transition, eventually extending the time-horizon of planning, augmenting its mindset to a transformative frame and transcending the sector-specific and functional way of managing decarbonisation.
  5. The future stages of the decarbonisation of cities require greater emphasis on changes in social practices and lifestyles, and overall cross-sectoral solutions, thus increasing the relevance of these results.


Demos Helsinki has been assisting local and central governments with the practical applications of this research for some time now. As examples, you can see NetZeroCities, getting to a 1.5-degree life in Finnish cities, or Think Sustainably.


Want to know more about this research? 

Contact Aleksi:
Aleksi Neuvonen
Demos Helsinki Cofounder



Feature Image: Jarrett Tan/Unsplash