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2 July 2018

The missing pieces in many Sustainability Strategies

I see lots of Sustainability Strategies which consist of a baseline (e.g. a carbon footprint and waste arisings data), targets and a series of nice case studies of what already has been done.

But this is wishful thinking – how you are going to meet those targets, by when and by who are the crucial parts of jigsaw. If your targets are worthwhile, the kind of work you have done to date are very unlikely to be adequate to deliver the required outcomes.

This is why we always put backcasting at the heart of our strategy development. Create a vision of the organisation where the targets have been met on time, then work backwards to the present day to work out what you need to start doing now to get on the right trajectory. It's a very simple but powerful tool – and if you pick the right people to participate, you get great buy-in too.



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12 January 2018

Lessons from 'The War On Plastic'

So, the big news this week is that PM Theresa May has listened to me and announced a 'war on plastic waste' at the launch of the long awaited 25 year Environment Plan. Like most commentators my opinion is the plan contains all the right subjects and targets but is light on the actions required now to get us on to the right trajectory.

Here are some wider thoughts about what we can learn from the announcement:

  • Sustainability is now right at the top of the political agenda and that is a good thing, no matter who is in charge. The Government has finally woken up to the fact that the UK is doing rather well on the environment and by showing leadership they can do even better (and appeal to some of the young people who have deserted the Conservative party in droves - quite a carrot for more action).
  • Everybody is an environmentalist: the ocean plastics issue has united everybody from the deepest green to the climate-sceptics at the Daily Mail (right) and even those purveyors of nonsense, the Global Warming Policy Forum. If you want to engage people in Sustainability, be prepared to start the conversation on common ground, particularly with something very tangible (like the iconic picture of a seahorse carrying a cotton bud).
  • Blue Planet II is already one of the most significant TV programmes ever. Ignore the green snobs, if we want real change, we've got to get the message into the mainstream.
  • 25-years is too long for a plan: Even if you want to set distant aspirations, I usually recommend 10 years for Sustainability Strategies as this is long enough to make real change on the ground (e.g. capital investment) but not too distant for decision-makers to think it'll be for their successors to sort out.
  • Aspiration without action remains just that. If I was advising Mrs May and Mr Gove, I'd have insisted on a backcasting process to fill in the gaps between those goals and what needs to happen right now to get on the right trajectory. This is what I do with my clients and it works extremely well.

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14 June 2017

Are you doing the right thing in Sustainability?

This month's Ask Gareth considers an excellent question from Sophie Wallis of Upthink Consultancy in Australia - when you're beavering away making sure you tick all the Sustainability boxes for a company or a project, how do you step back and make sure you are actually doing the right thing in terms of the big picture. In response, I give three powerful approaches which can help.

Ask Gareth depends on a steady stream of killer sustainability/CSR questions, so please tell me what's bugging you about sustainability (click here) and I'll do my best to help.

You can see all previous editions of Ask Gareth here.


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2 June 2017

The one question you need to ask of every Sustainability project

Terra Infirma Sustainability Coaching

I was down in Manchester yesterday for a session with a client I haven't worked with for years. They had called me in 'to pick my brains' about employee engagement. In the past I've found such requests a bit of a double-edged sword – on one hand it is great to get paid to share your knowledge, experiences and opinions, but on the other you can leave them with a whole load of exciting sounding but abstract ideas and no way forward.

To avoid the latter, I structure such engagements like a coaching session. I start by asking them the killer question – to define the ideal solution looking forward. "If this is 100% successful, in 5 years' time what will it look like?"

That might sound obvious, but you'd be surprised at the number of people who start with a process rather than an objective. That's a bit like a DIY enthusiast grabbing the first tool in their toolbox and using it no matter what the task entails. You don't want to be wiring a plug with a lump hammer.

The answer to this question sets the direction of everything else in the discussion. Not does it point us in the right direction, but, psychologically, it makes the journey feel much more achievable. When we look at the present day opportunities and threats, we get more of the former and the latter seem much less ominous. Throughout yesterday's session I repeatedly referred back to the ideal solution.

Planning the route is where I break with the strictest form of coaching, as I make recommendations from my experience working across a wide range of businesses from a crazy golf course (honestly!) to multinational aerospace companies. Coaching purists will be sucking through their teeth at that, but I give a series of options and recommend the one I think is best for the client. This makes sure they still have ownership over the agreed way forward.

But the key to success is really pinning down that 'ideal solution', even when, like yesterday, the client had put some thought to it already. Whether I'm asking that question of a group of stakeholders to define the outcome of a Sustainability Strategy during a backcasting session, or of an individual client on a 1-2-1 coaching session, getting the desired outcome pinned down will increase the chances of success many times over.


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6 March 2017

Sod's Law & Sustainability


I have a tonne of stuff to do this week, yet I’m writing this in my local NHS Walk-in Centre waiting to get my eye checked out after an unfortunate gardening incident yesterday. It’s always the way, isn’t it? Just as you want to get off to a flying start, you notice your shoelaces are undone.

I often find Sustainability practitioners waiting for the perfect moment to launch their new project, venture or strategy. And, of course that perfect moment never comes. New legislation, a change in CEO, Brexit – there’s always something that pops up to spoil the moment.

So what can we do? Are we doomed to sit in perpetual stasis?

Well the first thing I did here in the waiting room was to remind myself of my long term priorities, then sketch down what I’m going to do this week and today to help meet those goals. That put my mind at rest, dissolved most of the frustration and focussed me on forward motion.

When I’m working with clients, I use a technique called backcasting to do the same on a grander scale. Instead of trying to work through the short term noise, we work backwards from the ultimate goal to work out what we need to do now to hit the right trajectory. After that exercise, usually carried out with key stakeholders, the way ahead appears clear and straightforward, no matter what life is throwing at us from the sidelines.


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6 February 2017

Will Sustainability get Trumped?

A very topical question for this month's Ask Gareth – what will happen to Sustainability in the age of Donald Trump? I offer three important principles to make sure short term political upsets don't derail your Sustainability programme.

Ask Gareth depends on a steady stream of killer sustainability/CSR questions, so please tell me what's bugging you about sustainability (click here) and I'll do my best to help.

You can see all previous editions here.


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19 October 2016

Is your Sustainability Programme hitting a ceiling?

go green

This week I read an article on entitled "Why I’m breaking up with sustainability" by Tara Holmes, which suggests that Corporate Sustainability programmes are plateauing. Holmes says:

...the word sustainability has devolved into a word that embodies a non-offensive, contradictory acknowledgement of the need to address the dire issues facing our rapidly changing climate without actually having to shift core business models...

...I bump into professional contacts of mine at various conferences and events in the sustainability space who say they feel disempowered in their role. They’ve “hit a ceiling” with executive leadership, they’ll tell me. Or they work in a silo in the facilities department or operations, or only have an intern for support. How can any single person in a massive organization have the opportunity to fundamentally shift the bottom line, particularly when that bottom line is triple-down, without the necessary backing and support?

I find this analysis depressing, a tad self-pitying and ultimately self-defeating. Enough exemplars have shown that massive leaps towards Sustainability can be made while making increased profit. The contradiction Holmes identifies is only in the mind – it's not an 'or', but an 'and'.

And, yes, one person will struggle to make a difference if they adopt the silo mentality of their organisation, but they need to turn that mindset around and see their role as facilitating others to make a difference instead (check out this edition of Ask Gareth). You don't need a huge team, or a team at all, to do that.

In her conclusion Holmes proposes education, suggesting starting over, for which, as she points out earlier in the article, we have limited time. Personally, I think if your organisational Sustainability programme is stuck under a ceiling there's a very simple formula to smash through to the next level:

  1. Get buy-in from key players using Green Jujitsu (in large part by involving them actively in the following steps);
  2. Set stretch targets within a reasonable timeframe (7-10 years typically);
  3. Use backcasting to work out what that future vision of the organisation would look like and a list of what you have to start doing now to get there;
  4. Help those key players do the things on your list which will have biggest impact, while identifying and eliminating barriers as you go along.

The first step is the most important. By involving key players, they have 'skin in the game' and you will start to see those ceilings disappear. The backcasting process itself is fun and really energises those involved. You'd be surprised how often meaningful engagement makes resistance to melt away like snow on a warm spring morning.


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3 October 2016

Activate your sustainability programme!


At last week's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group, I (re)used my 'monster truck' template (above). The analogy is that we are in the truck, transversing the boulders which are in the way of 'the new normal' - ie meeting our sustainability goals.

As we were packing up, one member, a chemist by background, referred to the pile of boulders as the 'activation energy' for sustainability. I can remember enough of my A-level Chemistry to remember that this is the energy required to get two reagents to react, even if the results are more stable than the ingredients you started with. So to light a wood fire, you need to light a match and set it to paper and kindling to give the main fuel enough energy to burn itself. In a way the wood is sat there waiting to be burnt, but if you just throw a match at it, nothing happens.

I thought that activation energy was a great analogy. One of the big frustrations of Sustainability practitioners is that a sustainable world is clearly more desirable than an unsustainable one. Who really wants pollution, an unstable climate or the destruction of natural habitats? So why do we allow those things to happen? Or why do our efforts to change things often flounder? The answer is the activation energy required to get from here to there.

What do chemists do if activation energy is too high? They find a catalyst to reduce it. Sustainability catalysts include policy changes, technological breakthroughs and facilitators – the last of which is where we come in.

Here are several ways that you, as a sustainability catalyst, can reduce that activation energy:

  • Focus people on defining 'the new normal' rather than obsessing about 'business as usual' (this is how we start with the template above;
  • Expand this into a backcasting approach to define intermediate steps;
  • Frame sustainability to match the culture of the audience (aka Green Jujitsu eg talk engineering for engineers, health for the health sector, cash for accountants etc);
  • Involve people in solutions generation to get enthusiasm and buy-in for change;
  • Get visible leadership buy-in;
  • Demonstrate progress;
  • Get people (employees, suppliers etc) to compete to be the most sustainable;
  • Remain upbeat, encouraging and cunning.

But don't just chuck matches at the fuel and complain when it doesn't light.


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18 May 2016

The best path to Sustainability?

bashoThe 17th Century poet Matsuo Basho (right) said:

"Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought."

While there is much to be said for learning from the experiences of others (my Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group is based on that very principle), I still find that the majority of sustainability practitioners blindly set off in the same direction as others, without thinking through where that path might lead – if it ends in a swamp, you'll sink just like them.

The second part of Basho's quote is the interesting one – focus on the destination and then the path will become apparent. In practice, I use 'backcasting' to develop sustainability strategies with my clients – we start at the end and work backwards to the start. You'd be surprised at just how much that simple change in approach can deliver.


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20 January 2016

There's always an excuse to do nothing...

the end is nigh

A couple of weeks ago, the wonderful Green Thinkers group I'm a member of considered Energy Without The Hot Air by David MacKay – a very analytical look at the energy challenge. Today there was an article in Guardian Sustainable Business taking a similar analytical look at electric cars. Both come to fairly pessimistic conclusions.

Despite all the numbers, I have a problem with this approach.

First, these analyses tend to use a snapshot of current technology and economics. They take little account of trends, future policy and obviously they can't predict technological breakthrough as that is unpredictable.

But, more importantly, the authors seem to revel in how impossible the challenge is right now, rather than focussing on solving it in the medium/long term. We end up feeling powerless and frustrated, entangled in short term issues when we should be creating the future we want.

This happens to be the theme of this month's Ask Gareth, if you haven't already seen it. I explain why forecasting is dangerous and why you should backcast instead.

If you are interested in Backcasting, it's one of the workshop formats I cover in my on-line Workshop Masterclass.


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6 January 2016

The perils of sustainability predictions

The latest edition of Ask Gareth is a reflection on the question I get asked most at this time of the year: what are your predictions for the year ahead? While I answer each request individually, really the whole thing is not only futile, but dangerous. In the video I explain why and what you should be doing instead.

Ask Gareth depends on a steady stream of killer sustainability/CSR questions, so please tell me what's bugging you about sustainability (click here) and I'll do my best to help.

You can see all previous editions here.


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18 August 2015

Sustainability Strategy: First Things Last

Environmental data and analysisLast week, straight back from my US sojourn, I had to get my jet-lagged, sleep-deprived brain quickly back in gear for a progress meeting with a major client. We've run two sustainability strategy workshops for them, one at the operational level and one at the executive level and it's now time to bring all that together into a whole.

During the discussion, the client suggested it would be helpful to have a 'horizon diagram' showing the timeframes for different initiatives, with the vital enabling actions in the first tranche.

Both workshops had used a backcasting method which starts at the desired end (10 year objectives) and works backwards to the present day. During the workshops (and the write ups), we arranged the stages from right to left as we produced them, so they could be read 'forwards' in chronological order from left to right, ie present day to 10 years hence. This means we already have two horizon diagrams which we can meld into one (with a little pixie-dust added).

If we had tried to construct a horizon diagram starting from present day and working forwards, the 'first things' would determine the direction of the strategy, not the objectives. There would be no guarantee that those first steps would take us in the right direction. The tail would wag the dog.

So, while in practice you need to put first things first, in planning you've got to leave them until last. That might sound obvious, but I've watched plenty of people try to do it the other way around.

And fail.


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26 March 2014

Back(casting) to the Future

Back_to_the_FutureI spent yesterday running a sustainability strategy workshop for one of my major clients. The main challenge in getting people to think strategically is to help them escape 'the tyranny of the present' - all those  gripes, battles and personality clashes that encumber what we are trying to do right now.

I used two methods to overthrow this tyranny:

First I got all the gripes out in the open by getting the attendees to write on Post-its the positives and negatives in the organisation's sustainability efforts so far and clustered them on a wall template - this formed the current situation;

Secondly, we used a 'backcasting' methodology as follows:

  • Agree what targets we would like to hit in 10 year's time;
  • Split into teams and brainstorm visions of what the organisation would look like if it had hit that target - these were drawn on flip chart sheets;
  • Still in teams, generate a list of what the organisation would need to have achieved in 5 years' time to be on track to each 10 year vision;
  • Finally generate a list of actions the organisation would need to do right now to get from the current situation to each 5 year list.

By arranging the flip chart sheets from the current situation to the 10 year visions on a wall, we ended up with a map showing several pathways from today to that 10 year goal. Interestingly, the 'right now' action lists were quite similar, which means the initial strategy will be flexible enough to encompass a gamut of future possibilities - they won't have to bet on a single outcome coming to pass.

Not only does backcasting break with the present, but it's very inspiring, creates some really substantial and meaningful debate, and it's good fun to boot. It's a bit like building your own time machine - and you don't even need a DeLorean...


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11 February 2013

PESTLE Analysis for Sustainability Strategies

PESTLE Global Mega Trends in Sustainability
I've produced this PESTLE analysis of the Political, Environmental, Social, Technological, Legal, Economic mega trends which could have an impact on sustainability strategies. I produced it for this week's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group, but thought some readers may find it useful, so here it is!


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3 March 2010

Time for a change...

... if you've squeezed every efficiency out of a system, but you still aren't where you want to be, then you need to change the system!

Secret No 3 of The Three Secrets of Green Business is about making a series of huge leaps to align your systems and processes towards sustainability while making continual incremental improvements in between. The latter will only take you so far before you have to make another huge leap.

The key is in making sure each leap will lead to the goal and not up a cul-de-sac. I use 'backcasting' with clients to make sure all leaps forward take you in the right direction.

Backcasting will help you decide what to do. Another big strategic question is what are we not going to do? The best organisations kill off products, services and processes which are holding them back. That takes real guts.

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19 October 2009

Telling Tales

Story-telling is a powerful way of creating a compelling vision for the future. When doing backcasting exercises in strategy workshops, I used to get participants to draw their vision of their organisation in 20-whatever, but I've recently found it much more effective if I get them to tell a story about it. Not a sitting-round-the-campfire story, but something like "write the CEO's foreword to your 2020 CSR report summarising the six headline achievements you would like to have made by then". This keeps the vision on the right side of science fiction and, it appears, is an easier ask of participants.

You read it here first!

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22 February 2008

Back(casting) to the Future

On Tuesday I took the role as facilitator for the Durham Waste Awareness Partnership annual creative day. The Partnership consists of waste officers from Durham District and County Councils. It was felt that previous creative days had started getting repetitive, so they wanted someone to come in and shake it up a bit. Enter Terra Infirma.

I decided to do a bit of backcasting, that is, designing an idealised future and working out how to get there. This contrasts with the normal approach of forecasting where you start from the current situation and try and think of things that will improve it. The advantages of backcasting are:

- it frees the mind to think the unthinkable;
- you don't focus on current barriers;
- it is participative;

and, not least,

- it is good fun.

The process is:

1. Decide the endpoint you want to achieve: in this case, zero residual waste in wheelie bins.

2. Draw up a number of future scenarios which demonstrate this future: in this case we looked at two households, both time poor, but one cash rich and one cash poor. For each we did two scenarios - one where the household consumed roughly the same stuff as today but did things better (like recycling) and one where we could radically change their consumption patterns.

3. Think up clever ideas of how to achieve those scenarios.

The day was a success - we did come up with a (small) number of things that no-one had considered before, plus a huge raft of stuff that some councils were doing and could be applied to members of the Partnership.

If I could go back and change one thing I would have been stricter on following the backcasting process 'rules'. There was a tendency to fall back into the habit of forecasting when we got to stage 3.

Overall, feedback from the attendees was very positive and they really enjoyed the opportunity to think differently - hopefully they can take some of that back to their jobs even when they're back in the world of full e-mail in-boxes, voicemails and intrays.

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12 November 2007

UK Commits To Legally Binding Carbon Reductions

In last week's Queen's Speech, Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a commitment to legally binding carbon emissions targets for the UK - a 60% cut by 2050. Leaving aside the arguments over whether 60% is 'enough' or what "legally binding" actually means in practice, getting anywhere close to this target will require a huge shift in policy - particularly given the lack of action to date.

Up until now the Government has relied on providing support to businesses and consumers to reduce their carbon emissions through quangos such as The Carbon Trust, Envirowise, The Energy Savings Trust and WRAP. However the type of support provided by these organisations, while worthwhile, is unlikely to deliver 60% reductions in any one company. Therefore, if the Government is serious about this target, we can expect more and bigger sticks to back up these carrots, for example:

- The Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) is coming in 2009.

- We can expect tougher Building Regulations to push new houses up the levels set out by the Code for Sustainable Homes.

- I wouldn't be surprised if the Climate Change Levy is replaced by a tougher Carbon Tax and that obligations are made on waste heat to encourage its use in district heating.

To avoid being clobbered by such sticks, industry and businesses need to start planning a low carbon future now. Reducing energy expenditure is never a bad idea.

Measuring the carbon footprint of a business is an essential first step before reduction plans can be developed. At Terra Infirma we follow footprinting with the backcasting approach to develop low carbon future scenarios before tracing reduction pathways for a business to follow. This gives more radical solutions cutting right across the business, rather than simple quick fixes.

But, whichever way a company wishes to address the problem, it will pay to have a headstart.

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