Backward-looking or forward-looking?

History is an angel being blown backwards into the future.
History is a pile of debris,
and the angel wants to go back and fix things,
to repair things that have been broken.

But there is a storm blowing from Paradise,
and this storm keeps blowing the angel backwards into the future.
And this storm is called Progress.

— From the song “The Dream Before” by Laurie Anderson, based on a quote by Walter Benjamin

One lens that I find useful is whether a project is backward-looking or forward-looking. A backward-looking project is one that attempts to fix something that is broken. A forward-looking project starts with a fresh slate and attempts to create something new.

Both kinds of projects are important and necessary. For example, a backward-looking project might be to tackle corruption in politics. If government doesn’t respond to citizens’ desires and needs, that’s a long-term threat to our society. Likewise, a lot of regulation is backward-looking because it reacts to events. Another example: ton of startups succeed by fixing things that are fundamentally broken today.

An example of a forward-looking project might be to build a self-driving car. With many forward-looking projects there’s an inherent bet that you’ll make something useful enough that when society’s mores and regulations catch up, people will see the value in your project.

An example of forward-looking views is Peter Diamandis, who argues that our future is abundance.

Take something like climate change. A backward-looking approach might try to figure out how to improve coal plants to make them cleaner. A forward-looking approach might be to try to figure out how to build a practical fusion power plant. Projects like smart grids or improved solar cells could be backward-looking or forward-looking depending on the level of granularity.

I don’t really have a good ending to this blog post–this is just a way of looking at the world that interests me. Society will always need people fixing things that are broken. I feel like forward-looking projects might be a little more fun (or at least leave you feeling more optimistic). But unless you choose your project carefully, you run the risk of rushing forward, only to suffer major pain if society disagrees with you.

10 Responses to Backward-looking or forward-looking? (Leave a comment)

  1. im hoping that some of the retrospective views see that some times the public actually benefits by working with the smaller niche sites that recently have been rolled over by the stronger and bigger businesses that essentially offer similar info but with out the personalized content of the grassroots content providers :)))

  2. Matt, looking back into history, majority of the forward-looking projects faced backlash and were called outrageous. But then these projects proved to change the face of mankind and improved the state of the world drastically.

    Creativity is always challenging, and involves high risk. I agree with you that for real progress, you need a combination and collaboration of backward-looking and forward-looking projects – both have important roles to play.

    The only thing that needs to be fixed is the present, which ultimately lays the foundation of the future. Projects that fix things looking forward will always drive safely into the future.

    That said, I also agree with you that wrong assessment and vision can lead to failure and setbacks.

    Thanks for this food for thought. Tasted good. 🙂

  3. Meaningful contents. We learn from our past and implement those experience to upcoming projects.

  4. Deb

    “With a tear for the dark past, turn we then to the dazzling future, and veiling our eyes, press forward.” You hit a nerve. One that pulled up a favored excerpt from Looking Backward. Exploring the dichotomy of looking backward while moving forward … it’s a continuum as opposed to the either or you refer to.

    Do you not believe that’s possible? When I was young, I was not so into the politics of politics (I know, but how else to say it) but more the defense of democracy. Then I was swept into the practice of political action. I based decisions on positioning to win. Forward looking? It’s the escalated destruction of democracy that has me back where I was in my teens. Backward looking? Enfranchising humanity, Bellamy also wrote about that as a rebirth.

    Now, because you hit that nerve, I’m gonna have to reread what I haven’t thought about in years but obviously have lots of gray cells invested in!

  5. I think of “backward-looking” projects as an opportunity for incremental innovation – being able to do things better, cheaper, and faster or any combination of these three. And, I think of “forward-looking” project as disruptive innovation – being able to do things that you could not have done before or could not even have imagined you could do. You need different kind of mindset and approach for these two.

    Do keep writing! As a reader I enjoy a good beginning as opposed to a good ending since it opens up a lot more ways to end it, if at all anyone wants to end it.

  6. When looking back at History you can look at the way people have done it but maybe made a mistake. You could then take that mistake and look at how to turn it into a positive.

  7. It seems a great way to view projects, never thought of this. I personally believe that both backward-looking and forward-looking are essential to any economy. is it so that backward-looking projects are more prevalent or you can say are important mainly in developing nations and forward-looking projects can be seen more in developed countries?

  8. I honestly think some of the difference in this type of thinking comes from age and (certain) experience. That backward-looking approach is very youthful in my view, which may seem counter-intuitive but I think comes from the idea that we want to prove that we’re right. A bit of rebellion maybe.

    It’s the idea that I can figure it out and fix this thing. And those who are smart and industrious – they do fix those things. And there are rewards and it feels good but if you do that enough you find that there are always things to fix. It becomes a never-ending game of ‘someone is wrong on the Internet’.

    The internal rewards diminish even though the ends of those projects might be quite substantial.

    With age I think some (I hope more and more) realize there is nobody you have to rebel against. There’s little to prove to anyone else. It’s just you and what you want to do. Mind you, I’m in a place where I can effectively shape my future. I’ve worked hard, had some good luck and can live a life I want on my own terms. That’s … a luxury.

    It’s at this point that you do begin thinking outside of the conventional. I’d hazard that you’re in this boat and you’re a bit unmoored from the traditional work environment. Then the forward-thinking projects begin to seem more interesting and attainable. It doesn’t matter how others view them, just how you view them.

  9. History is a guide if you choose to use it that way.

  10. >> unless you choose your project carefully, you run the risk of rushing forward, only to suffer major pain if society disagrees with you.
    You’re right, Matt. Seems as though you could apply that to some “animal-named updates” that have happened in the past few years. I understand the wanting to get things right and not rushing forward. Getting it right can be tricky.

    Unfortunately there’s going to be critics out there, even if you take the time to do things right.