I’ve not had much time to blog recently, but I wanted to mention the article I had published recently in the Journal of Futures Studies on the Three Horizons method (“Seeing in Multiple Horizons: Connecting Futures to Strategy” [opens pdf], August 2008, co-written with Tony Hodgson of Decision Integrity). The three horizons method connects possible futures back to the present, and by doing so helps to structure ideas about likely rates of change and the types of conflict which may occur.

I’ve been working for a couple of years with the group of futures and systems practitioners which evolved the idea – which is not the same as the McKinsey management model of the same name. Tony and Bill Sharpe did the first work on the method when they used it to think about long-term technology change for the UK government’s Foresight project on Intelligent Infrastructure Systems (as a result we also used it on that project to help test the 50-year scenarios). I like the approach because it is a way of integrating a technique which is framed by systems ideas with other futures techniques.

A couple of quotes help to explain the thinking behind the method. The first is from the great Donella Meadows:

“- In the short term, while infrastructure facilities remain in place, while pipelines under construction or materials in transit discharge their contents, while people age, while trees grow, while existing pollutants work their way out of the groundwater or the bottom mud, a great deal (but not everything) cannot be changed and therefore can be predicted.

– In the long term, almost everything can change. Infrastructure facilities may have been replaced (solar-powered? informed by whole-system thinking?). There may be a new generation of people (with new mindsets and cultures?) and trees (tightly-controlled plantations? a slow ecological return to whatever nature chooses?). Therefore, not much can be predicted, but a great deal can be chosen.

– In the middle term, there is a messy combination of predictability and choice.”

The second is from the influential systems thinker Donald Schon, from his book Beyond The Stable State:

“A social system does not move smoothly from one state of its culture to another. In processes of social transformation, societies move from a relatively stable state through a zone of disruption to a new zone of relative stability. Something old must come apart in order for something new to come together. But for individuals within the system, there is no clear grasp of the next stable state, only a clear picture of the one to be lost. Hence, the coming apart carries uncertainty and anguish for the members of the system, since it puts at risk the basis for self-identity that the system had provided”.

It’s probably worth trying to summarise the method in a couple of lines. The first horizon is the dominant present, which frames our current thinking about a domain. (In electricity supply, for example, think of centralised generation based on fossil fuels). It will decline in influence as the external environment changes. The third horizon is a possible future which may become dominant over time; in the electricity supply example, one such future is a distributed network powered by renewable energy sources. There are clues already as to what these competing futures might look like, but they are marginal and often marginalised. In between, there is the second horizon. This is a space in which the current horizon – where the power, the influence, and the money, along with connections, relationships and prestige are to be found – adapts to signals about the future: sometimes incrementally, sometimes disruptively, sometimes destructively.

I’ve now used the method in a number of workshops, mostly to test and develop scenarios (which become the third horizon ‘end-state’). Although it seems theoretically complex, people do understand it, and the discussion which shares views about the characteristics of the current first horizon are often illuminating. I also like it because it helps people keep emerging issues and weak signals of change at front of mind – they often get disregarded or overlooked in futures processes which emphasise important and uncertain drivers of change. Other members of the informal group which has developed the thinking also have good reports from their work.

The article is quite long and quite academic, but it does explain the approach well. The work’s being developed further under the aegis of the International Futures Forum in Scotland.

Update, 24/01/09: A Thousand Tomorrows has this take on the JFS Three Horizons article.

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