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The International Futures Forum, based in Scotland, has been at the forefront of developing the Three Horizons model as a framework for futures practice. They have an article published in the current issue of Ecology and Society, called “Three Horizons: a pathways practice for transformation”, that is worth discussion. The full article can also be downloaded from the Ecology & Society site.

I’ve written about Three Horizons before on this blog and in the Journal of Futures Studies, and have used it as a futures tool in my own practice. I’ve found it valuable as a method to help groups focus on the challenges of “acting on the future.” In brief, it is a systems framework that has a model of change embedded within it.

Horizon 1 is the current dominant model in any given system; Horizon 3 is the range of emerging practices in the system, often associated with visionary models of change; and Horizon 2 is the adaptive resonses by Horizon 1 actors to Horizon 3 ideas and practices.

Pathways practice

The “pathways practice” described in the article involves five steps, and in this article I am going to reflect on these.

  • Step 1: Examining current concerns
  • Step 2: Exploring future aspirations
  • Step 3: Exploring inspirational practice in the present
  • Step 4: Innovation in play
  • Step 5: Essential features to maintain.

The article maps these five steps onto a worked example for a project. For simplicity, I’ve mapped the stages back onto the standard 3H diagram, seen at the top of the post.

3H blog post_diagrams.001

(Source: Sharpe et al, “Three Horizons: a pathways practice for transformation, Ecology & Society 21(2)).

Reading the article, and the description of their practice, I think there are five observations that are worth pulling out by way of amplifying the argument.

– 1. Three Horizons’ connection to visioning

The first visioning method I learned was the future workshop, by Robert Jungk and Norbert Mullert, and outlined in their book Future Workshops, published in an English version by the Institute of Social Inventions in 1987, and sadly currently out of print. They had a three-stage process. A first session (“critique phase”) listed everything that was wrong now; a second (“fantasy phase”) identified what you’d want to happen in a perfect world; and a third (“implementation phase”) developed ideas to bridge the gap between the two.

The first two steps of Three Horizons are broadly consistent with this visioning method, and others that borrowed from it, which is reassuring. There’s also a well-known critique of Jungk’s process by Jim Dator, to the effect that it doesn’t have a preliminary stage that puts participants into a future-facing mindset before it starts the “critique” face. (I recall a project by Demos around the turn of the century, from memory about the Scottish town of Nairn in 2020, that used Jungk’s method and demonstrated this issue. The top-ranked need for Nairn in 2020 was judged to be improving the dual carriageway to Inverness.)

Three Horizons doesn’t explicitly have Dator’s initial future immersion stage, but Stage 3, effectively exploring emerging issues, should make this happen if the group is not too locked into the present.

– 2. The role of lock-in

If you read too much business literature, “lock-in” is a bad thing. It prevents innovation by tying behaviour into a particular set of infrastructure and systems. But there is “good lock-in” as well. In richer countries when we flick the switch we expect the light to come on. We want our water to be clean. We expect to know which side of the road people will be driving on. So in a transition, we need to know the expectations about what’s essential and what’s not. In the Three Horizons practice, this is captured in Step 5, “what is essential to maintain?” As a futurist, this question sometimes get overlooked in futures processes: the excitement of the new tends to overshadow the role of the old.

– 3. Dilemmas

Tony Hodgson, one of the paper’s authors, has done much work building on the “dilemma theory” developed originally by Charles Hampden-Turner, and this is explored in the paper. The insight in dilemma theory is that decisions are often framed as choices, or trade-offs, between alternatives or a series of alternatives; more, that those alternatives are frequently between hard limits and soft systems or cultural consequences. I’m simplifying here, but Hampden-Turner used the Greek myth of Scylla and Charybdis–on one side the rocks, on the other the whirlpool–as a metaphor to bring this to life. Trade-offs are sub-optimal solutions pretty much by definition, a NO/BUT response. The trick is to break the trade-off with an innovation that reframes the issue by creating a YES/AND solution, a breakthrough idea.

– 4. Making power explicit

The paper has a refreshingly direct take on power, and its role in making change happen, or in preventing it. Having done a degree in social and political sciences, in the UK, I was brought up on this (Michael Mann and Stephen Lukes come to mind) but it’s often absent from futures work and futurist discourse, Indeed, this is Richard Slaughter’s complaint (in Futures Beyond Dystopia) about the way that in business futures scenarios become a “flatland” in which “current ideologies… were seen as natural”.

The authors of the paper are explicit on this:

Deliberate societal transformation involves intentionally trying to direct patterns of change. This requires exploring who has the power to resist or bring about change, to what extent change can be created, and the relationships between different actors.

Indeed, some of the language that practitioners have developed around Horizon 2, of “H2-” and “H2+”, is about the way that dominant actors, usually incumbents, either deploy their power and influence to delay or kill off change, which would be an H2- response (think of banks since the Global Financial Crisis, or utilities’ typical response to renewables), or use it to facilitate transition (H2+). H2+ is rarer.

In turn this raises the wider question for me of why Actor Network Theory has not been explored more fully by futurists. Actor analysis is a building block for the French prospective method (see Michel Godet, opens pdf, on this). Outside of France, I’m aware of papers by Zhan Li and Farzana Dudhwala. It’s a lacuna.

– 5. Worldviews and dialogue

One of the rich elements that has emerged from the Three Horizons is an insight into the way people with different perspectives on the future see each other. This comes from thinking developed by Jim Ewing and Ian Page. Simply put, conversations between actors who are most comfortable operating in different Horizons are a dialogue of the deaf.

[T]hose responsible for the first horizon systems that are important for daily life, who have to meet ever greater obligations for accountability, transparency, and so on, often regard the third horizon visionary as an irritating and unrealistic nuisance. The third horizon pioneer, in contrast, will often regard the first horizon manager as a dinosaur who is blocking change. Yet, when each party is able to see that if no one keeps the current system going, the future cannot be resourced, and that if there is no action toward future needs, the existing system will collapse, then a much more fruitful discussion becomes possible.

A useful table in the paper, which I have adapted as a matrix for the purposes of this blog post, sets out the way different Horizon practitoners see each other.

3H blog post_diagrams.002

(Source: Sharpe et al, “Three Horizons: a pathways practice for transformation, Ecology & Society 21(2), adapted by AndrewCurry)

Often we’re not sufficiently aware of worldview and purpose when we’re engaged in workshops, which is one of the reasons why de Bono invented his thinking hats. This positioning aspect of the Three Horizons’ process has a similar role in futures work: What voice are you speaking in right now? What role are you in when you are listening?

The full paper can be dowloaded from the Ecology and Society website.