This is a short book but it was 17 years in the making. It is at heart a practical history of the thinking and the practice of the International Futures Forum, which is based in Scotland, since its creation in the year 2000. By “practical history,” I mean that its author, Graham Leicester, who is also the director of the IFF, has focussed on explaining how the ideas and methods the IFF has used and evolved are applied practically to making change happen. The history and the light-touch theory happen along the way.

The International Futures Forum started life as a two-year project (partly funded by BP), with an invitation that went out to around 30 thinkers from a range of disciplines. They were invited to meet to explore the nature of the future challenges facing society, and the systemic connections between them; the ways in which society might successfully respond to those challenges; and to stimulate actions by communities, in Scotland and elsewhere, in line with the outcomes of that inquiry.

BP’s interest? It’s not mentioned in the book, but in part it was a response to criticism of the company about the adverse effects of its vast Grangemouth oil refinery, on the banks of the Forth estuary.

Systemic thinking

BP or no, who could resist an invitation like that, especially in the bright optimistic light of a new millennium? Those who accepted it, for example, included the biologist Brian Goodwin, the knowledge and information academic Max Boisot, and the writer and musician Pat Kane. The connection, between systemic thinking about problems, formulating responses, and engaging groups and communities to respond, has been at the centre of IFF’s practice, and this is reflected in the structure of the book, which is built around six themes: knowing; imagining; being; doing; enabling; and supporting.

In this short review, there isn’t the space to explore these in depth. In what follows, I will focus on a couple of areas where I think IFF’s practice is distinctive and different. But before that, it is worth sharing the SHINE project, which is something of a poster child for its work.

‘Don’t give up’

SHINE was about changing the way in which health and social care was delivered to older people in Fife, a largely rural county north of Edinburgh. It used the Three Horizons approach, of which more shortly, to develop a radical rethinking of the delivery of health and social care to its older population. In the first year, six people had moved to the new model; by the end of the second year, 50. These numbers were both well behind target, and many results-driven organisations would have impatiently killed off the project at that stage. In the third year, take-up accelerated to 500 people, and by year four, to 5,000. Graham writes of the project:

“Relationships are key to spreading, scaling and embedding… Doggedness is identified as a key enabler for getting this new approach embeddded: ‘we don’t give up’.”

Distinctive practice

Three Horizons is one of the distinctive practices of the IFF. It was largely developed by two of its fellows, Bill Sharpe and Tony Hodgson, and the IFF has pioneered much of the innovation around it.

For those unfamiliar with the method, it frames innovation as a systemic process in which the existing first Horizon loses fit with its environment, but there is competition for the new imagined Horizon Three system that might eventually replace it. Sitting between them are Horizon Two entrepreneurs busy prototyping and developing solutions that might act as a bridge to the future. In the book’s typology, it is part of the ‘imagining’ process in which people conceive, design and develop transformative initiatives.

Dinosaurs and crackpots

However, the IFF has deepened Three Horizons practice in two valuable ways. The first is by framing it as a dialogue tool to enable better conversations between different perspectives on the future. For example, it is easy for the H3 visionary to see the H1 manager as a dinosaur, and the H1 manager to think the H3 advocate a crackpot. Indeed, I have been in a workshop where an H1 manager used exactly that word about an H3 challenge to their worldview.

But more happens if these tensions are positively reframed: if the H1 manager sees the H3 visionary as a source of hope, or energy; if the H3 visionary sees the H1 manager as a heritage, or a well of expertise. Elsewhere, Graham has told the story of the NHS manager involved in the SHINE project who saw his role as ensuring that the existing system would give the new approach the resources and institutional cover it needed to grow.

This may be the same manager quoted in the book as saying, supportively as a word to the wise, “be aware that we have a black belt in taking promising organic initiatives and strangling the life out of them.”

The fixed and the fluid

The second way in which the IFF has deepened the Three Horizons model is through championing the idea of dilemma resolution, originally developed by the consultant Charles Hampden-Turner, and published in Charting The Corporate Mind. By doing this, Tony Hodgson has made usable some rich ideas that were previously too complex for others to apply. This has become a valuable adjunct to the Three Horizons model; it can provide a way to resolve the dilemmas in Horizon 2 between the very fixed demands of the existing Horizon 1 system and the fluid demands of Horizon 3 change, both of which contain essential ingredients for the new system that is emerging.

The other method I want to highlight here was new to me when I read the book, but it is a thing of delight. This is Jim Ewing’s ‘Impacto’ model, which is part of the Doing element in the story. It is a set of of questions that allows a group to describe their own path to a desired future.

They start with questions about purpose (the questions are all laid out in the book), and work through ‘urgency’, ‘destination’, and ‘success path’ to ‘commitment’. Ewing has discovered through his practice that the questions need to be asked in this order. It looks to be a straightforward and engaged way to develop a vision with a group or organisation, and although it doubtless comes with some wrinkles, I am looking forward to trying it for myself.

Human systems

In doing its work, the IFF settled on three essential principles in its initial years. The first was that you should take the “broadest possible view of the context, always thinking systemically”; the second, to think in terms of long term transitions; and the third, that the systems they were working with were human systems. The point about transitions has gone deep into its practice. The former California senator John Vasconcellos is quoted memorably as saying that the task of transition “is to be hospice workers for the dying culture and midwives for the new.” This is true of much, perhaps all, futures work, but we often neglect the importance of helping the old system die with dignity.

I should not conclude this review without mentioning the illustrations by Jennifer Williams, one of the IFF’s Fellows, which add to the book’s lightness of touch. I also found the brevity welcome, even when it left me wanting more information.

This a quiet and reflective book, and in both length and tone it is a refreshing antidote to the hundreds of over-excitable business books that are at heart vastly padded articles. When reading Transformative Innovation, you have a sense of the depth that sits behind every chapter. You can also pick up the tools and use them in your own practice, especially because the IFF, with its strong commitment to openness, has published much about them both on its own website and through an associated project, This rich and humane book should be on the shelf of every practising futurist.

‘Transformative Innovation’, by Graham Leicester, is published by Triarchy Press. This review first appeared in the January 2018 edition of Compass, the newsletter of the Association of Professional Futurists.