I recently found a note I’d written—but never written up—as a result of the Three Horizons course I did with Bill Sharpe and Daniel Wahl at Schumacher College in the autumn of 2017. I enrolled because, although I had been involved early on in developing Three Horizons, and had used it a lot, I was aware that Bill’s practice of it had evolved, perhaps in different directions, and I wanted to get a better understanding of this.
One of the things I like about Three Horizons is that in mapping a model of change in a single space, it also does two more things.
First, it doesn’t ignore weak signals of change, or emerging issues. These are usually identified in competent scanning, but then get squeezed out of the analysis in the most widely published scenarios methods, in which “important and uncertain” are privileged in the development of the scenarios.
Second, it allows for the creation of preferred visions of the future (normative futures), again in contrast to the dominant scenarios processes, which tend to be more positivist. A bit more than this, as well: it also allows the route towards the vision to be tested in a way that allows steps towards it to be identified.
(If you need to know more about Three Horizons, there’s a version of the foundational article here.)
For me this sits well with Ruth Levitas’ work on “Utopia as method”, when she describes utopian thinking like this:
(I)t allows us, in imagining an entirely different society, to break from the present at least in imagination. This break is not, of course absolute. Our imaginative reach is limited. Both the issues that preoccupy us and our posited transformations in response to them are heavily dependent on our social and historical circumstances.
She also quotes the French sociologist Andre Gorz on utopias:
‘it is the function of utopias … to provide us with the distance from the existing state of affairs which allows us to judge what we are doing in the light of what we could or should do’.
Or heart and hands, if you like. There’s much more in her paper, linked above.
There’s potentially a whole riff here on whether these dominant North American methods are positivist because that’s a function of American academic culture. After all, their sociology and economics is also more positivist, at least historically, as power relationships are quietly excluded through process, but that’s for another time.
In recovering these elements of preferred futures, it also reclaims the history of visioning which has long been marginalised in all of the noise eclipsed by scenarios methods. Yet, of course, the first modern futures book (Fred Polak’s The Image of the Future) was about the role of visions (images) in shaping the kind of society and the kind of world we want. His book is out of print, but a pdf can be found online.
There’s a famous quote from his book which has adorned a thousand posters:
Freeing the future
And Wendy Schultz quotes a passage from Polak’s book in her presentation on visioning at the Tools for Hope site:
These images must have the power to tear our civilization loose from the claws of the present and free it once more to think about and act for the future. The seed of these images becomes the life-blood of our culture, and the transfiguration of our civilization waits upon the sowing of new seed.
Scenarios, meanwhile, became associated with military strategy, and later Big Oil, which, as is well known, had access to bigger budgets and readier access to the ears of policy makers, and was also no challenge to dominant discourses. Boys and toys.
There’s more to write on this , but one reason why visioning got eclipsed maybe because it became associated with both the peace movement and community activism through the work respectively of Warren Ziegler and Elise Boulding and Robert Jungk. (Boulding learnt Dutch to translate Polak’s book into English.)
Ziegler and Boulding focused on ‘a world without weapons’ in their workshops. Robert Jungk developed a community futures method, which he wrote up in his book Futures Workshop, sadly out of print at present. This involved a three-day process that started with a cathartic critique of the things that were wrong with the present, and then moved on during the second day to ask how we would want those things to be reorganised in the future. The third part built the journey from one to the other.
As Jim Dator pointed out in his sympathetic critique of of Jungk’s model, the one thing that’s missing in this is an opportunity to take a view of emerging futures to provide a context for that move from catharsis to hope to action. This gap was brought home to me early in the 2000s when Demos used a different engagement model, Open Space, for a bit of community futuring for the Scottish Highlands town of Nairn. They didn’t have a futures immersion session; at the end of the work, it turned out that what Nairn would really need in 2020 was a fully dualled road to Inverness.
Patterns of process
More broadly though, I’m struck that both Robert Jungk’s method, and Future Search, which was developed later, have a dialogue pattern that starts with present discontents, jumps to a better future, and then comes back to agree on what needs to be done to bridge the gap between them.
Written like that, it is the same set of mental models that sit underneath the typical Three Horizons questions, which start with Horizon 1, then move to Horizon 3, and come back to Horizon 2. (Although starting with Horizon 3 and coming back to Horizon 1 also works, sometimes better, because it shifts people out of the present.) I find it reassuring that three different approaches to the same futures problem, which as far as I know were developed independently of one another, have constructed the process in the same way.
 Looking back at this piece now, I realise that the questions that emerged here ended up being the research question for my long chapter “A Critical History of Scenarios”, in the Routledge Handbook of Social Futures, published early in 2022.