Image of a sunset on the horizon

Three Horizons

Stratégies systémiques

Contexte

This resource is a framework for leading a group discussion about innovation. It involves mapping out three possibilities for the future by bringing together a range of perspectives on society. This resource is useful for groups that want to discover innovations that will change the status quo.

The Three Horizons of innovation and culture change framework has been applied in a variety of contexts, including the future of intelligent infrastructures in the UK, technological foresight in the IT industry, transformative innovation in the Scottish education system, the future of Alzheimer’s research, rural community development, and executive leadership programmes. It is a versatile methodology for inviting people to explore the future potential of the present moment through a number of perspectives that all have to be considered if we are to steer our course wisely into an unpredictable future.

The model not only makes us think in interactive patterns, but more importantly “it draws attention to the three horizons always existing in the present moment, and that we have evidence about the future in how people (including ourselves) are behaving now” 

Horizon 1 is ‘business as usual’, or ‘the world in crisis’ (H1). It is characterized by ‘sustaining innovation’ that keeps ‘business as usual’ going. Horizon 3 (green) is how we envision a ‘viable world’ (H3). We may not be able to define this future in every detail — as the future is always uncertain — yet we can intuit what fundamental transformations lie ahead, and we can pay attention to social, ecological, economic, cultural and technological experiments around us that may be pockets of this future in the present. Horizon 2 (blue) represents ‘world in transition’ (H2) — the entrepreneurial and culturally creative space of already technologically, economically and culturally feasible innovations that can disrupt and transform H1 to varying degrees and can have either regenerative, neutral or degenerative socio-ecological effects.

The framework helps us to become more aware of how our individual and collective intentions and behaviours actively shape the future today. By mapping three ways of relating to the future from the perspectives of the three horizons we can bring the value of each of them to the conversation in a generative way that fosters understanding and future consciousness as the basis for collaborative action and transformative innovation.

The framework has been applied in a variety of contexts, including the future of intelligent infrastructures in the UK, technological foresight in the IT industry, transformative innovation in the Scottish education system, the future of Alzheimer’s research, rural community development, and executive leadership programmes. It is a versatile methodology for inviting people to explore the future potential of the present moment through a number of perspectives that all have to be considered if we are to steer our course wisely into an unpredictable future.

The model not only makes us think in interactive patterns, but more importantly “it draws attention to the three horizons always existing in the present moment, and that we have evidence about the future in how people (including ourselves) are behaving now” 

Horizon 1 is ‘business as usual’, or ‘the world in crisis’ (H1). It is characterized by ‘sustaining innovation’ that keeps ‘business as usual’ going. Horizon 3 (green) is how we envision a ‘viable world’ (H3). We may not be able to define this future in every detail — as the future is always uncertain — yet we can intuit what fundamental transformations lie ahead, and we can pay attention to social, ecological, economic, cultural and technological experiments around us that may be pockets of this future in the present. Horizon 2 (blue) represents ‘world in transition’ (H2) — the entrepreneurial and culturally creative space of already technologically, economically and culturally feasible innovations that can disrupt and transform H1 to varying degrees and can have either regenerative, neutral or degenerative socio-ecological effects.

The framework helps us to become more aware of how our individual and collective intentions and behaviours actively shape the future today. By mapping three ways of relating to the future from the perspectives of the three horizons we can bring the value of each of them to the conversation in a generative way that fosters understanding and future consciousness as the basis for collaborative action and transformative innovation.

The Three Horizons

Horizon 1 is based on practices that have worked for a long time and have a proven track record based on past experience. 

H1 thinking — dominated by the narrative of separation — has shaped most of the practices that seem vital to our continued existence. Our education systems, our systems of production and consumption, our health system, communication infrastructure, transport and housing infrastructures, all of these systems and the vital services they provide will have to be transformed during the transition towards regenerative cultures.

While aspects of today’s H1 are obsolete and among the root-causes of unsustainable practices, other aspects of H1 are also helping to provide vital services without which we would face almost immediate collapse. The transformation has to occur while these vital services continue to be provided. It is not possible for humanity to switch off the lights, leave the room, and start afresh in a different room that holds more promise. We only have one home planet. We have to find ways to transition from a status quo that is now deeply unsustainable to a new one. 

In order to avoid the common mistake of ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’, it is important to see all that is valuable about H1 and understand the importance of the contributions it makes to co-creating regenerative cultures. Bill Sharpe compares the H1 perspective to the role of the manager responsible for keeping the lights on and the business operational without massive disruption to its basic functioning. 

Horizon 3: From the perspective of the present moment, H3 describes regenerative cultures capable of constant learning and transformation in adaptation to and anticipation of change. Yet, as we approach H3, it recedes, or better, it transforms in response to wider systemic change. 

By the time we reach the cultural maturity that we today describe in terms of the third horizon, this H3 will have turned into the new H1 and we will face new and unpredictable challenges that will require us to take a new H3 perspective.

Maintaining an open mind and learning from multiple perspectives can help us to develop ‘future consciousness’ as we chart our path into a future that will always be characterized by the emergence of novel conditions — some predetermined and inevitable, others unpredictable.

Since the process of cultural evolution and transformation is continuous, there is no arriving at and maintaining an H3 scenario forever. Moving towards the third horizon always entails acknowledging our ‘not knowing’ and therefore staying with an apprentice mindset — ready to learn from experience; humble enough to regard no solution as final; and open to acknowledging the valuable perspectives of all three horizons.

Sustainability and regenerative cultures are not end-points to be reached but continuous processes of collective learning. As we move towards the third horizon we are likely to be surprised by the emergence of new challenges. To respond wisely to these challenges the perspectives offered by all three horizons should inform our actions.

Horizon 2: At the point where these H2 innovations become more effective than the existing practices, they begin to replace aspects of ‘business as usual’. Yet some forms of ‘disruptive innovation’ ultimately get absorbed by H1 without leading to fundamental and transformative change, while other forms of ‘disruptive innovation’ can be thought of as a possible bridge from H1 to H3. 

The bridge between H1 and H3 is constructed by paying discerning attention to the space of innovation and the period of transition that is opened up by the second horizon. The H2 perspective sees opportunities in the shortcomings of H1 and aims to ground the visionary possibilities of the third horizon with some practical next steps. 

Many of them are likely to be ‘stepping stones’ or transitional innovations. Since H2 innovation takes place in an economic climate and within power structures dominated by H1, many of the proposed H2 innovations are ultimately captured to serve H1 goals. As the second horizon is about experimentation and entrepreneurship, many of its initiatives fail, offering opportunities for learning. Only a small percentage of innovations succeed in building an effective bridge between H1 and H3, enabling implementation of H3’s high visions in tangible, convincing and ‘positively infectious’ ways.

The H2 perspective is that of the entrepreneur who sees the potential advantage of doing things differently, challenging the status quo in operational ways but often without questioning the cultural narrative that maintains the H1 culture. The perspective of the H3 visionary calls for profound transformation towards a better (more just, fair, equitable, thriving and sustainable) world.

In charting a path to regenerative cultures that aims to avoid massive disruption and suffering, we need to value the bridge that certain types of H2 innovation offer. Most H1 systems might be in need of profound transformation, but still have to be valued as a basis from which innovation and transformation become possible while we avoid the often regressive rather than evolutionary effects of revolution and systemic collapse.

Leading a conversation about Three Horizons: 

Diverse H3 visions and experiments are needed to take our collective conversation about the future to a level that is inclusive and participatory. We need to question our own cultural conditioning and the myopia caused by H1 education and cultural discourse. H1 managers can often be locked into a specific way of doing things and a specific mindset (the narrative of separation) — a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. H3 visionaries remind us to see future potential and possibilities beyond the rigid H1 mindset that resists change, in particular those kinds of change that invite cultural transformation.

This process of using Three Horizons for strategic planning can either be conducted ‘cold’ – simply starting the conversation and seeing where it leads – or it can be prompted with material deliberately chosen to get people thinking about future trends or present practice that might otherwise be dismissed, ignored or just not on the collective radar. That material might be derived from specialist research, from relevant scenarios exercises, from interviews with experts and so on.  Editing this kind of information down into a series of pithy statements to form a deck of ‘prompt cards’ opens up further possibilities for groups to facilitate themselves (like playing a ‘game of cards’) or for many groups to have different versions of the same conversation (using the same deck of cards) that can be synthesised later. 

With the ideas generated from your discussion, categorize them into three kinds of actions: 

  • sustaining or incremental innovation needed to keep the first horizon systems going;
  • more radical transformative innovation intended to demonstrate a different approach and move towards a desired third horizon;
  • decommissioning of services or activities that have no place in the desired third horizon and therefore need to be gradually phased out, freeing up resources for transformation.