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The Three Horizons of innovation and culture change

Daniel Christian Wahl

By: Daniel Christian Wahl
Glocal educator, activist and consultant, generalized in whole systems design and transformative innovation for regenenerative cultures

Bill Sharpe and Daniel Christian Wall are co-teaching a 5 day course at Schumacher College in November 2017 (20th to 24th) entitled ‘Three Horizons: A pathways practice for sustainability and transformative innovation’.

In the autumn of 2009, I was invited to join the International Futures Forum (IFF) as one of a small group of ‘next generation’ members. The IFF is an international collaborative network of people committed to pooling their experience and insights to explore “the complex and confounding challenges that our world faces”, to “support a transformative response to those challenges” and to “enhance our capacity for effective action”.

One common perspective shared between the members of the IFF is that we need a more systemic approach to the complexity of the interconnected problems and opportunities that we face. Another shared belief is that, in order to appropriately respond to the changes around us, organizations, communities, businesses and governments must not only pay attention to possible short-term responses to symptoms of these crises, but must also address the underlying structural and systemic causes that drive these symptoms.

In addition, working with complex systems requires us to befriend uncertainty, change and unpredictability. We aim to engage communities in the deeper cultural dialogue that asks the kind of questions and proposes the kind of provisional answers that drive cultural transformation and continued learning.

IFF members and other futures practitioners (see Hodgson & Sharpe, 2007; Curry & Hodgson, 2008; Sharpe 2013) developed the ‘Three Horizons’ framework collaboratively over the last 10 years. ‘Three Horizons thinking’ is an effective method for making sense of and facilitating cultural transformation and exploring innovation and wise action in the face of uncertainty and not-knowing.


This graphic is not in the book chapter this excerpt is taken from. Source: H3Uni

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 ‘Three Horizons’ framework is a foresight tool that can help us to structure our thinking about the future in ways that spark innovation. It describes three patterns or ways of doing things and how their relative prevalence and interactions evolve over time. The change from the established pattern of the first horizon to the emergence of fundamentally new patters in the third occurs via the transition activity of the second horizon.
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” (Sharpe, 2013: 2).


Figure 2: Adapted from bit.ly/DRC229 with permission from IFF

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.

I believe the three horizons offer an important framework for thinking about transformative innovation that can be used to facilitate the transition towards regenerative cultures. It can help us to structure our collective exploration as we start living the questions together as conscious participants in this transition. In this context, the first horizon (red) represents the currently prevalent systems that are beginning to show symptoms of decline and shortening cycles of crisis and temporary, but never fundamental, recovery.

In other words, 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.

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.

Within the context of the transition towards regenerative cultures we introduce a value bias into our use of the Three Horizons methodology: solutions that create conditions conducive to life and establish regenerative patterns are valued more highly than those that don’t. Throughout this book I refer to H3 as perspectives and patterns that intend to bring about a ‘viable world’ of regenerative cultures able to creatively transform in continuous exploration of the most appropriate responses to a rapidly changing socio-ecological context.

Cultivating future consciousness with Three Horizons perspectives

The essence of Three Horizons practice is to develop both an individual and a shared awareness of all three horizons, seeing them as perspectives that must all come into the discussion, and to work flexibly with the contributions that each one makes to the continuing process of renewal on which we all depend. We step out of our individual mindset into a shared space of creative possibility. — Bill Sharpe (2013: 29)

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.

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. The pilgrimage towards a sustainable and regenerative future has an endless string of false summits. As we reach the top of the green summit (H3) of our horizons map, we stand on the red ground of our new H1. Looking ahead with future consciousness we see the new second and third horizons stretched out in front of us.

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.

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. 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.

Three Horizon Thinking transforms the potential of the present moment by revealing each horizon as a different quality of the future in the present, reflecting how we act differently to maintain the familiar or pioneer the new. — Bill Sharpe (2013: 10)

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. 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 the transition context, H3 thinking is informed by the new cultural narrative of interbeing and the scientific evidence for our interdependence with the rest of life. As such, it is defining a new way of being and relating based on a fundamental shift in worldview acknowledging the valuable contributions of H1 and H2 perspectives and putting them into the context of wider eco-social transformation.
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.

The H3 perspective itself is populated by many different visions of the future. In the context of this book I concentrate on those that value viability and regeneration, yet it is important to stay open for the lessons we can learn from all three horizons and the diversity of perspectives on the future they represent. 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.

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.

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.

Three Horizons thinking allows us to acknowledge what is valuable in each of the three horizons’ distinct perspectives and ways of relating to the future. It helps us to see the opportunities and future potential of the present moment. It can help us to ask deeper questions as we engage in conversations informed by ‘future consciousness’ that turn rigid mindsets into valuable perspectives.

Transformation happens as the emergent result of everything going on in the world — there is always an emerging third horizon at every scale of life from the individual to the planet and beyond. Some things will be the result of conscious intent, others will surprise us for good or ill. The way we live now was once the third horizon, partly imagined and intended, largely unknown. Future consciousness will not bring the future under control, but allows us to develop our capacity for transformational response to its possibilities. — Bill Sharpe (2013: 15)

Three Horizons thinking offers a methodology and practice of seeing things from multiple perspectives and valuing the contribution that each perspective makes to the way we bring forth the world together. Simply holding a facilitated conversation using the Three Horizons framework in your local community group, business, organization or local council already has the potential for transformative cultural innovation within it.

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

Note: Bill Sharpe and Daniel Christian Wall are co-teaching a 5 day course at Schumacher College in November 2017 (20th to 24th) entitled ‘Three Horizons: A pathways practice for sustainability and transformative innovation’.


Orginal blog post: used with permission

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