three horizons

3horizons-tinyFuturewheels, scenario planning axes and several other methods & techniques in the land of futures studies all have in common that they bring structure to the process of thinking about the long term in an insightful manner. They lower the threshold for futures thinking beyond the academic context. Exploring and analyzing possible futures is one thing, the step towards visioning, strategy-development and action for change another.

In this respect, Andrew Curry of the UK’s Henley Center HeadlightVision (now aka The Futures Company) and Anthony Hodgson from Decision Integrity recently published an insightful article in the Journal of Futures Studies (August 2008) entitled “Seeing in Multiple Horizons: Connecting Futures to Strategy”Their paper describes …

“[…] a futures method called the ‘Three Horizons’ which enables different futures and strategic methods to be integrated as and when appropriate. […] It can relate drivers and trends-based futures analysis to emerging issues. It enables policy or strategy implications of futures to be identified. And it links futures work to processes of change. The paper connects this latter aspect to models of change developed within the ‘social shaping’ school of technology.”

The initial work on the Three Horizons method – in its present form and scope, a systems thinking-based approach looking at the strategic fit between a system and its context over time – was done by Anthony Hodgson and Bill Sharpe when they used it to think about long-term technology change for the UK government’s foresight project on Intelligent Infrastructure Systems. The method is now being further developed under the umbrella of The International Futures Forum.

Taking a closer look at the fitness-landscape- or phase-like curves, the fade-out S-curve of the first horizon points reminds one of the urgency to change with respect to a future scenario. Also worth noting is that the third horizon’s S-curve is also recognized as a core component of the transition management methodology as put forward by Rotmans et al. also pointing towards enabling change in context of high systemic complexity and uncertainty (e.g. societal change in view of sustainability).

The paper argues that the Three Horizons method features several strengths compared to more classic scenario-approaches: 

  • the method brings several perspectives together which help to bridge future exploration, visioning and action: horizon 1 helps to uncover the values and assumptions underlying current business of usual, horizon 2 helps to assess whether one is focussing on incremental change to keep up or systemic change/radical innovation of its core values, horizon 3 opens up and explores the enabling pathways towards such radical change
  • emerging issues and weak signals receive more attention
  • action is incorporated in the assessment, thereby increasing the constructivist notion of the future as something one can – at least partly – design or shape.