Let’s be inspired by Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope.

‘Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope’ by Bill Sharpe is a tremendous book for anyone who works on profound change. Below I hope I can give you a flavour of it, and why I was inspired. My key takeaway:  rather than aiming for distant, definitive visions, we would be better to act from a shared awareness of the future potential in this present moment.

Last autumn I read Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope, at the suggestion of my then-colleague, Forum for the Future’s Director of Futures, James Goodman. Thank goodness I did. Few books have resonated with as much on the overwhelming messiness of profound, social change. In a time of Trump and Brexit, and of us still driving climate change even though we are putting civilisation at risk, it gave me hope and it gave shifted my modus operandi. I mentioned it in two very different meetings this week, so I thought I would unpack it a bit more. Here I’m going to write about it in three sections:

A. What are the key features?
B. What are the steps in a Three Horizons process?
C. What are the deep implications for those taking part in profound change?

A. What are the key features?

At it’s core, Three Horizons uses, well, three horizons as a simple framing device:

  • “The first horizon describes the current way of doing things, and the way we can expect it to change if we all keep behaving in the ways we are used to. H1 systems are what we all depend on to get things done in the world.”
  • “The third horizon is the future system. It is those new ways of living and working that will fit better with the emerging need and opportunity. H3 change is transformative, bringing a new pattern into existence that is beyond the reach of the H1 system.”
  • “The second horizon is the transition and transformation zone of emerging innovations that are responding to the shortcomings of the first horizon and anticipating the possibilities of the third horizon.”


Simple, right? Well, there’s more going on under the surface. For one thing, the method “naturally turns towards systemic patterns rather than individual events or unexamined trends”. Today is not a frozen thing to which change needs to ‘happen’. Instead, with this method, we “become aware that everything…is just part of a slow process of change, embedded in other processes that extend out as far as we want to explore.”

For another thing, the future is not distant from today. Each of the three horizons exist “always in the present moment, and that we have evidence about the future in how people (including ourselves) are behaving now”.

Equipped like this, we can start to understand the world differently. At every moment, we are taking part in patterns. We are choosing to reinforce the most prevalent (the H1), or to evoke the most transformative (H3), or to test an innovation that might work a bit in the today while expressing some of the transformation (H2). For the most part, most people most of the time are reinforcing the prevalent – there is a positive fit between our established routines and the world around us. It is the “settled way things are done round here”, and it reinforces itself.

If our context is in a constant process of becoming, then what fits now will not fit forever. As our context changes, we find our established routines no longer deliver. Then we face a choice: more of the same, or explore finding a new fit by trying out new behaviours.

Also, at any one moment, there can be “no presumption that everyone will agree on the vision of the third horizon”. A number of H3 are available. The one which eventually manifests (as a new ‘H1’) depends on the choices we make now.

Therefore, it is “helpful in making clear the distinction in the H2 space between those H2+ actions that develop options towards the third horizon and those H2- ones that might, or probably will, be captured to extend the first horizon.”

B. What are the steps?

When it comes to acting for deliberate change, the book argues that it is “natural, in almost any situation where people are working on some complex issue, to gently bring out the three ‘voices’ of the horizons: the managerial voice that is concerned with the first horizon responsibility for keeping things going; the entrepreneurial voice of the second horizon that is eager to get on and try new things (some of which won’t work); and the aspiration and vision of the third horizon voice that holds out for commitment to a better way and the opportunity that can be imagined in the mind’s eye.”

The steps to do that are:

  1. Examining present concerns. A three horizon conversation begins by bringing the issue of concern into view and describing the ways in which the current way of doing things is seen to be losing its fit with emerging conditions.
  2. Exploring future aspirations. This involves examining the third horizon, where visions, aspirations, and possibilities for the reality that will emerge over time are explored as a replacement of the first horizon.
  3. Exploring inspirational practice in the present. The second step generally merges with the third step, which is to identify “pockets of the future in the present,” which are concrete examples of where new ways of doing things are visible at the margins of the mainstream first horizon systems.
  4. Innovations in play. This step considers the second horizon, which is viewed as the realm of transition between the first and third horizons, and innovations are identified that can be seen to be going on in response to the failings of the first horizon and the possibilities of the third.
  5. Essential features to maintain. The final step draws attention to those aspects of the old system that will persist into the future within the context of the new dominant system. These are often examined as the key or desirable elements that need to be retained.

(Note: these steps are taken from a separate article by some of the same authors called Three horizons: a pathways practice for transformation.)

C. What are the deep implications for those taking part in profound change?

So far so good, right? A nice strategic planning method. Well, yes, and. And there is another you can go to, if you want.

The book develops the relationship between these three concepts of horizons, transformation and future consciousness around the following five propositions:

  1. Future consciousness is an awareness of the future potential of the present moment.
  2. Transformative change is that change which requires a re-patterning of our collective lives rather than an extension of the current pattern.
  3. Transformative innovation can be understood as working with three different qualities of the future in the present that we characterise as the three horizons of future consciousness.
  4. Three Horizons provides a notation and framework for the collective practice of future consciousness for transformative innovation in a simple way – it brings all the perspectives and voices into the room with the potential for constructive dialogue.
  5. Future consciousness can only be fully developed as a universal shared practice in which every person is a unique source of transformative insight and human potential.

I have been involved in many change efforts which have engaged with surface ‘artefacts’ of a situation. I’ve been involved in some that engage with the values of people (indeed, I’ve run some of those). The possibility of Three Horizons, as expressed in the five propositions, is a level deeper.

It implies being able to hold an on-going conversation between a variety of actors which allows them to craft a new pattern which respects all of their differences about the world, and their role in it.

Why is that important? Because my sense is of a world which is stuck in a destructive pattern. The political shocks of 2016 came from people kicking against a status quo that had out-stayed its usefulness. For instance, this study from Warwick University, for concludes that “the British first-past-the-post electoral system may have significantly contributed to the emerging chasm in British politics on EU membership”, leading to the vote to leave the EU.

In this excellent blog, leading policy wonk Geoff Mulgan argues that the recent orthodox claimed “increasing globalisation and liberalisation, combined with waves of new technology, would empower everyone”. But that wasn’t true. Instead, at least in The West, “the combination of globalisation, technology and liberalisation empowered a small, wealthy and mobile ‘elite’ but did little or nothing for the majority, and in fact, often damaged their interests, threatening their jobs and communities.” Populists have been able to ride the lived experiences of this.

But how are we to act, in the face of such overwhelming challenges? This is where the ethos of Three Horizons inspired me. Here is the thread of the argument, in quotes because I simply cannot express any better:

“We inhabit a universe that is always revealing new possibilities that have not been lived before…and to be alive is to meet those possibilities in creative ways, renewing the familiar in our own way, and making our own part of the new together with others.”

“In choosing how to be in each moment we express our creative integrity with respect to the potential of life – we renew the patterns in ways that only we can.”

“Creative integrity concerns our wholeness as humans from two perspectives: from our own perspective, what is proper to each unique life? And from the perspective of our shared life, what do we all regard as the measure of human solidarity in this situation?”

“The meaning of life is not a question that we ask of life, but a question life asks of us. In this process we are not seeking to tell an objective truth that others can test, but to live a subjective truth – a truth of integrity told by the subject, myself, of this particular life that the universe brought into existence here and now and what truth it can reveal.

“Our lives are our own art, they are our sketches of our answers to the question of being human, and as such we and others may judge them good or bad, but not [correct or incorrect]”

“Nothing can, even in principle, tell us all the possibilities that stand just the other side of the present moment: what art will be made, what new discoveries will open up whole fields of further research, what new ways of living and being will someone reveal? However much knowledge we carry in our backpack we still face the radical unknown in the next step.”

“Let us suppose that we approach [our situation] with an intent that through our actions we will deepen the life experience and fulfilment of ourselves and all the other ten billion or so humans who will be on this planet over the coming century, and beyond.”

“If that is our motivation, how do we act in the present towards the future? I believe we act with hope, with a belief that whatever the current circumstance there is a way to act that expresses the possibility of a renewal of the human.”

In short, I can act from my personal understanding of the three horizons, and that action will affect the patterns of which I am part. That is one source of hope, because I have agency (which is not the same as infinite power). But, greater than this, if we can act from our wider understanding of the three horizons, then we can affect the patterns of which we are all part. Such is the shared cultural practice of transformational change – and this is a greater source of hope.

In this post, one of the Founders of Dark Mountain say that art is vital in our time of crisis because it can make for the liminal moment “when you have shed the skin of an old reality, but not yet acquired the new skin that would allow you to return to the everyday world. The liminal is the space of the threshold, with all the vulnerability and potential of transition: the costliness of letting go, with no guarantee of what will come after. The liminal phase of a ritual is the moment of greatest danger – or rather, ritual is a safety apparatus built around the liminal. Whichever, the liminal is where the work gets done, where the change happens.”

Such are the possibilities of Three Horizons.

“Future consciousness changes our awareness and our relationship with each other. To recognise that continuous transformation is the process of our creative lives together, we need to see each person as the holder of a unique insight into the emerging third horizon. By developing such a view we grant the power of fulfilment to each other. I believe that only an ambition to create a shared future consciousness for every human being, one that recognises the unique qualities of hope that each person embodies, can create a society which realises the potential of us all.”

The implication is a move away from crafting visions of a perfect destination and then tight coordination between actors on the journey. I mentioned this in my review of The Myth Gap, where Alex Evans said we need to fill that gap with the right myths. But that’s not the only option.

Instead, we should be constantly engaging each other on the current way of doing things, the future system and the emerging innovations in-between, and then revising what we do based on our experiences, and our renewed dialogue. Acting with the qualities of that future consciousness is more important than presuming to know exactly what the future should be. Then we can all have hope, because we all can choose how we act now.

For me, this inspirational quote is the best way to conclude writing about an inspirational book:
“The foundation of hope is the belief that in acting from our own sense of human integrity we are, in however small a way, creating the possibility of a wider pattern of human renewal around us.”

6 thoughts on “Let’s be inspired by Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope.

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