Three Horizons | International Futures Forum

Has there ever been a more apposite time for the Three Horizons model?

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Three Horizons

IFF has found a ‘three horizons’ model of longer term change a useful framework both in workshop settings and for deeper analysis. IFF builds on previous versions of the model, for example in business planning, to adapt and deepen the analysis such that it becomes useful as a framework for thinking about longer term social change.  We have developed a suite of practical tools and resources to use the framework in practice which are available in the Three Horizons section of our IFF Practice Centre.


We have been exploring and expanding the theoretical underpinnings of the model whilst at the same time using it in practice to prompt discussion of transformative innovation in a variety of settings – eg energy policy, rural development, broadcasting, health services, financial services etc. In education we have used the model as the basis for a strategic thinking kit for schools produced jointly with Education Scotland and called ‘Opening Up Transformative Innovation’. The model itself is simple and familiar. The first horizon – H1 – is the dominant system at present. It represents ‘business as usual’. As the world changes, so aspects of business as usual begin to feel out of place or no longer fit for purpose. In the end ‘business as usual’ is superseded by new ways of doing things.

Three Horizons

Innovation has started already in light of the apparent short-comings of the first horizon system. This forms a second horizon – H2. At some point the innovations become more effective than the original system – this is a point of disruption. Clayton Christensen called it the ‘innovator’s dilemma’ – should you protect your core business that is on the wane or invest in the innovation that looks as if it might replace it? Meanwhile, there are other innovations happening already that today look way off beam. This is fringe activity. It feels like it is a long way from H1, based on fundamentally different premises. This is the third horizon – H3. It is the long term successor to business as usual – the radical innovation that introduces a completely new way of doing things. The model offers a simple way into a conversation about:

  • the dominant system and the challenges to its sustainability into the future, ie the case for change (horizon 1) the desirable future state, the ideal system we desire and of which we can identify elements in the present that give us encouragement (horizon 3) the nature of the tensions and dilemmas between vision and reality, and the distinction between innovations that serve to prolong the status quo and those that serve to bring the third horizon vision closer to reality (horizon 2) a mature perspective that accepts the need both to address the challenges in the first horizon and foster the seeds of the third. This is not an either/or, good/bad discussion. We need to ‘keep the lights on’ today, and think about how to keep them on a generation from now in very different circumstances. IFF calls this the gentle art of ‘redesigning the plane whilst flying it’.

IFF has used this model with a number of different groups. One observation has been that most policy making, and most policy discussion, occurs by default in the first horizon. It is about fixing the failing system, innovating in order to maintain it, ‘keeping the lights on’. The extended model of the three horizons opens up a new policy domain for most people: second horizon policy making underpinned by third horizon aspirations. 

IFF member Bill Sharpe’s new book on Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope is now available in the IFF Shop. In addition, a short slide presentationoutlining a simple process to kickstart a three horizons conversation can be downloaded from slideshare alongside a longer presentation describing in more detail some of the underlying dynamics.